Between the Rows: Freedom’s Still Ringing

Published online: Sep 11, 2021 Articles, Between the Rows Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This column appears in the September 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

It was a T-shirt. A T-shirt with thick green, gray and white stripes and baggy sleeves that hung just past my elbows. Paired with faded blue Wranglers and white Spalding sneakers. Fashion very reminiscent of early-2000s small-town life.  

That’s what I was wearing in the back row of a noisy school bus when Garrett, a snot-nosed, loud-mouthed third-grader (who has since grown into a well-spoken, successful family man), boarded and, in his excitable way, began telling everyone who would listen all about what he had just seen on TV: real planes crashing and exploding into two real skyscrapers in New York. As a big, bad eighth-grader, I couldn’t allow myself to be seen in serious conversation with some elementary kid, but I was dang sure interested in what Garrett was saying. This didn’t sound like your typical grade-schooler show-off talk; it felt like something more. Even two decades later, that realization that something big was going on is seared onto my memory.

Indeed, as soon as the bus dumped us at the door of Oakley Junior/Senior High School, that feeling was confirmed. Everyone—everyone—was crowded into classrooms, eyes glued to television screens. It turned out that the whole nightmare of 9/11 had started just before my siblings and I had gotten on the bus that morning. But, as this was in the days before smart phones and instant alerts, we had to wait for news—even the biggest news in any of our lifetimes—to trickle in via phone calls, morning country radio DJs, and network TV. By the time I walked into school, the entire building was a strange stew of tense, buzzing silence.

Moments after I walked into Mrs. Hale’s classroom, the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. Right there, on live TV, this behemoth of human ingenuity and commerce just … disappeared. A few minutes later, a chunk of the Pentagon followed. Then the North Tower. “Surreal” is an overused word, but that’s exactly what it felt like. The mere memory of it—which should have faded over the years—still feels very, very surreal.

Oakley, Idaho, was and remains a long way from any perceived seats of worldly power; it’s a far cry from New York or D.C. or even Salt Lake. Logically, cognitively, my classmates and I all knew we were safe. But in our deepest, most genuine of hearts, we were scared. Churning-gut, trying-not-to-cry, honest-to-goodness terrified.

“America is a nation with many flaws, but hopes so vast that only the cowardly would refuse to acknowledge them.”

—James Michener

But as the abject terror of September 11, 2001, ended, I remember a feeling of calm, somber sadness settling in on September 12. Everyone was still scared. But that brought about a tangible, iron-strong sense of unity. Even as a puberty-stricken farm kid, I can testify that I felt a very real kinship with New York firefighters, Washington politicians, Memphis barbecue pitmasters, wannabe Hollywood actresses, Nevada buckaroos, hotshot divorce lawyers, dirty-fingernailed coal miners, Vietnam vets, hot dog vendors, immigrants, redneck mechanics, white-collar trust-fund babies—all of them.

It sounds cheesy, saccharine, idealized, too good to be true. Yet, in those weeks and months following 9/11, nothing was truer. It was the very best of what America ought to be, a realization of the vision held so dear by Washington and Jefferson, Douglass and Lincoln, FDR and Eisenhower. For a few precious weeks in 2001, differences existed and were acknowledged, but they were never appropriated and certainly not weaponized. If you were an American, by golly, I was on your side and you were on mine.

After the last year or two, I’d be willing to bet that you, like me, have wondered: Is there any way for our nation—this beacon of freedom and hope—to get back to that? What will it take to regain that feeling of being a truly United States of America? The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that—despite what the networks and politicians and YouTube and Facebook and TikTok and Instagram and every other fool way we communicate nowadays would have us believe—we Americans really aren’t that far apart from one another.

We see the phenomenon every day in little pockets all across America: A line of tractor headlights headed up the highway to help the neighbor get that last section of potatoes out of the ground before a big freeze. A community rallying around the widow and children of a young father gone too soon—ready with an endless supply of casseroles, cash and shoulders to cry on. An octogenarian easing his creaky joints out of bed before dawn to shovel the sidewalk, only to find it already cleared and salted by some unknown good Samaritan. A thankful mom wiping away tears as a beaming homecoming queen with Down syndrome is paraded in front of the bleachers in an old Corvette.

This is the real, breathing heartbeat of America. May God bless it.