Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Down Under Times volume VII

(See: Back from the Memory Hole for an explanation of why these are posted now...)

Down Under Times Volume VII
September 2001
All the news that no one really needs to know, but is going to hear anyway!


An Ominous Two Weeks
As your side of the world dealt with the real-time, mid-day rush of news related to the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, this side of the world was shocked out of what's become the usual slumber of a world largely at peace, into a world for which none of us could have ever been prepared. I thought it might be useful (and it is certainly cathartic for me) to share some of the goings on over here in Australia of the last 12 days.

We are fifteen hours ahead of Central Daylight Time in the US, sixteen ahead of Eastern Time. When the first tower was attacked, and news broke around the world, it was approximately 1045 pm Tuesday here in Melbourne. We are able to get the US TV show "The West Wing" here (those from last season in the US), which airs from 1030 pm to 1130 pm on Tuesdays. We had planned to stay up and watch the show, but Kate fell asleep so the VCR took over, and we would therefore watch another day. As it turned out, if we had watched it live that night, we would have had absolutely no sleep at all.

I was up on the Internet preparing and sending the last edition of our newsletter, and so potentially could have come across a news bulletin announcing the attack. That didn't happen. If you wondered about the timing of the arrival of our last newsletter, write it off to the vagaries of time zones differences.

Like previous generations that are forever able to say "I remember where I was when…" (fill in the blank - the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of JFK, MLK or RFK, the Challenger disaster, etc.), a new generation around the world will now (sadly) have a new event to add to the list. As for us, our good friends Pete and Athena, on exchange from Minnesota and living here in Melbourne as well, called us at about 200 am Wednesday morning. Pete has a sister who lives in New York City, and her husband works on Wall Street. She called Pete to tell him all was ok in their house, and Pete immediately called us. Needless to say, we didn't get much sleep that night.

D-Day (June 6, 1944) is described in history books as "the longest day", and while I was not directly affected by the attacks, September 11, 2001 will certainly go down in my history as the longest day.

Australian Reaction
It has been very difficult, as I suppose you can imagine, for us to be here at this time. Being home in Minnesota would not significantly change what we could do personally (besides perhaps giving blood), but it would be home nonetheless. Having said that, if we have to be somewhere else when the country is in crisis, I guess Australia is that place (not that we have much choice in the matter, mind you).

The outpouring of support, sympathy and camaraderie has been overwhelming. Absolutely everyone we know has been wonderful, as have people we don't know. School was difficult for me that Wednesday, but at least it gave me a place to go, something to do and people to talk to. Kate was home alone most of the day, or so I thought. The phone never stopped ringing, and several good friends stopped by just to check in on her. Flowers, cards and notes from the staff at Fairhills High School, students in Tommy's and Sophie's classes, and from our good Australian friends have provided support to us at a time when we needed it most. For that, we are forever grateful.

The media here was probably just like home, filled with images and concepts no one should have to see or contemplate. Newspapers put out special editions, and TV news coverage was largely US TV coverage, only breaking for local interviews or to put the local spin on it (approximately 65 Australians are known dead or missing). By the one-week mark, many TV stations had largely gone back to regular programming and we found it hard to get the information we so badly wanted. Of course the newspapers and the morning and nightly TV news covered progress (or lack of it) and George Bush's addresses and such, but we wanted - needed - more than just the few minutes afforded the stories during each show. I can't really blame them - New York and Washington are an awfully long distance from here, and it was another country after all - but this is one big story. The Internet has been very helpful in this respect…if you look in the right places.

The United States has an embassy in Canberra, the federal capital of Australia. In Melbourne, there is a US Consulate for Americans travelling or living in the area. On the Sunday after the attack, we visited the US Consulate building, down in the city. It was absolutely unbelievable. There were hundreds of thousands of flowers, notes, cards, candles, photos and tributes, as well as several hundred people - all there to show solidarity with the United States. If ever there was a moment when the tears came easily, it was then. The first time for me occurred as we approached the building, and we saw for the first time the US flag flying, in concert with the Australian flag, at half-mast. Since that day about one week ago, I have seen more US flags displayed than I would have thought possible in a foreign country, in sometimes rather unusual places, but done of course as sign of respect and unity. It would also appear that there are many closet New York Yankee fans, as hats, t-shirts and other memorabilia emblazoned with the symbol of the Bronx Bombers have been dusted off and are worn with pride and to show a connection to the Big Apple.

Fairhills High School proceeded with a moment of silence that week, and asked me if I would like to say a few words in advance. I agreed, although they didn't come easily. Simply by virtue of being the only American on staff, I have put a recognizable face on this disaster, although I'm not necessarily the best choice for that. We have no family living in New York or Washington, and while we have good friends living in both places, everyone is ok. Some members of staff are more directly affected than I, as at least three that I know of have family in New York City, and one of my students has an uncle who is a New York City police officer, who has yet to be heard from. Just up the road from us here in Ferny Creek, a man lost his twin brother, the only surviving member of his family, in the collapse of one of the towers. This is truly a global disaster unlike any other single event we have ever experienced, outside of outright war.

In the last days of term three at Fairhills, an all-school assembly was held. Once again I was asked to say a few words, which at least came more easily as I had had a week to put thoughts and feelings into some semblance of order. Students were very considerate, and have shown me only respect in these last two weeks. The only possible negative thing had to do with the flag at school. There hasn't been one on the pole all year long, and a member of staff produced an Australian flag to fly at half-mast as a sign of respect. Unfortunately, the flag was stolen after only a few days. Sad, but if that is the only negative thing to come out of a situation that had (and still has) potential for much more, I guess we should count our blessings.

The Multi-Faith Memorial Service
This past Thursday, on a raw, windy and gray afternoon that fit my mood perfectly, Kate and I attended a multi-faith memorial service that was held in the city at the Rod Laver National Tennis Center. Approximately 12000 - 15000 people attended (according to news reports), once again to show sympathy and remembrance for those who died, and unity and solidarity with Americans and all people of faith. Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, B'hais and Muslims were all represented by small groups who spoke in their own way to the solemn crowd, expressing sorrow for the tragic events in the US, and hope for the future. Many thousands in the crowd were members in uniform of the CFA (Country Fire Authority), the MFB (Metropolitan Fire Brigade), the SES (State Emergency Services), the various branches of law enforcement, and the paramedics. It was a very moving testament to the brave women and men who risked and lost their lives in the initial harrowing moments of the attack.

The United States Ambassador, J. Thomas Schieffer, was present, as well as many prominent local and state politicians and religious leaders. Ambassador Schieffer gave a particularly spirited and inspiring speech, made all the more so given that he has only been the US Ambassador to Australia for approximately 30 days. Possibly the most emotional moment was, of course, at the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. Containing oneself in such a situation, and under these circumstances, is virtually impossible. We were an emotional mess, but we felt it was vital that we attend.

I think the two most difficult moments for me in the past two weeks were, in this order, telling Sophie and Tommy about the attacks just after they woke up Wednesday morning, and visiting the US Consulate in Melbourne. The unadulterated, cold fury I felt at having to explain this to my seven- and eight-year-old, even in a rudimentary way, will never leave me. In addition to the sense of loss and sorrow I feel at the massive death and destruction in the US, I resent the fact that a person unknown to so many forced their agenda upon us, took the lives of thousands of innocent people, and necessitated the stripping away of one more layer of innocence among millions of children world-wide.

On a More Positive Note…
If anything good can come of all this, as so many of us have already realized, at least it has brought unity (at least unity of purpose) within the United States and among the nations of the world on a level not seen in my lifetime. Perhaps the singular vision of so many world leaders, together with the hopes of so many millions of regular people in every country on earth, can finally lead to something akin to world peace. As a historian, I understand that world peace as an ideal will probably never exist in its entirety, but any move in that direction is a positive step. If only one more person lives in a peaceful home, then perhaps they can influence their community in a positive manner, and the community will become more peaceful; and then the state; and then the nation; and then the world. Then we can get to work on the other pressing issues that demand our attention - like poverty, education, the environment, malnutrition, health care, etc., etc.

Sydney and New South Wales
It's cliché I know, and I really hate to say it, but our life will go on. I am a little concerned about tomorrow however, as we fly from Melbourne to Sydney in the afternoon. It is the last of our two-week school holidays, and it couldn't have come at a better time - we are really in need of a break, especially with the stress of the last two weeks. At the same time, I guess it couldn't have come at a worse time, too. Not only did the worst act of terrorism in history occur last week, but a major Australian airline folded last week as well (the two events were unrelated). It just so happens that Ansett Airlines was the only real competition in Australia for Qantas Airlines, and we had booked our tickets to Sydney on Ansett! Unfortunately, we lost out on the money we spent on the Ansett tickets, but fortunately Qantas had four seats available.

So we lost a little money and two days of vacation - on the whole pretty small potatoes, and we still have the remaining time of our vacation left. Under the current circumstances of crisis back home, and the uncertainty of the next step the US and the allied powers might take, I admit to feeling more than a little guilty having any fun at all. The vast majority of the last two weeks I have felt like I've been kicked in the stomach, and that feeling is still with me when the gray matter starts working and I remember what's going on in the world. I know, however, that "she'll be right, mate."

Our Itinerary
The following info is mostly for family, as during these times of uncertainty we want them to know where we are at all times while we travel in New South Wales. For the rest of our friends around the world, thanks for letting me vent, take care of yourselves and your families, and may peace reign in place of war.

9/24 - 9/28 Stafford Apartments
PHONE: 2.9251.6711

9/29 - 10/1 Westbury's Resort
Nelson Bay
PHONE: 2.4981.4400

10/2 - 10/4 Calypso Apartments
Coffs Harbor
PHONE: 2.6652.6468

10/5 Watersedge
Woy Woy
PHONE: 2.4341.2888

10/6 Ferny Creek Five Star
Ferny Creek
PHONE: 3.9755.1205 (ha ha)

Post Script
A long time ago (by standards in our present situation, anyway) I recorded a message on our answering machine that includes, as an introduction, the song "God Bless America". This was originally my attempt to be humorous - to "have a go" at any Aussies who might call to leave a message, just so they knew up front who lived here. It has since taken on an entirely different meaning…

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