Steep Roads, poem by Joe Manning
Life is all struggle and triumph,
triumph and struggle.
That is why I love to walk
the steep roads of North Adams:
Prospect up to Franklin,
Meadow up to East Quincy,
East Quincy up to Kemp,
Hathaway up to North,
Cliff up to Charlene.
When I walk up these streets,
pumping my arms,
stopping for a breath,
exhilarated at reaching the summit,
turning around to the wonder below,
I walk with the thousands
who have walked before me.
With each step
I feel their struggles;
With each final ascent
I feel their triumphs.
I woke up with a start at exactly 5:00 on Tuesday morning, September 11. My alarm was set for 5:45. That’s when I usually get up on the days I drive to North Adams. I get dressed in the living room, so I don’t wake up my wife. After a glass of juice and a small bowl of Cheerios, I wash up, brush my teeth, and jump in the car.
I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I got up and checked my e-mail, finished yesterday’s paper, and then got ready to leave. When I pulled out on Route 9 near Look Park in Florence, I turned on WFCR, which is the National Public Radio affiliate in Amherst. There was nothing out of the ordinary on the news, so I popped in one of my favorite CDs, and that carried me over the mountains, up East Road, past Southview Cemetery, and finally to the Bean.
I sat with Carl Robare and Tony Abuisi, and we talked about the weather and exchanged some funny stories. Tony and I got into a big discussion about baseball. He loves the Yankees; I can’t stand them. At several other tables, groups of old friends, business associates, and fellow employees laughed, nodded, and watched to see who was walking by or coming in the door. It was a typical American morning in a typical American gathering place.
A little after 9:00, Carl and I got restless and walked out into the cool air. A man on a bicycle stopped and said: “Did you hear about it? A plane just hit the World Trade Center, and they think it’s a terrorist. It’s awful.”
I was skeptical. I looked at Carl, and he said, “I’m not going to repeat this to anyone until I find out if it’s true.” I had to return some photos to the North Adams Transcript, so when I went to my car to retrieve them, I turned on the radio and managed to pull in a weak signal from WCBS in New York. Indeed, a plane had crashed, but that’s all I could derive from the panicky announcer and the chaotic reports.
When I got to the newspaper office, everyone was huddled around the TV, and my mind flashed back to the Kennedy assassination. As I quickly learned, another plane had hit the Trade Center, and there were reports about other possible disasters. Editor Ken Norris was pacing around, trying to get his staff focused on the business at hand. Obviously, the whole paper had to be scrapped. There were wire service reports to assemble, headlines to compose, local reaction to explore, and a daunting layout task ahead. I watched as reporters scattered back to their desks, only to return to watch the latest bulletin as the story unfolded, disaster by disaster, rumor by rumor.
I hurried over to Proforma, Keith Bona’s business on Eagle Street. But I was starting to get very frightened, and all I could think of was my wife and kids back in Northampton. Did they know about it yet? Were they trying to get in touch with me?
Keith’s television had attracted a large crowd of business owners and pedestrians. The networks were already showing film of the second crash, and one announcer reported that there was a fire on the Washington Mall and that the White House was being evacuated. Several onlookers were crying, and one person shouted, “This is going to be World War Three!”
I used Keith’s phone and called my wife at work. Everyone was watching it there, too. One of my daughters had called her and was very scared. So I decided to go home right away. I wondered if this might be my last day on Earth. If so, I wanted to spend it with my family. I drove back with the radio on all the way.
For the next three exhausting days, I don’t know how many hours I was glued to the radio and TV, and how many times I was forced to watch the replay of the second plane slicing into the tower. All I know is that I had no one to share my feelings with but my wife, my kids (one didn’t want to talk about it), my mother in Maryland, and Dave at the post office. As we do almost every evening, my wife and I walked in downtown Northampton. But even with the Smith College students back, the streets were virtually empty.
When I headed off to North Adams at 6:00 a.m. on Friday, I knew I was about to see my friends again, and I was anxious to know how they were doing. After witnessing the destruction and havoc in New York, I was relieved to find the proud and beautiful buildings still standing on Main Street, the Berkshire hills free of smoke and debris, familiar faces on the streets instead of armed marshals, and the “OPEN” flag hanging in front of the Bean.
Inside, there was a larger crowd than usual, and it grew steadily over the next hour. In my group, carefully worded references to the tragic events were preceded by humorless and mundane conversation and long periods of silence. When someone finally broke the ice, it was a relief, but all we could do was share our grief and uncertainty. Looking around, I thanked God for public spaces like this one where people can go in difficult times; and I imagined conversations at the Capitol Restaurant or The Smoke Shop on the days right after Pearl Harbor.
At 10:00, the monthly meeting of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition took place at the First Baptist Church. After a summer hiatus, this opportunity to discuss community issues couldn’t have come at a better time. An emotional e-mail from Executive Director Al Bashevkin the day before alerted members and friends that he was suspending the usual format to allow time to vent our fear, anger, and personal stories in a supportive environment. Maybe that’s why almost 80 people attended, the largest crowd I have witnessed there in several years.
Nearly everyone had something to say. Those who didn’t listened intently, often with their heads down and eyes closed. Many expressed worries about our leaders speaking in the language of war, about the government overreacting militarily, and about how the public may unfairly blame Arab-Americans and citizens of the Muslim faith.
Halfway through this emotional two-hour “group therapy” session, City Councilor Marie Harpin stood up and almost begged, “I don’t know about you, but I need a hug.” And so people left their chairs and gave and received hugs. I thought of my late friend Tony Talarico. “I need at least three hugs a day,” he often told me. This time, I needed more than three, and longed for one from Tony.
Our freedom to speak and assemble defines us as a nation. The people and the social agencies who attended this meeting represent the best of America, as do the firemen, the blood donors, the religious leaders, the policemen, and the rescue volunteers on the front lines.
In North Adams, and all across the country, we have been given one more steep road to climb. We will struggle, slowly and surely, to the top. Good will triumph over evil. Terrorists cannot hijack our spirit, our compassion for our neighbors, and the strength we call on in our darkest moments.