Growing up in the ’60s & ’70s as a North Dakota farm girl, I had no experience with any sort of urban culture. In 1970 the state’s capital, Bismarck, was home to under 35,000 people, and while it’s nearly doubled its population today, I don’t think anyone would mistake the small city for a truly urban center. The entire state still hasn’t topped 700,000. Comparatively, I live now in a thriving metropolis of over 1,700,000. And few would likely call Indianapolis a thriving metropolis, though ‘nice Mid-western city’ often distinguishes the place I call home today.
Commonly held but still erroneous assumptions about rural living abound. In my younger days, I took umbrage at such misguided notions about the Great Plains states – how could people be so stupid, I asked, to think that we didn’t even have paved roads, indoor plumbing, or electricity, for the love!?!?! Sure, we only had one TV station with good reception (and THAT with the help of rabbit ears), but we managed. We had telephones too. (gasp!) And let’s not forget planes, trains, and automobiles. I mean, there was more to North Dakota than horses and plows, for cryin’ out loud. (Okay, there were plenty of both of those, I’ll admit it. And tractors, combines and pickup trucks too) Though the mid-section of the country was (and still is) the nation’s ‘bread basket,’ in my childhood, farm life wasn’t called ‘agri-business,’ long distance phone calls were best made on the weekends, and automatic drip coffee makers (you know, mr.coffee, et.al.) and microwave ovens were ‘cutting edge,’ technologically speaking. Surely, I jest. As I recall, however, we in North Dakota were keeping up with the times on that score.
The face of the nation has changed many times over in the decades of my lifetime. When I was 8 years old, Neil Armstrong walked on the face of the moon. On July 20th, 1969, I walked out into the night to gaze upward, marveling. Men were out there. ON THE MOON. Amazing. Of course men (women too) were ‘out there’ flying across the ‘friendly skies’ all the time in the ‘60s. In Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) says of the space program, “it’s not a miracle. We just decided to go.” My mom ‘just decided’ to visit my brother and his wife and baby son that summer of ’69. That summer when Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind was the first time in my lifetime that I got on a plane. The night before our flight, we stayed with family friends who lived, conveniently, in Bismarck. Mind you, I was familiar with the concepts of manned space flight and commercial airline travel. Still, when a low-flying plane disturbed the airspace over our friends’ home as it came in for a landing, I shrieked. The next day, I’d be a passenger in an aluminum tube with wings. EGAD.
In the ‘70s, my feet stayed on the ground, while NASA continued to explore space. Money was tight, the space war was won, and another war occupied our minds. By the mid-80s, I’d flown a few more times, and Apollo missions were replaced with the space shuttle program. Once again, this nation looked to the skies, and then watched, over and over and over again, the recorded explosion of the shuttle, Challenger. President Reagan poignantly comforted a nation stunned by the immediacy of those “pioneer” astronauts who departed this life to “touch the face of God.” Like the moon landing before it, the Challenger explosion marked the extraordinary accomplishments of Man, but also pinpointed Life’s fragile brevity.
9/11. Americans across the country and around the world watched, horrified, as planes, glistening in the September morning sun, set out to destroy this nation’s symbols of strength: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in all likelihood, the Capitol. Economic wealth, military might and political superiority. Into the bargain, those planes, armed with terrorists, destroyed not just buildings, but lives. Fathers. Mothers. Sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends, husbands, and wives.
Today, September 11, 2012, people are remembering that dreadful day. Of course we are. We remember that, again, and again, and again we watched. The first plane. The first explosion. The smoke. The flames. the dust and debris. The falling victims. The second plane. The destruction. The other planes. The crashes. The mass hysteria. The fear. The TERROR. We were a nation, halted.
And every plane over American air space was brought down – grounded. This is what I remember most about that day. There were no contrails in that brilliant azure sky over Indiana. Nor over North Dakota, Florida, California, Missouri, or New York. The skies were empty. We waited. We wondered. We prayed. We merely sat. What might happen next?! Late that afternoon, Air Force One and accompanying fighter jets took the President to the center of power. The White House. His was the only plane in a sky deadly still. We looked up, fearing the days ahead.
Without doubt, we must remember. Americans often mark their history by what has transpired in the skies. Francis Scott Key saw “rockets bursting in air” giving “proof” of our nation’s banner, still flying over “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The Wright brothers, first in flight. WWII fighter pilots flying missions to bring down tyranny. Our astronauts. First on the moon. September 11. Skies marred by terrorist hatred. America. Often wounded, but not defeated. Where is our gaze today? For many, a looking inward – remembering the anguish of eleven years ago. We look up, and see planes filling the skies. Most contend that we’re certainly ‘safer’ than we were then. We’re also outrageously inconvenienced. But what price is too high for freedom? For security?
We might do well, in our gazing, to “lift our eyes to the hills” and ask, as did the Psalmist, “from where does [our] help come?” It comes, not from military strength, economic wealth, or political prowess. It comes, as it only can – from the Lord, the “Maker of heaven and earth.” Our nation has always been greatest when we have clung most tightly to that. I looked to the sky that long ago night of my childhood, knowing a man had walked on the moon. And I looked to the sky on September 11, 2001, knowing a man was returning to take the nation’s helm. And I do remember. But today, in remembrance, I “see the sky, [and can imagine] I hear the rolling thunder,” recognizing that the Maker and Sustainer of all that we know and see is seated on His throne. Nothing surprises or shakes Him. Eternity is in His capable hands. This alone, I must never forget.