Last month we took a road trip that tried to give us some semblance of a vacation in the continued midst of this pandemic while also preserving our safety. Our eight year old is still too young to be vaccinated, so we continue to be cautious.
We spent a week in Massachusetts with the grandparents, then a week based in Annapolis, Maryland where we could soak up some history and outdoor time along the Chesapeake Bay. Our kiddo who is really interested in the Founding Fathers got to visit Mount Vernon, the Maryland State House (where POTUS 1 resigned his military commission after the Revolutionary War), and a few hours in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture to provide some much needed historical context about those same Founding Fathers.
The original plan was to stop at Gettysburg on the way home, heading west through Pennsylvania. With COVID numbers rising in the area and too many folks not wearing masks, we made a last minute call on the advice of a cousin (Hi, Avram!) to visit the National Parks’ Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County, PA.
I am glad we did.
The memorial is a fitting and moving tribute to the forty people whose lives were taken and whose family and loved ones will never again be complete. The space itself is a perfect melding of architecture and landscape that soars in every direction.
Designed by Paul and Milena Murdoch of Paul Murdoch Architects with landscape architecture from Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, the space is contemplative, informative, peaceful, reverent, and honors the lives lost, using nature and strong geometric structures as the tools that both tell the story of those lives, while also acting as the final resting place of random strangers who, when called upon, changed the trajectory of one of America’s darkest days.
Driving to the Flight 93 Memorial is a necessity, as it is in a rural locale. The local scenery is gorgeous and hilly, an area of many former mines. You drive into a winding road, passing the turn off for the Tower of Voices (we hit that on our exit from the memorial), and heading to the main Visitor Center.
Here there are soaring concrete pillars that were sharp and strong against the blue skies. The museum itself is quite small. Visitors wind through a few aisles of displays that house remnants of the crash, the other attacks, and the belongings of the victims. If wanted, you can listen to recordings left by passengers to their families and loved ones. On the day we visited, people were quiet and respectful.
At the end of that, you walk out to a circular path that is just shy of two miles. Alternately, you could drive down to the memorial site for a much shorter walk to the wall of names. We opted to walk along the path and feel grateful we did.
There are wildflowers dotting the hills along the path and they look natural and unintentional, which is a mark of how successful the landscape architects were with their work. In a small sign, there is commentary that the whole place is meant to feel healing, both from the devastation and loss of Flight 93, as well as all of the mining that has occurred in the surrounding areas.
We all felt a sense of calm and peace as we walked towards our destination, that wall of names of crew and passengers. The beauty of the setting is undeniable. In the far distance, you can see the tree line where the plane crashed, the crater it created now just a memory. The only people allowed near the actual crash site are family members and loved ones of the deceased. That area is only visible from a far distance. That feels fitting for a sacred space. A large boulder marks the site of impact.
Park Rangers are available at the lower visitor area to answer questions and provide daily programming. The wall of names is quiet, both in design and volume. People leave roses, mementos, offerings. There is a large square gate made of local hemlock. This is how family members gain access to the impact site.
After paying our respects, we completed the circular path back to the main visitor center. There we walked back to the overlook where there is a glass railing inscribed with the words, “A common field one day. A field of honor forever.” I think about that word, ‘honor,’ and what it means. When you look to define it, you get a lot of hits about respect, high regard, and admiration.
When you dig deeper, you might find these words, “honor is the idea of a bond between an individual and a society as a quality of a person that is both of social teaching and of personal ethos, that manifests itself as a code of conduct, and has various elements such as valour, chivalry, honesty, and compassion.” This definition feels more complete to me.
The crew and passengers of Flight 93 were a random collection of people — young and old, urban and suburban, Black and white and Latino and Asian, with different religions and political affiliations and experiences and points of view. They learned the fate of other commercial planes used by terrorists that day and some reached out to call their loved ones to say goodbye. They made a plan about how to proceed, then voted on that plan.
That detail really gets to me. This random selection of strangers came together under catastrophic conditions and voted about what to do, how to proceed. All within a 32 minute period. There is a lot of the best of humanity in those few minutes, that scant half hour. Learning your probable fate, making a plan not to submit, changing the course of history. These were not soldiers or first responders. These were middle managers and cubicle workers and college students and grandparents and moms and dads.
They are honor personified. I don’t know how much my kids will remember about our visit to the Flight 93 Memorial, but I hope they remember that.
After getting back in our car, we again drove down the winding path back to the Tower of Voices, a 93′ structure of 40 individual wind chimes. The air on the day we visited was calm and mostly unmoving. No chimes to hear, though the structure, recently completed, was no less powerful, jutting into the air, creating a different kind of tower.
Visiting the Flight 93 Memorial is something I would highly recommend. So many people came together to design a physical place made to memorialize and contemplate the values that are best about our American culture that the crew and passengers of United 93 exercised on that morning twenty years ago today — choosing to engage in collective, democratic action meant to help others in a time of great peril.
I wish all Americans would do this daily.
NPR ran a moving podcast this week about Flight 93, the days that ensued, and the creation of the memorial. It is a must listen and you can do that HERE.