Friday, January 29, 2010

From Tower to Warship, and More

I’m sure I have friends who think I talk about New York City way too much. I know I have friends who think I’m a closet liberal pacifist. And there are probably a few people who have seen the photo of the USS New York on the right pane of this blog and figured maybe I was just playing with Blogspot’s photo feature.

To all of you wonderful people, I say yes, my time in the Big Apple still resonates as the most dynamic time of my life - at least, so far. Yes, I have a problem with people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who think picking scabs is the best way to score points with hawks, although I’ve never opposed Bush’s original foray into Afghanistan to track down bin Laden (how’s that going, btw?).

And yes, I was originally playing with Blogspot’s photo feature, but I already had the New York Times' photo of the USS New York in my image library because I think it says so much.

And what does it say? Well, to answer that question, I’ll have to wrap up all three of these topics into one tidy package. Which means another story set in the city of my birth.

Ahh, the Good Ol' Days

Although I’m proud to be a native New Yorker – and from Brooklyn, no less – I only lived there three months before my parents whisked me away to the idyllic countryside of suburban Syracuse. We still visited Brooklyn a lot, and I have family there, so I don’t think it’s improper for me to consider myself a New Yorker, even though I’ve spent over half my life in Texas.

I remember a day back in the early 1970’s, when my father took my brother and me to visit the newly-opened World Trade Center (WTC) in Lower Manhattan. To me, it was just two big buildings, looking like a couple of cigarettes sticking out of the top of their container. I remember seeing the dirt excavated for the basement of the Twin Towers still freshly piled in the Hudson River, with the footings for the first apartment building being constructed in what would become Battery Park City.

Flash forward several more years, and my dad again took my brother and me to the Twin Towers, which had become a major tourist attraction. I remember standing up against the glass wall along the eastern side of Tower Two, inside the observation pavilion, when the tower – shifting as it was designed to do in the wind – tilted eastward, meaning I could briefly see allmost all way down the side of the building to the plaza 107 floors below! I've been skittish about skyscraper windows ever since.

Several times, my aunt, a die-hard New Yorker, took us to the Twin Towers, too. One evening, we met friends for dinner in one of the greasy-spoon restaurants they used to have in the center’s underground mall. It was Christmastime, and our friends had been visiting from Florida and doing the tour of the towers.

In December of 2001, I received a Christmas card from these friends, which consisted of a simple photograph they had taken during that visit years earlier: a photo of the main elevator lobby in one of the towers, with banners saying “Merry Christmas” in multiple languages ringing the mezzanine level. The irony was unmistakable.

And Then There Was 9-11

I was there the day of the first terrorist attack in 1993, working four blocks south, watching the thick, black smoke billow out of the entrance to its parking garage. I visited the complex frequently on company business, and even enjoyed two company Christmas parties at Windows on the World. Back then, terrorism never entered the minds of most New Yorkers – we all assumed the blast that snowy morning was a faulty Con Edison transformer.

After the towers reopened, standing in line to get a new security badge so I could visit clients in the complex, I remember those of us in line joking about closing the barn door after the horse had bolted – nobody would be stupid enough to try and blow up the WTC again.

So in Texas, on that Tuesday morning in September, dropping off my car at the dealership for routine maintenance, I only briefly acknowledged the news my service advisor had just heard about a plane hitting the world trade center. I assumed he meant Dallas’ big brown box of a trade center which sits directly under the flight path to Love Field airport. I was as stunned as everybody else when I arrived at work and our receptionist greeted me with, “Did you hear what’s happened in New York?”

We had the TV on in the break room, but I couldn’t bear to watch. Somebody came out and yelled that one of the towers had just fallen, and all of us struggled to comprehend what that meant. I was watching the television when the second tower fell, and I thought I would be physically sick.

A family friend was in Manhattan, stuck in the usual traffic, on his way to a business meeting in the 70-somethingth floor of Tower One. His father, watching the news in Florida, called him on his cell phone to tell him there was a fire at the WTC. Already running late, and figuring the fire trucks would make traffic that much worse, our friend turned around and drove back to his office in New Jersey. He later heard seven people in his meeting had died.

Nobody I knew was in the buildings during the attack, although another friend in a nearby building saw the second plane hit, people jumping from windows, and the fall of both towers. Firemen prevented people in his building from leaving the relative safety of their lobby for hours as debris continued to fall and chaos reigned.

A children’s Sunday School class at my dear Calvary Baptist Church in Midtown had adopted a fire station a block away from the church, and the children visited frequently with cookies and such. On September 11, nearly all of the men on duty from that station were killed in the collapse of the towers.

In Brooklyn, my aunt watched the news in horror. With disbelief, she walked up the block to Sunset Park, where she could have a full view of Lower Manhattan. There, along with Chinese immigrants, Poles, Jews, blacks, and Hispanics, she watched the unfolding scene in silent incredulity; no panic, no talking, but more than a few people wiping away tears in grief. People born in the city, and people recently arrived, of all colors and ethnicities, all struggling to comprehend who and why.

Returning For A Different Type of War

Well, this time, we all pretty much knew the "who". And today, we know the "why". Which brings us to the USS New York, made in part with over seven tons of steel recovered from the WTC site.

They say that before all of the wreckage from the destroyed complex had been removed from the WTC disaster area, steel pulled from the debris had already been repurposed for other projects. Buildings, yes, and probably bridges, and some of it destined for the new Freedom Tower now rising on the original WTC site. But somehow, having part of the old WTC as part of this new warship makes perfect sense. Even the ship’s motto is, “Strength forged through sacrifice. Never forget”.

You see, I’m not the liberal pacifist some people suspect me to be. I just think there's more to war that economics, politics, and macho bravado.

When it comes to protecting our country, the USS New York may not be able to intercept suicide bombers, or infiltrate the Taliban and neutralize them. Seeing the photo of the USS New York gliding through the harbor of her namesake city, I was first tempted to think that such an important place like the Big Apple should be represented by a far bigger and more regal ship.

But actually, the USS New York is part of a triumvirate of amphibious landing craft, part of the Navy’s San Antonio class of “landing platform, dock” (LPD) warships (although why the Navy named a class of warships after a landlocked city, I don’t know). In total, the Navy has commissioned three warships to be named for the three terrorist sites on 9-11 in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, with the USS New York being the first. So in essence, the USS New York is but one-third of a set of ships that will join five LPD's already cruising our waters.

According to the ship’s official website, the USS New York is a “force-projection platform” designed to deliver state-of-the-art aircraft, landing craft, and other vehicles for military operations conducted from a beach or coastline. So, while it’s not going to participate in the full-scale naval bombardments of battleships from World War II, our wars today aren’t like the epic confrontations that dominated the Twentieth Century, either.

No, America’s enemies today are too timid to wear a military uniform, and too frail in allegiance to fight for a sovereign nation. They hold their own warped ideas about power that have become too myopic for even the most dastardly of political tyrants. The nimbleness and flexibility called for by today’s type of warfare seems appropriately matched in the USS New York. Hopefully, if ever she is needed on our shores, her capacities will more than meet the challenge.

Why the Twin Towers, Anyway?

When I think back to the World Trade Center I knew, I never really saw it as great architecture. Tall, yes; and big – there were a total of seven buildings, a luxury hotel, a shopping mall, a sprawling subway station, a commuter rail station, a massive parking garage, and a plaza nobody spent much time in because of the wind that would slice between the two towers and blast across it.

The vast, steep bank of shiny escalators stretching between the PATH commuter station and the mall could invoke claustrophobia. I attended a seminar on the 80-somethingth floor of Tower Two one day in March, and the swaying of the tower in the wind made the ceiling tiles rustle. The water in the bathroom toilets at Windows on the World sloshed softly from the tower's movement.

It was a speculative, government-built project housing mostly government-affiliated offices in what had been a much-maligned attempt by the Rockefeller family to modernize the western side of Lower Manhattan. That it would be a terrorist target in 1993 struck many New Yorkers as foolhardy – there were much more powerful symbols of New York and America throughout the city than the WTC. That it would be brought down in a far more brazen attack in 2001 was inconceivable - that is, except for our new enemy.

On the Waterfront

When I worked on the 25th floor of a building overlooking the Hudson River, most everyone in our office enjoyed watching the spectacle of important ships coming through the harbor and up the river.

Our company's venerable, crusty owner would come out of his office to watch the imperial Queen Elizabeth 2 promenade to and from her berth. Women in our office gathered admiringly at the windows when the mighty aircraft carrier JFK would plow past, with it’s crew lining the deck. Even some of the lesser cruise ships merited an admiring glance from my boss, the owner’s son, who grew up when docks still bristled up Manhattan's west side, hosting vessels from around the globe.

Our old office building is now a condominium, with new residents enjoying the same view we had. Hopefully, when they watch the USS New York plying the waters below, they will recall what we lost – and what we’re still trying to gain – from that fateful day that yielded some of the steel for her bow. She brings with her a bitter hint of New York's sacrifice, but also a renewed sense of purpose.

That's the story I think this photo tells.

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