Those were Todd Beamer’s last words to the outside world before he, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, Jeremy Glick, and other passengers successfully sacrificed Flight 93, on September 11 twenty years ago. There are a few flashbulb images that will never leave me from that day. The smoking World Trade Center tower is the one we all remember. It was around 6:30 am when I rolled into my room at the now Bridger Inn in downtown Vegas after scouting and playing all night. I still didn’t feel like sleeping, so I turned on the TV and watched events unfold live. The initial reports were that a small plane had hit the tower, and we mostly thought it wasn’t a big deal, other than the fire. And the 1993 bombing hadn’t moved the needle for most of the nation, or the world. When the second plane hit on live TV, and then the towers fell, we all collectively thought, “Whoa, who knew THAT could happen [architecturally speaking]!?!” When flights everywhere got grounded, I got stuck in Vegas. This was real, and had already affected all of us.
Another image became the face of the tragedy: Time magazine ran a photo of a person swan-diving from the tower to escape the flames. There was even a photo of a couple who had done it together. I find that I can’t NOT think about those images when 9/11 comes up.
Other images pop in my head, too, from my hometown. In the days after the towers fell, it was difficult to account for who had actually been killed, and my hometown is a commuter suburb of NYC. People park their cars at our little train station, and then ride the train into The City. While I was in Vegas, friends back home said that on the night of 9/11, there were a few cars in the parking lot at the train station whose owners never came back. I imagine those lonely cars in the emptied lot as vividly as if I had been there to see it.
And I also remember the view from the top of the cemetery wall on the highest hill in my town. Once upon a time I had stood on the top of that stone wall, and verified what I had heard—that on a clear sunny day, you could see the tops of the Twin Towers. And I did.
Sadly, the true heroism in NYC that day has been co-opted by politicians (Giuliani!), police and fire unions, Big Brother, and “Patriot” Actors, in a way that has done more damage to our nation than the terrorist act itself ever did. Maybe because of my heightened cynicism, the most powerful memories of that day are not the visual ones from the grand skyline of NYC, but the audio from Flight 93 that went down in an unremarkable field in Pennsylvania. By making the hard choice—which I’m sure those heroes would describe as a simple thing—they did what the politicians might have been unable to do: shoot down the plane. Even if the political courage to shoot down the plane had been summoned, the likely result would have been bickering, blame, and political reward-seeking.
Nathan Hale became legendary not for his failed spy mission, but his supposed last words on 9/22 (1776) in New York City, variously described as:
“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
[If he had ten thousand lives, he would lay them all down, if called to it, in defence of his injured, bleeding Country.]
“I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is, that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.”
[Colour me cynical, but I have a hard time believing that kind of poised eloquence on the gallows, especially when described second- and third-hand years later, with such divergent transcriptions.] Hale’s heroism and oratory have put him in the pantheon of patriots, remembered centuries later.
But Hale’s got nothing on Todd Beamer, whose last words trump them all. Those words—”Are you guys ready? Okay. Let’s roll.”—are eloquent, succinct, powerful, epic, real. Hemingway, the supposed master of dialog, could not pen it any better. The hero’s last words exhibit Teamwork. Decisiveness. Commitment. Confidence. Action. And, in the context in which they were spoken: Wisdom. Sacrifice. Love.
The Beamer Bros. were civilians. Their Plan A was to do what must be done—sacrifice the plane! I hope that the heroes of Flight 93 are remembered for centuries, and that “Let’s Roll!” becomes a rallying cry for the ages.