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The pain of 9/11 fades, but can’t be forgotten

🕐 4 min read

Is it just a date yet?

Do we say, “I have a dentist appointment on Sept. 11th” or “Let’s get together for drinks on Friday; what is that, the 11th?” without flinching, blanching or taking a moment to grieve?

Or is “Sept. 11” still a phrase for most Americans and not a date? Is it too huge a concept, turning point, horrific landmark in American and world history that changed our daily lives and the direction of our country?

Depends on who you are.

For people like Rosemary Dillard, whose husband, Eddie, was killed when his plane, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon, it will never be just a date.

After Eddie died, Dillard left their Alexandria, Virginia, home and moved to Michigan to care for her mother. But she still returns to Washington every year for the memorial.

“At the end of August, I start trembling. And now, I’m just a wreck,” she told me, as she drove south on I-70 the afternoon of Sept. 10, toward the place her husband died.

Dillard is among those advocating the release of 28 pages redacted from the 9/11 Commission report. She is adamant that we learn everything we can about the attacks, and she passionately hopes – and believes – it should be a full-throated day of national mourning.

There are still memorial walks and services, wreath-layings and moments of silence. But it’s not too hard to imagine how those might fade, too.

“It can’t become something like Memorial Day or Labor Day, just a day off,” Dillard said.

We have mattress sales and hot-dog cookouts on the days that once had huge social, political and historic impact on our country. And sometimes we forget.

That’s what angered Clarence Davis.

His day?

Dec. 7, 1941. “A date which will live in infamy.”

But when I stopped at the National Mall this week and asked a dozen people what Dec. 7 was, not a single person knew it was the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, the day America entered World War II and the day our nation changed forever.

Davis, now 91, was on the USS Medusa when the bombs were dropped in Hawaii and the carnage began.

In the years right after the war, sure, folks remembered the day.

But by and by, as the years passed and Davis settled into a life in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, Dec. 7 became that day of dentist appointments and dinner dates.

I spoke with Davis 10 years ago, when he was the youngest member of the Survivors of Pearl Harbor, Maryland branch.

He told me that he would go into post offices and raise a fuss if the flag wasn’t at half-staff on Dec. 7. (It wasn’t until 1994 that President Bill Clinton ordered federal flags to be lowered and for Dec. 7 to be made an official day of mourning.)

He’d march into gift shops and stationery stores and look at their calendars. If Dec. 7 wasn’t marked on the ones they had in stock, he would call the printers and demand corrections.

That kind of dedication to the memory of a fateful day is what also drove Robert Clark, 66, of Mount Airy, Maryland, to action. His father was a gunner’s mate on the USS Honolulu that Dec. 7. But few people knew that.

When Clark was 9, his dad asked him what he had learned at school one day. And Clark went on to talk all about the attack on Pearl Harbor that was the day’s lesson.

“He told me, ‘Yes, I know. I was there,’ ” Clark said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Fathers of that generation did not tell their sons these stories.

And although his taciturn father, with 14 pieces of World War II steel still embedded in his body, didn’t talk much about that day, Clark thought America should remember. The accountant founded the Maryland Chapter of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors and continued the crusade to keep Dec. 7 a day for America to remember.

But Clark worries that a gauzy remembrance could befall Sept. 11.

“These two dates are related. Both times, it was people who wanted to kill us,” he said. “The Sons and Daughters motto is ‘Lest We Forget.’ “

There are kids in school born after that Sept. 11 who need to learn about that day the same way he learned about Dec. 7, he said.

Times are different. The lessons, in hindsight, change.

But one thing is clear.

Thousands of Americans lost loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001. Our nation’s actions after the attack cost us thousands more lives, and the global order is forever different. You know that, whether you lost a sister in the Pentagon or have to take your belt and shoes off to go through a metal detector at the airport.

So, no, Sept. 11 can never be just another day.

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