Errata: This post has been slightly altered from its original form. Please see the explanation here.
It was the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
I remember this because of the after-Thanksgiving autumn day bite in the air. The kids weren't in school because I remember them lolling around the common and doing wheelies on their bikes.
I was a reporter at the time (a young one, but still a reporter). My mission for the day was to do a man-on-the-street article to add some local flava to the remembrance. I had a photographer in tow and no clue where to start. I knew Pearl Harbor was important, and I may be a history nut-and-a-half, but even I tended to think that it was being over-hyped by the media.
I figured 90% of the people I talked to would be in my boat. They only cared because the media was making a big deal out of it, but were otherwise indifferent about the matter.
Say what you will about us Yanks, but we know how to make an event out of just about anything.
The sad fact is the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, rightly or wrongly, had about as much bearing on our daily lives as what our neighbors had for breakfast that morning. That is to say that it seemed to have none at all.
Unhappy about my no-win assignment, I told the photographer to follow me into the diner in the center of town. Most of the town's elderly gossips hung out there for breakfast all the way up until mid-afternoon. In small New England towns, such gossips are always male and always good for color quotes. I figured most of them were probably WWII vets. To them, at least, this anniversary would have real meaning.
The diner was crowded and busy, just like it always was during the breakfast rush. I flitted from table to table, making sure to hit only those guys who were of a certain age. I dutifully collected the color quotes in my notebook. The photographer dutifully took his pictures. Honestly, it was nothing I didn't expect and there wasn't one bon mot that took me by surprise. The small New England town gossip brigade is always comprised of the wits and the rakes and they always play their expected role to perfection.
Needless to say, I could see this was going to be a paint-by-the-numbers story. Write a lede, throw together the quotes, run a few pictures, type –30– to signal the article was done, and call it a day.
I could do this story in my sleep.
At least, that's what I thought.
My last gossip was the one who changed everything.
It started normal enough. I asked him my stock questions. He played his role to perfection. The photographer snapped two pictures.
I was in the middle of thanking him when he casually asked, "So, you talked to Marilyn yet?"
Now, Marilyn was the Town Clerk and Queen Bee of this particular small New England town. She was a mountain of a woman (and I mean that physically as well as in personality) who could bully a gun-toting tough as effectively as she could a reporter armed with nothing more than a pen.
God help you if you got on her bad side.
But the point about Marilyn was that she knew all the gossip. Murder in town? Mayhem perpetrated on town property? Political catfight on the town council? She knew everyone involved and (if she liked you...and she did like me) she'd give you off-the-record story behind the story. The gossip, the personalities, the rumors about what was behind it all. While not always immediately helpful, her little snippets of gossip — which she would dole out like cat treats — were always helpful for formulating just the right question at a later date.
To say that nothing escaped Marilyn's attention or all-seeing eye would be like saying that God was omniscient enough to see the fall of a sparrow. It was more impossible to think that Marilyn didn't know something than it was to think that she did.
So, my response was automatic to the gossip who posed the question. "No, I haven't. What does she know?"
The bastard smiled that grin all the gossips get when they know something that you don't and took a lip-smacking sip of his coffee. I know this is true because I remember being irritated as hell by the drama queen act. I wanted to get back to the office to write this boring article so I could do something more interesting with my day.
"Years ago told me that she lived in Hawaii during Pearl Harbor," he finally said.
The photographer and I looked at each other.
The gossip leaned back in his chair and added, "You could ask her about it. She doesn't talk about it too much, but she'll probably say something if you ask."
It says something about the power of small town New England gossips — not to mention my faith in their infallibility — that I didn't even think to question him. If he said straight out Marilyn said something years ago in passing that she was in Hawaii during Pearl Harbor, then you could bet your soul that she said it.
I thanked him for the tip and walked out of the diner. Luckily, the town hall was right next door, so travel wasn't a big deal. I told the photographer to follow me. In the rare instances when Marilyn spoke on the record, she was always good for a quote that cut right to the heart of the matter. Maybe she'd even give me a hook I desperately needed for this story.
What happened next happened so surprisingly fast, that to this day I can't tell you what happened.
We walked into Marilyn's office. I told her that I was working on this story about VJ Day and that I'd heard around town that she was in Hawaii during Pearl Harbor. Would she be willing to say what the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor meant to her?
She nodded and invited us to sit.
It started simple enough, I guess. I asked my stock questions and Marilyn, like every great Queen Bee, played her part.
Then I asked her the question, "So what was it like at Pearl Harbor? Did you actually see what happened?"
And the floodgates opened.
Picture this: A 13-year-old girl and U.S. Navy brat who lived right on base. She got up early that morning to wash her hair — Marilyn stressed that she had very long hair at that age and that washing it well took time. She was making use of the kitchen sink for this purpose when she heard a noise. She looked up so she could see what was going on through the kitchen window.
At first, all she saw was dogfighting airplanes. She thought it was just the usual war gaming practice and didn't think anything about it. And then...
I'll never forget this quote for as long as I live...
"One of the planes broke away and flew so low that I thought he was going to land right on our street. When he flew by, I could see the guy in the cockpit. He was as close to me as you are right now. That's when I knew something had gone wrong."
The photographer snapped pictures while Marilyn talked. She didn't even look at him. He stood on furniture, he crouched in corners, he circled the two of us like a shark. He might as well have not been there.
All I could do was stare at her with wide eyes with my hand flying across the page of its own accord with that peculiar messy shorthand reporter's scrawl I had developed so I could keep my concentration on the person who was talking without looking down at the page.
Eventually the photographer had to leave. There were other assignments he had to get to and he thought someone should let the city editor know that I was going to be hella late getting back to the office.
Marilyn waved him away with a regal flip of her hand. And then she kept talking.
I went through one reporter's notebook, and almost burned through the spare I always carried around "just in case."
The 10 or so minutes I expected to spend ended up being a 6-hour session.
Through it all, Marilyn spilled everything she knew and remembered. The immediate attack itself. Her father shouting to her, her mother, and her brother to get to safety. Her father running full-tilt down to the harbor so he could get to his ship. The sheer chaos of seeing your world blown apart before your very eyes.
Then the weeks of uncertainty and fear that came after. Her mother, her, and her brother sleeping in the barracks with the other terrified families, not knowing if her father was alive or dead. The desperate wait for evacuation back to the U.S. mainland. The long, long voyage by ship escorted by U.S. submarines while Japanese submarines shadowed the refugee convoy. Of being constantly seasick and afraid. Being greeted in San Francisco by the Salvation Army armed with food, clothes, and a list of places where people could stay until they got back on their feet.
Of hearing — finally — that her father was alive. His ship had been blown apart and sunk by the time he reached the harbor, and so he'd hopped on another ship to take the place of another Navy man that had died in the attack.
But what was really important to her wasn't the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. It was VJ (Victory Over Japan) Day.
VJ Day meant that Pearl Harbor was over. VJ Day meant that daddy would not only survive (he did), but that he could come home for good.
VJ Day wasn't the end of a war. It was starting to live again.
This is Pearl Harbor through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl. A story that was repeated 50 years later in a place that was half-way around the world in a culture and environment was so diametrically opposite of a Hawaiian Naval Base so as to defy belief, as told to an ungrateful pup who — until that moment — Just. Didn't. Get. It.
Some stories get out because they need to, I guess. Some stories get told because they have to be told.
What happens after...well...it seems so strangely normal that maybe it defies belief as well.
I went back to the office and wrote the story. I wrote for 8 hours straight, just to get all the notes on the computer system. Then I spent another 4 editing. By the time all was said and done, I was up for almost 24 hours straight, just to get that story done and done right.
The newspaper published all of it. For two straight days, that story took over the top half above the fold and jumped directly to the back page where it took over the top half above the fold.
The response was...overwhelming. I got kudos thrown at me left and right. Messages were left for me thanking me for that story.
Maybe my name was the byline, but really it was Marilyn's story through and through. Taking credit for it, well, that's just wrong.
I still have the story, by the way. I have it saved in a scrapbook, preserved not just for me, but for whoever gets a hold of it after I'm gone and people have forgotten who the hell I am.
A small coda to this: Some days after the article ran, someone who knew Marilyn pretty well bumped into me in town. How'd you get her talk about it? she asked me.
I was actually kind of surprised by the question. It seemed to me that people in town knew, but just never talked about it. Such a thing is typical in a small New England town where secrets are only secrets to people who don't live there.
This friend explained that, well yes, everyone knew. But they only knew it as a fact of Marilyn, and nothing more. The details she gave me, the amount of time she spent telling me the story? No. No one knew that much at all.
A week later, I was performing my regular duties covering the Townsend Town Council weekly meeting. Marilyn, as always, was enthroned in her customary spot, offering advice and taking notes. Through it all, I kind of wondered what Marilyn's reaction to her newspaper splash was. I had, apparently, been given quite a gift. Did I say too much? Did I leave something important out? I didn't know. She treated me no different when I walked in.
After the meeting, I caught her alone and simply asked if the story was okay.
Oh yes, she said. People had been calling her about it. She was very happy to see it.
I finally asked the question that had been bugging me ever since the run-in with her friend. "Why tell me?"
She shrugged and said, "You tend to get things right. I knew you'd get this right, too."
And that, as they say, was that.
Life went on as normal.
Shortly after I was pulled from covering small towns and was made the main reporter for the city in which my newspaper was based. I never really had cause to interact extensively with Marilyn again. Last I heard (and my information is some years out of date), she was still Town Clerk and still Queen Bee.
I've had a lot of strange stories land in my lap like that over the years. Nothing quite so big or traumatic as standing at Ground Zero at Pearl Harbor. Small, personal dramas in the grand scheme of things, but oh-so important to the people involved.
Like the Big Name city councilor with her Irish brogue and her tireless fight to ensure affordable housing in her city confessing to me in an interview that she was driven by her time living homeless on the streets of London. Wrote about it, but I left out the part where she broke down and cried because she didn't know what happened to her mates after she escaped her hard times.
Or the parents who just lost their child in an accident. I wrote about that, too, but chose my words carefully because, Christ, these people had it bad enough.
Or the crotchety small town politician coming out of the closet about his prostate cancer because he overheard someone on the street saying they were afraid to go to a doctor because they knew it would be bad news. I carefully worded the sex talk portion of the interview. It needed to get out there, true. But for a guy in 60s with his typical Yankee personality to be willing to talk about it at all? It was nothing short of a miracle. I felt I owed him the truth and a little dignity.
Why they told me? I don't know. I'd like to think it's because they knew I'd at least try to get it right.
I suppose that's why when people very deliberately don't get it right for the sake of "drama" or because "essence" is more important than the "truth" I see red. Because somewhere out there in the world, this thing is desperately important to someone. You are playing with them in the cruelest way possible and that simply is Not Right.
When the movie event and blockbuster wanna-be Pearl Harbor came out in 2001, I simply refused to go because it was rife with half-truths and inaccuracies. It was clear that the brains behind the movie Just. Didn't. Get. It.
It's 13-year-old Marilyn, you see. The ghost of her simply wouldn't let me.
It's why I refuse to watch anything about 9-11 and view the dramatizations (so soon! so soon!) with a healthy dose of suspicion.
I was in Boston that day. I remember the restaurants and stores that sold televisions throwing open the doors and turning their screens to the street so everyone could see what had happened. I remember the babble of every news station echoing up and down the eerily quite streets while people just stopped and stared.
I remember the helicopters being out in force, flying low and fast over the city as we were ordered to leave. I remember thinking, Am I going to have to get used to this? Is this my new reality?
I remember the MBTA throwing open its doors and waiving the fares as we were herded aboard bus, subway, and commuter train. For one day Boston looked like Tokyo as uniformed transit personnel — from ticket-takers to MBTA police — shoved and pushed until those buses and cars were packed like sardine cans.
I remember the surprising quiet on my commuter train as people shuffled for spaces. A strange detail to remember: not one elderly person or visibly handicapped person stood. It seemed that those of us who were younger and healthier kept giving up our seats without a word.
I also remember what we didn't know at the time: Two of the four planes involved that day came from Logan, which meant at least part of the cell that caused this knew the area. The City of Boston was terrified that the Natural Gas Terminal was a potential target. Had it blown, half the city would be in flames. Best to clear out the city before there were more bodies.
I remember thinking: I have friends who live in New York City. I have a friend in Baltimore whose sister works in D.C. and has friends who work there, too.
I remember calling my parents while still on the train. They were worried because the evacuation order for Boston had been broadcast and they knew I was in the city. I remember telling them that everything was fine. I promised to call as soon as I got home.
I remember getting home and turning on the television. The American news stations were a mass of hysteria, so I turned to BBCAmerica, which was airing a live feed from BBC1. It was the only way I could get anything resembling coherent information. I remember thinking: Why am I watching a foreign news station to find out what's happening in my backyard?
Then came the hours of trying to get through to my scattered friends who had been affected. As the message, "All circuits are busy. Please try your call again later" kept buzzing in my ear, I kept thinking over and over until it became a mantra: Please be okay. Please be okay. Please be okay...
I reached the friend in Baltimore around dinner. Her sister was fine. Her friends were fine. They were all okay. She sounded tired and relieved. She simply couldn't think beyond that point.
I reached the first of my NYC friends — the one whose father worked on Wall Street and who worked for a Jewish social services agency located somewhere near the Twin Towers — sometime around 2 a.m.
God knows how I got through.
He shakily informed me that he had up and quit his job of 3 years the week before. He had always disliked his job, but he was starting to take it out on the clients. Since his family was wealthy enough that he could have that job and still maintain an apartment within spitting distance of Central Park, he figured he could be unemployed for a little while and find something better. No, he didn't know if his former co-workers were okay, but he was fine and no one in his family was hurt. He simply couldn't think beyond that point.
The other NYC friend I reached sometime after 3 a.m. He managed his family's properties in Brooklyn, so I wasn't as worried about him. He had started apprenticing with a subcontractor so he could do his job a little bit better by learning how to do basic repairs. After he told me that his family and friends were fine, he said that he had watched the whole thing unfold while standing on a rooftop in Brooklyn. He was close enough that ash rained down on him after the towers fell.
He admitted that he felt guilty as hell, not because of anything he did, but because of what he thought. He admitted that as he stood on the rooftop and watched the buildings burn, all his stunned mind could think was that the scene looked so pretty against that perfect blue sky. "Until they collapsed, it was like watching a movie," he said.
Whenever I hear any New Yorker or ex-New Yorker say, "It's a 9-11 sky," I think of this friend and know exactly what they mean.
No, I ultimately lost nothing in 9-11. A former co-worker was on one of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers, but I didn't know him well. A smattering of a few friends-of-friends who died. The home and hearth itself, however, remained intact.
Even so, I was close enough that I gave United 93 a miss. I won't see Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. What the hell can these movies actually tell me that I didn't already know? I remember that day, thank you. I don't need to see it turned into popular entertainment, just like I don't see the point of trembling in fear for the rest of my life that something like that might happen again. It's a rotten way to live.
FDR was right. Fear itself is the enemy. It makes you do stupid things. It makes you close your eyes because you think it'll make the monsters in the closet disappear, too. Wallowing in fear does nothing. Feeding that fear is a true crime. Lying about it to entertain the masses or make a political point, however...well...that's just a sin.
Which, I think, was Marilyn's whole point in telling a bored reporter about Pearl Harbor. This isn't entertainment. This is real. If you ask the question, then you better be ready to hear the truth. It has a habit of coming out in the end. It may take forever and a day, but it will.
Now we are faced with yet another attempt at mythmaking 9-11. I speak, of course, of ABC/Disney's The Path to 9-11 and the attempt to put all the blame on one president's shoulders.
That alone should tell you something. Get to know your history even a little, and you can see the blame can be spread across presidential administrations going back to at least President Carter. I knew about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda long before 9-11 because I made it a habit to read the international news. The roots are deep and the pedigree goes back to the Muslim Brotherhood. That's fact.
One president is at fault? That's what the makers of this piece of propaganda want us to believe? Try decades of missed opportunities and unrecognized warning signs. That's honesty. That's truth. And the latest administration is just as guilty as the previous ones on that score.
The degree to which this administration is at fault may depend on your point of view and your political persuasion. Considering the outgoing Clinton administration did warn the incoming Bush administration that terrorism was going to be a huge problem — and considering that in-house terrorism experts weren't listened to whenever they said the 'T' word — I tend to blame Bush more than his predecessors.
The fact is The Path to 9-11 is propaganda. You have former Clinton officials screaming bloody murder. You have former Bush administration officials screaming bloody murder. You have Democrats screaming bloody murder. You have fair-minded Republicans screaming bloody murder. You have members of the 9-11 Commission screaming bloody murder. You have the 9-11 families screaming bloody murder.
Screeners were sent only to sympathetic right-wing bloggers and reporters, but left-wing bloggers and reporters, hell, people who are neutral, haven't been able to get their hands on it at all. The people being portrayed as being criminally negligent have had no opportunity to see what's being said about them, either.
Now consider this: The Path to 9-11 "docu-drama" is being shown commercial free in the U.S., right before a critical Congressional election. You'll be able to download it for free from iTunes. Scholastic developed study guides based on the movie and treating it as fact to be distributed in schools (these have since been pulled from the Web site).
Bush is even going to make an important political speech at some point during this thing's run.
The message is implicit: Vote for us, or this will happen again.
The outcry is overwhelming from some quarters. It's propaganda. It's 9-11 once more being played for political gain. It's once more sowing hysterical fear among U.S. citizens.
ABC/Disney shows every sign of releasing it, despite the fact that so many people are horrified by this. Despite the fact that there is a buzzing of fury over 9-11 being used as a club again.
This was real. This is not entertainment. This is about people's lives. This will follow those who were directly affected to their graves.
Like Pearl Harbor. Like living homeless on the streets of London. Like the loss of a child. Like prostate cancer.
It's incumbent upon us as citizens to get it right, and you can't get it right if you're selective with the facts. The only way to get the facts is to listen and investigate. We as a nation have yet to do either in any satisfactory way.
Will we ever get our hands on all of the truth? No. Probably not. But we can get close enough to see the details in the picture and, as far as I can see, we're not even close to that point yet.
All we have right now is all we're getting: Entertainment, propaganda, and other lies. Dress it up however you want. Call it a "dramatization." Call it a "docu-drama." Call it "historical fiction." But it still boils down to the same thing.
I can see it as clear as I can see a 9-11 sky over Boston.
If there's anything comforting about this business, it's that — finally — other people are speaking up and saying that, yes, they can see it, too.
ETA: I know this is long and normally I'd LJ-Cut a post like this, but I won't. I can't. Some stories need to be told, I guess. Sometimes you have shout it instead politely saying it from behind your hands.
The truth is the truth. This is a limited point of view, perhaps, but I at least acknowledge that is. I don't claim to see a bigger truth when the heart of the matter is still buried and the wounds for too many are still fresh.
But, I know enough to know propaganda when I see it. I remember enough of who I used to be — and I remember enough of the stories that were told to me — to be furious when I see it.
I can't help it. I am what I am.
If you're going to tell a story about something true, then make damn sure you get it right.
I'll simply end this post in the traditional way. I haven't finished a story like this in years.
You see, there's no other way to end it. So I'll only leave you this: