Saturday, September 22, 2001
Triumph of the spirit belongs to manChristie Blatchhord
Ten days ago, on a Wednesday morning that dawned in New York City bright and lovely everywhere but within a small area of the southernmost tip of Manhattan, my Toronto Star friend Rosie DiManno and I were walking out of ground zero, as America's largest crime scene is called.
We had been inside it for six or seven hours, and were heading up Church Street in the Con Edison hard hats a detective from a suburban New York police department had handed us and with the tatty used paper masks we had picked out of the rubble and donned earlier now around our necks. Rosie's running shoes were sodden and her soles blistering; my feet mud-streaked in the open-toed, high-heeled sandals I had cunningly chosen to take with me.
Above us, the sky was as clearly delineated as good and evil: Black and poisonous over the fallen World Trade Center and environs, and blue just a little to the north.
WE PASSED FIREMEN HEADING BACK INTO THE VERY HEART OF DARKNESS
As we approached the first barricade, beyond which to our huge delight we saw some of our press colleagues (including at least one of our competitors from Toronto) stranded and waiting to greet us, we passed a line of firemen, all of them sooty and exhausted who were trudging straight back into what seemed to us the very heart of darkness.
Rosie came to a dead stop as they passed; I swear my mouth actually fell open. One of them had a face like an angel.
I had, of course, and cite the young fellow as my lust-filled illustration of the secret untold story that is the tale of the Twin Towers and the Sept. 11 horror -- that this one, this wonderful triumph of the human spirit, belongs squarely to men.
There were, of course, plenty of women among the 6,000-plus victims still buried beneath the WTC and the Pentagon, and plenty of illustrations of how well they conducted themselves at the moment of truth, calling home to say brave goodbyes. And it is certainly true that among the estimated 300 firefighters who were lost, and among the police and ambulance personnel who perished, were some women who died as heroically as their male colleagues. And it is true, too, that among the fire and police who, have worked so tirelessly in that immense crematorium in the endless aftermath are some women.
But you know what?
Most fire and police departments resolutely remain predominantly male.
Most of the firefighters and police who were killed were men.
Most of the most astonishing acts of courage that we know about, from the man who in one of the towers stayed with his wheelchair-bound colleague so be would not die alone to the male passengers who apparently rushed the hijackers on flight 93, were performed by men. Most of the people doing the dirtiest work -- day after day driving the big trucks in and out; clearing the site of giant chunks of debris, concrete and metal; moving the earth; picking up tiny pieces of skin and muscle that thus far form the single biggest category of remains and placing them into little envelopes and the little envelopes into zip-up body bags -- were and are men, in the main blue-collar, working-class boys.
Even most of the wondrous political leadership, from New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani to George W., has come from men.
And but within the ranks of journalists -- and except as witnesses, we properly do not count -- almost everyone, almost everywhere you looked, was reverting to ancient, pure and decidedly gender-stereotyping form.
Somewhere, I thought to myself with considerable satisfaction, Michele Landsberg one of Rosie's colleagues at the Star and an unrelenting denouncer of all things male and subscriber to the notion that women are made of more noble stuff, is weeping.
Women made sandwiches and served 'em, walked about with trays of hot dogs (and even, incredibly, packets of mustard and relish), ministered to the sick, consoled the grief-struck and looked on, with worshipful sidelong glances, in wonder at the men.
And ohhhh, what men they were, and are.
They were unyielding, and yet not stupidly stoic; I cannot count the number of times I saw firemen or police officers wrap their arms around one another or damp big hands to one another's shoulders, and often saw tears behind goggles and once or twice streaming down grime-covered cheeks.
They were affectionate and tender with each other, but strong and fierce in their resolve. They outlasted even the police sniffer dogs, who grew depressed by the continuous lack of "reward" -- that is, not finding anyone alive -- and had to be given breaks and played with and petted.
The men were quiet and shy but willing to speak and never inarticulate and occasionally near-poetic (Why do firemen rush into buildings? I asked one captain outside the little midtown station that is home to Engine Co. No. 8 and Ladder No. 2 of the 8th Battery and where 10 of the 50 men were lost. "Who knows?" he replied with a weary little smile "It's a secret.")
The raw physical courage of all those who had raced to the scene and headed into the very towers that they, of all people, with their knowledge of structures and the sort of damage that a fireball could inflict upon skyscrapers, would best know were at risk of collapse, was enormous; their collective selflessness, putting women, children and civilians before themselves, utterly astonishing.
I am old enough to remember what some call the "feminization" of these very organizations, and the military, that belongs all over North America.
As the rhetoric went then, integrating women into these places would be good for the men, would gentle their inherent violence and risk-taking, temper the soaring levels of testosterone, somehow better the culture.
The truth is, it did nothing of the sort. If anything, the women who became firefighters and police and soldiers took their cues from the men. And in the end, there remains such comfort in this, in knowing that, push come to shove, should you find yourself in crisis, in a burning building or a car crash, the ground treacherous and shifting beneath your sandal-shod feet either literally or metaphorically, a burly figure will be coming for you, and he will be driven enough to find you and strong enough to lift you up and away.
There is nothing to better here. There never was.
P.S. This column is dedicated to Donna Laframboise, who would have written it better, but is sadly no longer on staff at the Post.
Christie Blatchford can be contacted at email@example.com
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