The test of a writer is the ability to paint a picture in the absence of one. I'm going to attempt to describe something I saw earlier this week — which may indeed defy simple description, because it bordered on the spiritual.
On Tuesday night, I boarded the 8:30 p.m. shuttle to Washington after Nightly News. A few minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia, after we had climbed out to 10,000 feet and had reached our initial leveling-off on a southern heading, the flight attendant on the sparsely-populated plane called my attention to the window next to me, on the left side of the aircraft. It was a stunning sight.
The two powerful beams of blue light, switched on each year at nightfall on September 11th, marked the spot amid the twinkling lights down below, in Lower Manhattan, where the towers once stood. They sliced open the sky — brilliant, powerful poles that shot up past our aircraft through the humid, boisterous air over the city. The only impediment to their skyward progress up to the heavens was a passing cloud about 5,000 feet above us as we passed by. The cloud caught the light and trapped it — gathering up the powerful upshot of blue and absorbing it completely, until it moved on, yielding that spot in the sky, and clearing the way for the beam to shoot up, past a point where the human eye could follow it.
I lost sight of the blue beams as our aircraft made its unsentimental progress above the Jersey Shore, heading south to Washington. We could feel the acceleration as the pilots pushed the throttles forward, having received permission to step up to our given cruising altitude. I looked back at the blue light until I couldn't anymore. I was a bit surprised that the pilots hadn't brought it to the attention to those on board. I looked forward and saw them all sitting in the dark, unaware. I wanted to tell everyone on the aircraft what they were missing, but common sense took over, and I assumed that such a mission (going from seat to seat to inform my 20-or-so fellow passengers of a striking sight out the window) would violate one of the many in-flight rules instituted after the very same attack that the blue lights were meant to commemorate. The aviation rules we now live under are the least of what has happened in the name of that attack. Our pilots that night were all business. So were the National Guardsmen who watched me go through security. It all goes back to the blue lights.
The flight attendants crammed around the window in the row behind me, and we talked about what we had just seen. Soon, the process the airlines euphemistically call "beverage and snack service" was underway, and before too long, we were landing in Washington. During the ride to the hotel, past the fortified monuments and the police cars that now stand watch outside places like the Department of Agriculture, I thought about what I had seen on the plane.
Six years later, many of us consider it an embarrassment that there's no memorial to 9-11 inside the sad, tragic expanse of Ground Zero — just a commuter train station and a lot of construction equipment. What we saw from the air was a towering memorial.
The arrival of September 11th each year is always a setback for many of us who live and work in New York. While some of us were affected by the attack more than others, we all deal with it in our own way. In my experience, the day always feels sullen and heavy, and the evening hours begin to bring a sense of coming relief, when the clock and calender both approach "12." That was not the case this year. More than any other event during the day — the tolling bells, the long list of names, the wreaths and roses and the steady rain — the two blue towers of light visible off the left wing of our aircraft were as impactful in the darkness of evening as anything in a long day of remembrances. Exactly as they were intended to be.
Reprinted with permission from the NBC News blog, The Daily Nightly.