Patriotism is in my DNA.
I know that sounds weird, but I believe it’s true. I was born to be red, white and blue.
One of my earliest, most vivid memories is standing and watching my mama wipe tears away after listening to a song on TV. I was about three or four, probably. I knew all the words to the song. It was one of the first ones I learned after “Jesus Loves Me,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Happy Birthday.”
Although I didn’t know why Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” made my mama cry that day, I somehow understood the emotion behind those tears and wasn’t frightened. I guess the same emotion behind Mama’s tears was why a small child would memorize that song. I think it was because I loved geography and especially liked the part that states, “from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam …” (Oddly enough, that’s a good percentage of the 40 word tune, too!).
I grew up in a small town that, even though it has progressed a lot since my childhood, is still a small town. But that small town helped instill values in me that I’m very grateful for.
My parents and grandparents can be credited (or blamed, in some cases) for a lot of the person I am today. I learned from them early in life to honor, obey, love and serve God and to respect America. My daddy served a stint in the United States Air Force during the Korean Conflict. Although he never saw battle outside of a barroom brawl on Saturday nights in Seoul, he had an important task during that time to train men how to use the radios in order to keep communication open on the battlefield. Although he never flew a flag outside his home, Daddy certainly could have been defined as a flag-waving American by the way he lived.
I’m not certain what really spawned Mama’s deep-seeded patriotism. Maybe it was having living through the Great Depression and World War II that marked her heart with such a love for her country. Or maybe it was having parents who also had a deep and abiding love for America.
Whatever it was, I can remember watching Mama place her hand over her heart whenever she heard strains of the national anthem and can recall viewing many tears trickle down her face as she would sit at the kitchen table in the mornings and pray for her family and her country.
My parents were both wonderful storytellers. There were nights when we would turn the TV off and one or both of them would begin weaving tales about their childhood. Often the stories would involve where they were or what they were doing during significant times in history. I heard Daddy tell his recollection of the day President Kennedy was shot in Dallas so often I can almost repeat it verbatim.
Although I have lived through some pretty significant historical events and can tell you where I was when I heard some of them happen, none truly changed my life as much as September 11, 2001. I had worked later than usual the night of September 10, 2001. I had planned a trip to Atlantic City, N.J., the next week to attend the Miss America Pageant for the fourth time and had some tasks that needed to be completed before my time off rolled around.
It was a phone call from my sister, Jindra, that first alerted me to the attack on American soil. Even though I had heard the phone ringing, I couldn’t seem to wake up enough to get up to answer it. Through the answering machine, I could hear her telling me to wake up and turn on the TV.
Wondering what was of such epic proportion that she would call me from work to tell me to watch TV, I fumbled for the remote control and turned the TV on in my bedroom. Through sleep-glazed eyes I quickly noticed that the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the World Trade Center in New York City were featured in a split-screen shot on TV. And smoke was billowing from both.
Confused, I turned up the volume in order to make some sense out of what I was viewing. That’s when I first learned of the hijackings of the commercial airliners and how the hijackers had flown the airplanes into both buildings. At the time I turned on my television, only one plane had hit the WTC, but soon after I began watching the news coverage, the second plane hit.
Watching this catastrophe unfold from my bed, I was numb. Although I realized it was a live news report from NBC, it just didn’t seem real. And when the towers began to fall, tears started to cascade down my face. Although I prayed that the thousands of people who worked in those two buildings had time to safely evacuate the area, I knew in my heart that many of them were being thrust into eternity at very moment. And my heart literally broke from that realization and the realization that even though the events were going on in Washington, DC and New York, every American was being attacked at that very moment. I took it personally because it was personal.
I am blessed to have friends who live in various areas across America and I quickly began to go through my mental Rolodex to determine who, if any of them, lived near or worked in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon. Although my brain was still a bit fuzzy from sleep, I decided that I didn’t really know anyone who worked there. Then I remembered an email I’d received from my friend Stacey Kunnari a few weeks before describing her daily trek from their apartment in New Jersey to New York University. I recalled something about a train and a station at the World Trade Center site and I wondered what time she would have gone to class on that Tuesday morning. How grateful I was later that evening when she was able to get a blanket email out to tell all her friends that she had opted not to go to class that morning.
Although Corinth is located far away from the site of the attacks, reporting the events became front page news. I even managed to get Stacy’s husband, Brian, to send me some digital photos of the New York skyline from their vantage point across the river. From where he stood, he could see the smoke billowing from the WTC rubble and his photos reflected that.
With Miss America competition beginning the next week, the contestants had been in Atlantic City for rehearsals and other events prior to September 11. Discussions began immediately about what to do with the contestants and about the pageant itself. Some of the contestants, naturally, wanted to go home. But with air travel suspended, that was almost impossible. Since the contestants were already there as a group and virtually safe, a decision was made early on to keep them in Atlantic City. After national leaders encouraged Americans to attempt to go on with life as usual as best they could, pageant officials decided to continue with plans to host the competition on a slightly scaled-down level.
My trip itinerary had me flying out of Memphis the following Tuesday and flying into Washington Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, DC, by way of Atlanta. Since air travel had been suspended indefinitely on September 11, I wondered at first if I would even be allowed to take the trip. By the end of the week, travel had slowly been started back up and flights were leaving Memphis International Airport.
With family members and friends questioning my sanity, I left Corinth early that next Tuesday morning. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous about getting on that airplane one week after the September 11 attacks. Oddly enough, that wasn’t the first time I’d been to Atlantic City under a threat of sorts. The first one as in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd (or as I affectionately call it, Hurricane Elmer Fudd) was predicted to hit the shore. I opted to take that trip as well – adding a flashlight, transistor radio and plenty of snacks to my suitcase in the event we were forced out of the hotels and into some sort of emergency shelter during the duration.
During the drive to Memphis that September Tuesday, I kept asking God to give me a peace about the trip. The sun was just rising as I sped down Nonconnah Parkway toward I-240. Rounding a curve, I saw a flash of color on the horizon. It was the largest American flag I think I had ever seen.
The slight breeze was making the flag flap in the wind and the rising sun cast a light behind it that made the stars and stripes seem to glow in the early morning sky. In my head, I could hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and I suddenly found my peace.
There were only 27 people on board the 727 that I rode from Memphis to Atlanta that morning. The flight attendants were trying to calm nerves as much as possible and told us we could feel free to choose any seat we wanted for the short journey.
Changing planes in Atlanta revealed to me that air travel was not as sparse there. Although there were still a good many vacant seats, there were more passengers on the plane from Atlanta to Dulles.
My friend, Michelle Blake, picked me up at the airport. We had already had the “are we sure we want to do this” conversation the night before on the telephone. It was obvious I was committed to going on to Atlantic City since I was in Virginia. She wasn’t quite as convinced yet. But the next morning, as we drove toward the Jersey shore she would look at me every few miles and just shake her head.
Security around the Miss America Pageant was tighter that week than I had ever noticed it. I knew security was around during the three previous trips to Atlantic City, but they weren’t as obvious. All our bags were checked before we could enter Convention Hall, the site where the pageant had been held for decades, and we were even “wanded” by a security guard.
Although we were trying to get into a pageant sort of mode, we couldn’t overlook the proverbial elephant in the room. Many of us shared recollections of where we were and what we were doing when we heard the Pentagon and the World Trade Center had been attack. Since not all travel routes were up and running even a week after the event, some of our friends weren’t able to make the trip to Atlantic City so we talked about how we missed them, too. And some of our friends simply didn’t want to either deal with the heightened security or couldn’t make themselves travel so they opted out of the pageant for that year.
One morning I traipsed over to Convention Hall to watch rehearsals and found a group of people standing around tables near the stage. They were taking small dowels and stapling cardboard American flags to them. The idea was for everyone in attendance for the televised pageant on Saturday night to have a small American flag to wave in support of the country. Since, not surprisingly, the sales of American flags of all sizes had skyrocketed post-9/11, pageant officials couldn’t get a couple thousand small flags. Someone came up with the idea of getting a pattern from the Internet and making them with the help of the volunteers.
Instead of watching rehearsals that morning, I stood with my friend from New Hampshire and four women from Washington state and Massachusetts and stapled flags. For hours we did this. My back hurt and my thumbs hurt but I didn’t complain. It was a small contribution, but it was something I could actually do to give back a little.
The contestants noticed what we were doing and would cheer us on as they walked past the tables. My buddy Allison Hatcher, who was Miss Indiana that year, would either hug me or offer words of encouragement each time she walked by.
And remember my friend, Stacey, who I was worried about the morning of 9/11? She and her husband, Brian, came down for the pageant that weekend and I was able to hug my former Miss Arizona and tell her how grateful I was she was still around.
A rumor began to circulate on Friday morning that there had been a threat made on the Saturday night pageant. Some folks wanted to go home – even my friend, Michelle. I calmly told her to do what she felt was best, but I had been there all week and I wasn’t leaving. If it was my time to go, I told her, I might as well be doing something I enjoy. And if it was my time, there wasn’t much I could do about it anyway. Somewhat reluctantly, she agreed to stay.
Despite the fighter planes flying off the beach near the Convention Hall and the huge military helicopters flying over the building, the pageant went on without a hitch and Miss Oregon Katie Harman became the first contestant from her state to capture the national crown.
Although I am no longer a Miss America volunteer, I still remain close to many of the friends I made during that time. Looking back, do I regret boarding that plane a week after 9/11 and flying to the East Coast? Not one bit. I’m certain I would have eventually had to face the hesitancy of air travel eventually. I guess it was just as good a time as any to get back in that old saddle again. And I have such good memories of that week to show for it, too.
I don’t know why that particular event in my life came to mind today as I was beginning my personal celebration of Independence Day. I am so very grateful to live in a country that, despite all its imperfections, still allows me the freedom to choose, the freedom to be but most of all the freedom to worship God openly and freely. I often take my American citizenship and the rights and privileges that come with it so much for granted. It’s on days like this that I try to stop and realize just how truly blessed we are as Americans.
On September 11, 2001, and the days following, I saw a great revival of sorts beginning in this country. Out of frustration, desperation and deep-seeded pain, people began to truly seek Him with all their hearts.
My prayer is that those who have yet to find Him, will continue to look.