Thursday, September 13, 2007

Uncle Henry's Wings

One of the many things I learned in college is that I’m a Sand Nigger. Growing up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Western Pennsylvania, I’d heard my share of slurs, but not until my time at an institution of higher learning did I hear that appellation. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Dickinson College was, and probably still is, very much a white, upper middle-class school. Many of the students at Dickinson didn’t have any use for anyone not like themselves, so that if you were ethnic, black, gay or otherwise non-standard, you could expect to be reminded of your outsider status from time to time.

Don’t get me wrong, Sand Niggers were several steps higher on the taxonomic ladder than ordinary Niggers, what the politically correct now call African-Americans. For the record, my mother’s family is Lebanese, and my father was half Polish and half Serbian, a combination that could only have occurred in Western Pennsylvania. I have the olive skin and (used to be) black hair of my mother’s people. From my father’s side of the family I got the Polish nose. The Serb is in there somewhere, but my appearance is definitely Arabic. I’m usually spotted by others of Lebanese descent, or the in-laws of other Lebanese. At Dickinson, I learned to dress and act like a respectable white, middle class American, but absent a Michael Jackson skin-bleach job, I look like what I look like. I never thought it was a big deal.

Then September 11th happened. I was in my office, talking with a supervisor when he got a call on his cell phone saying that terrorists had just flown an airplane into to World Trade Center. My initial reaction was that some nut had flown a Cessna into the tower, and aside from a small fire and a few casualties, there wouldn’t be much to it. Obviously, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

It was one of those ‘Where were you?’ moments. As in “Where were you when Kennedy was shot, when the Challenger exploded, or on a happier note, when Maz hit the home run? I was just over a year old when Maz hit the home run, I was in my office at the Beaver County Court House when the Challenger blew up, and I don’t know where I was when Kennedy was shot, but I do seem to remember my mother crying about the President being dead. I know I’ll never forget looking at Nick when his phone rang, and hearing about what Stephen Jay Gould would later describe as the real beginning of the 21st Century.

The rest of the day is mostly a haze. I remember telling my wife that “this is only the beginning,” and being irritated with a man in line in front of me at the gas station for his inability to operate a gas pump. I especially remember returning to the office after going out for a walk, or to St. Peter’s church to pray, I don’t remember which, and seeing a group of people in the lobby clustered outside a room containing a TV as they watched a tape of one of the towers collapsing. “We ought to put all the fucking Arabs in camps, like we did the Japs in World War II,” someone said. I didn’t ask anyone to define ‘we’, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out it didn’t include me.

That sentence, spoken in anger and stupidity, had a profound effect on me. For the first time in my life, I was afraid. Not of anything in particular, but of being the victim of misdirected anger and violence. Everywhere I went, I thought I could feel people’s eyes on me. I imagined them thinking, “He’s one of them. Let’s do something about it.” It reached its nadir when I was in a meeting at work with a group of people I consider friends, and I still couldn’t make the fear go away. It drove me back to therapy. The therapist was understanding, but she almost lost patience at my response when she asked me what I wanted. I told her I wanted a letter from President Bush assuring me that I wouldn’t be sent to an internment camp. I’m still waiting.

Eventually, I got over my fear, but in the process I learned some unsettling things about America, things I would rather not have learned. And I know, that when, God forbid, Osama and his savages strike again, I’ll have those same feelings. I’m not looking forward to it.

One of the things I inherited from my mother when she died was a set of her brother Henry’s wings. He was in the Air Corps during World War II. I think he was a crewman on a B-24. I know for certain he was a radio operator and a gunner. The wings are silver, and I polished them as September 11, 2002 drew near. They’re beautiful. I didn’t wear them; I don’t think that’s something I should do. Uncle Henry earned those wings, I didn’t. I did carry them with me all day, however. I like to think they protected me.

If you’re ever in London, go to St. Paul’s Cathedral. It contains a book with the names of all the Americans based in England who died during the war. One of those names is that of Henry Kanfoush, United States Army Air Corps.

I believe America is a construct of the mind. An idea, if you will. In spite of what I heard in my office on September 11, 2001, I am part of the American “We.” I’m part of the society that put Japanese Americans into internment camps during the second world war, and I am one of the Japanese Americans who spent the war in those internment camps. I am the Sand Nigger who lost his life in the skies over Europe all those years ago, and I am the man who planned to go underground in the fall of 2001 before the local constabulary came looking for me.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”

One of the distinguishing characteristics of America is its heterogeneity. There never was a clearly defined “We.” “We” changes daily. I’m part of that.


ToastBoy87 said...

I know you don't need me to tell you how articulate you are, but I'd like to tell you anyhow. I really liked this one, Uncle Ed. Something about it really makes me admire you. I'd like to write more detailing the objects of my admiration, but I seem at a loss for words. Let me instead opt. for simplicity and leave you with what I've already said.


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