Saturday, June 26, 2010
My General McChrystal moment
So eight years ago in the still dismal days running up to the first anniversary of 9/11, July 4 Parade Committee members joined forces with the American Legion to put on a one-year anniversary memorial service that would stand out anywhere in America. I of course was in charge of media relations.
My fellow Irish--equally family rooted in Amherst for 5 generation--friend Kevin Joy had fashioned a replica of the Twin Towers and Pentagon on a large flatbed. At first I thought/worried that somehow it would be kind of tacky turning a somber symbol into a parade float (it lead the July 4 Parade in 2002) but his artistic talent was such that it could not help but remind people of what we lost that day.
We actually initiated the ceremony on the eve of 9/11 when we held an "Irish wake" on the town common, parking the monument and illuminating it overnight with a powerful portable generator lighting system (the same ones used to illuminate Ground Zero at night for workers engaged in recovery operations) that the air wing commander of Barnes Air National Guard let us borrow.
People solemnly trudged in all night long to pay their respects.
At the break of dawn we ferried the float over to Northampton and had is slowly escorted on Rt. 9 at parade speed all the way from Sheldon Field back to Amherst town common escorted by Northampton, Hadley, Amherst and Umass public safety vehicles.
At around 8:40 AM the two hour ceremony started with speakers, but mainly I remember the ringing of church bells and brief moments of silence to mark those agonizing moments when the planes struck and those magnificent towers fell.
My main job was to get the word out so we could attract 3,000 people back to the Town Common that night to hold a candle (donated by Yankee Candle) where we had printed out all the names of the victims and gingerly attached them to each candle.
The media attention was impressive leading up to the day (considering every community in America was have a ceremony of some kind) The AP called me and said they were sending a reporter and photographer. The Boston Globe sent a reporter the day before for an extended interview and we gave her lots of our time.
Around 3:30 PM she asked if she could use my business office to finish up her story and tap the Internet to send it back to the newsroom, and I instantly agreed. Kevin and I were still busy making phone calls sending out faxes and desperately trying to make sure all the names were attached to the candles. In other words busy work, the kind that goes better with beer, but we did not have any beer.
The left leaning activist First Congregational Church in town center was also holding an event on the first anniversary having something to do with a labyrinth outlined in empty shoes with native American drummers, Buddhists and Muslims afterward sending the footware to Iraq.
Yeah, go figure. But it was still getting some media attention. I think their goal was to get 500 pairs donated on 9/11.
At one point while the reporter was still tap, tap, tapping away on her laptop in my small office and Kevin and I were bantering about that, while attaching stickers to candles, I said somewhat sarcastically, "Yeah, I'll see your 500 shoes and raise you 3,000 candles!"
Indeed nothing I EVER would have said on the record, and to this day it still sounds crass--but I was pretty wired and beyond tired at that moment.
The next morning that callous quote appears in the Boston Globe article front page Metro Section, ruining a heartfelt endeavor. I was crestfallen. Yes I said it, and no I did not tell the reporter that anything she hears in my office is "off the record." But she had stated the interviews were over and she was simply cranking out the copy.
But PT Barnum would have approved, because back then the Boston Globe was still considered the paper of record for the entire Northeast if not nation. And although the story was framed as a contest between our ceremony and the shoes-to-Iraq ceremony, the coldly efficient reporter still got everything else right.
That morning storm clouds and brisk winds dominated into the very late afternoon. A well known Amherst "peace activist" came up to me in the late morning and taunted me about the potential for high wind and rain (not great conditions for candlelight) saying we would be lucky to get "100 people to turn out" that night.
At the twilight's last gleaming, the skies cleared and the wind receded. We ended up with just over 2,000 somber citizens. Some took two candles to hold. I kept one that I will light next year on the 10th Anniversary of the saddest day for our country in my 55-old existence.