Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering Joe

I read the name into the microphone that morning beside Tempe Town Lake. “H. Joseph Heller, Jr.” It was one of about twenty listed on two cards I was given as I waited my turn in line. I knew I couldn’t keep the cards—though I wanted to—so I singled out this name because I knew I could remember it. I know another Joe Heller.

Howard Joseph Heller, Jr. was 37 years old when he died in the World Trade Center.

He was a family man with four children—the youngest a mere sixteen months old, the oldest was eight. His wife, Maryjean, still lives in the yellow farm house he was restoring in Ridgefield, Connecticut. He put bread on the table by working as a commodities floor broker in “the pit” beside his friend, Ralf, who said Joe was a very good man who loved his family.

When the first jet hit, Joe called Maryjean, telling her he was fine and planned to escape down an emergency stairway. It was six weeks before they found his body.

I found Joseph Heller’s flag among the other four thousand before I left The Healing Fields at Tempe Town Lake Beach. There wasn’t much written on the biographical card attached to the flagpole—just his name and place of business. Climbing into the privacy of my truck after an hour and a half at the memorial, I let the tears fall briefly and spoke the words of my heart, “I’m so sorry.” I left determined to learn more about the person whose name I’d chosen to represent all the names on my cards—people unknown to me and all the hearers listening from among the flags today.

Thank God for the internet. Even an obscure life can be googled.

Though the flags were beautiful, I was drawn to the place where every citizen was invited to participate in reading the names of those who died on 9/11. At least four times as I waited my turn for the mike, I heard someone end their reading by adding that the deceased was “my close friend.” Maybe New York isn’t so very far from Arizona. Even more heart breaking, at least three times I heard a woman’s name given, followed immediately by the sob-catching phrase, “and her unborn child.”

I waited a long time in the sun today, but desert storms late last night granted us a cool morning with light breezes. On the lake, skulling boats rowed by in silence. Cyclists and joggers passed us on the sidewalk near the water’s edge, intent on their morning’s outing, but glancing curiously at the event on the beach. Looking up towards a light blue sky patched with airy white clouds, I saw a few pedestrians and more cyclists pause on the Mill Avenue Bridge, looking down in reverence at the forest of flags blowing peacefully below. It was a fairly quiet, reflective scene. Commercial jets regularly flew past, following the visual of the long lake on their flights out of Phoenix, and news choppers hovered overhead from time to time, unfortunately drowning out the sound of the very memorial they were filming. But the setting was serene, and I watched happy toddlers running through the flags while their parents paused to reflect on the lives represented there.

I had time to people watch, "Norman Rockwell" style. A weary wife and husband took a break on concrete curbing under a tree, holding the leash of their bulldog, Tank, who sat at parade rest, dressed out proudly in his insignia adorned Marine cape. Against the backdrop of thousands of eight-foot-tall American flags, four cyclists paused—seated—on their bikes, their flag designed shirts blending in with their background. They listened to the names in silence.

I caught sight of three soldiers, backs to us, dressed head-to-toe in desert camo. They walked to the grassy hill across from the podium, each strolling down a different row where they were swallowed up in a sea of flags, only their boots visible briefly as the breeze united the fluttering flags into one, long magician’s curtain. Soon, the soldiers’ combat boots vanished from view—a sobering visual of the lives recounted by the reading of names.

I’m glad I went. I’m glad I met Joseph Heller. There’s an unsettling emphasis this year on marking this day of remembrance with community service rather than honoring our war dead. There is real danger in forgetting that this isn’t a feel good day about doing nice things for other people. This is a day honoring the lives of innocent men, women and children who perished at the beginning of a never-ending conflict with terrorism that threatens every element of our lives today.

Taps sounded for the third time as I left The Healing Fields.

Rest in peace, Joe. You are not forgotten.