A Firefighter’s Tears
*There’s little I can say about the tragedies that occurred on September 11th, 2001, that hasn’t been said far more eloquently by so many others. I was profoundly saddened when I watched an episode of Oprah this week that centered on children’s fears and questions as a result of the terrorist attack on our nation. Quite frankly, I was surprised at how much children between the ages of six and ten understand about this tragedy, and in turn, how much it’s affected them. These were neither children who had lost a parent or family member on that day, nor children from New York or Washington D.C. Instead, these were kids from the Midwest whose fears encompassed the same things my fears encompass and your fears encompass. Possibly I recall my own childhood through rose colored glasses, or possibly the way we are now given instant news reports twenty-four hours a day on three-hundred channels has changed how much children are privy to. I don’t recall having the insight to various events from my youth in anywhere near the way the children of this new century have insight into what occurred on September 11th. It touched me in ways I can’t describe when a ten-year-old girl said she cried because of all the children who lost a parent, or both parents, in that Tuesday’s attack. Then there was the girl, no more than eleven, who said she’s unable to sleep because of the haunting images she saw on TV. And the weeping nine year old boy who is so devastated by the death toll he can’t stop his tears. And finally, the two young sons of a flight attendant who are begging their mother to quit her job. That made me consider how the children of firefighters must be feeling right now. And, as a writer, that inspired me to bring to life, once again, a little boy who has appeared in two previous stories of mine, and whose papa is the fire chief of a fictional town known as Eagle Harbor, Alaska.
It was a day when many parents across the United States picked their children up from school. It didn’t matter if you lived in New York City or Washington D.C., where the tragedies occurred, or if you lived in a small hamlet in Alaska known as Eagle Harbor. As a parent you felt a strong need to be with your child. To make sure your child was safe. To rejoice in your child’s innocence and well being, while at the same time embracing him in a long, firm hug he didn’t understand the reason for.
“You’re squeezing me too tight, Papa,” Trevor Gage had told his father when Johnny picked him up from school the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. “And don’t hug me in front of the other guys. I’m too old for this kinda stuff.”
Trevor was nine now and in the fourth grade. It hadn’t been very long ago that he wasn’t too old for a public hug from his father, but of course, he was correct. He was nine. No longer five, or six, or seven, but nine. Not a little boy anymore, but a few years away yet from being a young man. On the brink of that difficult passage that would leave childhood forever behind while his adult years loomed ahead, still a clean slate and filled with so much promise.
John Gage had been on a twenty-four shift at Eagle Harbor’s fire station when a phone call from the police chief, Carl Mjtko, awoke him at five-fifteen that morning. Carl was calling from his home a few blocks from the fire and police station. He quickly relayed what little information he knew about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
Though the likelihood of such an attack happening in Eagle Harbor was so remote Johnny couldn’t even begin to quote the odds, the fire and police departments were put on full alert. Johnny pulled his bunker pants on, slipped his feet into his boots, and walked to the dayroom. The only other firefighter pulling that twenty-four hour shift with him did the same. Johnny turned the TV on then poured himself a glass of milk. Like Americans all across the country, he watched the video replays in disbelief as Peter Jennings narrated the action. Not that you needed a narrator. In this case the pictures were worth a thousand words.
A thousand words, and a thousand tears.
An odd thought, John supposed, but one that immediately came to mind. So many tears would be shed today, and in days to come. Of that fact Johnny had no doubt.
All those people. So many, many innocent people just lost their lives because of these senseless acts.
Johnny had barely finished his milk before a third plane smashed into the Pentagon. It was then, as other firefighters and police personnel began to arrive, that he realized he didn’t look much like a leader standing there in his bunker pants and T-shirt with his hair still mussed from sleep. It was difficult to leave the vicinity of the television set, but Johnny headed down the corridor for the locker room. In fifteen minutes he had showered, shaved, brushed his teeth, and was dressed in the khaki slacks and red shirt that indicated he was Eagle Harbor’s Fire and Paramedic Chief. He returned to the kitchen just as Peter Jennings reported a plane suspected to have been hijacked as well, had gone down in an open field outside of Pittsburgh.
John Gage’s workday normally ended at eight a.m. after pulling a twenty-four hour shift. That meant he had time to go home, pick up Trevor, and drop him off at Eagle Harbor Elementary School prior to the start of classes at eight-thirty. Because of the alert Johnny stayed on duty that Tuesday morning. He called his home shortly before eight and talked to the woman who served as housekeeper, nanny, surrogate mother, and friend. Clarice Mjtko was the police chief’s mother and had been a resident of Eagle Harbor for all her sixty-eight years. The one and only time she’d left Alaska was in July of 2000, when she’d flown to Los Angeles with Carl to bring Johnny and Trevor home after John’s frightening ordeal with a crazed man from his past.
“Oh, John, the news,” Clarice had said softly into the phone. “I can’t believe it. It doesn’t seem real. Those poor people. It’s so sad. All I want to do is cry, but I can’t. I don’t want Trevor to see me.”
“I doubt anyone can believe it right now, Clarice. And I imagine a lot of people will be crying over the next few days.” Johnny shifted the subject a bit then. “Listen, I won’t be able to come home this morning because we’re on full alert.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that. Carl called me.”
“So you’ll take Trevor to school for me?”
“You know I will.”
“Does he realize what’s going on?”
“No. He’s had his breakfast and has been out to the barn to feed the animals. He’s upstairs now brushing his teeth and combing his hair. Or at least that’s what he’s supposed to be doing. Knowing that boy of yours he’s likely gotten sidetracked.”
Johnny chuckled. “It’s a strong possibility. Especially when his ultimate destination is school.”
“I need to go check on him in a minute.”
“Take the phone to him, please. I’d like to talk to him.”
“Oh, and, Clarice?”
“Don’t say anything to Trevor about these hijackings. I want. . .well, he’s only nine. I’d like him to remain a little boy as along as possible. There’s no point in him worrying about things no kid should have to deal with. Especially since events like that are highly unlikely to happen in Eagle Harbor.”
“I understand. And no, I won’t say anything to him. I was watching the news on the TV in my room before Trevor got up and then while he was in the barn, but I haven’t turned the living room TV on, and I’ve left the kitchen radio off.”
“Thanks, Clarice. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
If Clarice had a nickel for every time John Gage had expressed that sentiment to her since he’d moved to Eagle Harbor with his infant son in 1993 she’d be rich. But then, just being a part of Trevor’s life had been reward enough. Carl was Clarice’s only child and had never married. To Clarice, Trevor was the grandchild she’d never had.
Johnny talked to his son briefly that morning. The only explanation he gave Trevor as to why Clarice would be taking him to school was, “I’ve got some things to do here at the station, Trev. I’ll try to pick you up after school. If I can’t, Clarice will bring you by so we can have supper together.”
“But you’re supposed to go off-duty at eight, Papa. How come you’ll still be working when I get out of school?”
“I might still be working. But I might not be either. One way or another I’ll see you after school, okay?”
Trevor thought his father’s answer seemed rather vague, but he responded with an, “Okay. Love you, Pops!” before handing the portable phone back to Clarice.
“Love you too, Trev,” Johnny said softly as he hung up the phone in his office. He wondered how many other fathers and sons had gone through this same scenario hours earlier in New York. Fathers who wouldn’t be coming home to their little boys tonight, or any other night ever again.
With a heavy heart John Gage returned to the kitchen. Like most Americans on that September 11th, he spent the day watching the horrifying and sorrowful events play out on television. When the south Trade tower collapsed it was Johnny who made a prediction long before Peter Jennings did. To the people assembled around him John said in a hoarse voice, “We’ve just lost so many.”
“So many what, Chief?” A young man asked.
“So many fellow firefighters. That building had to be filled with them. They would have been evacuating people. Firefighters and police officers both.”
Johnny remained in the dayroom long enough to watch the north tower collapse, then to hear Mayor Giuliani report three hundred firefighters were missing in that mass of rubble. He retreated to his office shortly thereafter and sat down at his desk. It was so easy to imagine being where those men were now. There had been a time in his life, a long time, when John Gage had worked for big city fire departments. First in Los Angeles, later in Denver. If things had worked out differently between Johnny and Ashton, Trevor’s mother, he might have been employed by the New York City Fire Department right now, rather than residing in the small town of Eagle Harbor. He might have been one of the three hundred missing or dead. That was a thought John Gage, as the single father of a nine-year-old boy, didn’t want to dwell on.
At least Ashton’s safe.
Though Johnny’s relationship with the cardiac surgeon had ended years ago, she was Trevor’s mother. The boy only saw Ashton two weeks out of each year, but Trevor loved her nonetheless. Johnny knew Ashton and her husband were currently in London conducting a symposium for leading cardiac surgeons from around the world. Ashton lived and worked in New York City. Johnny was glad he didn’t have to be concerned about her whereabouts, or be concerned with whether or not she was safe.
One less thing to deal with on this day of all days. Where my former lover is. Where the woman I wanted to marry is.
Those were thoughts best left in the past. That was aided when the phone rang. The caller didn’t have to identify himself. The fire chief knew immediately who it was when the man spoke just one word.
John gave a soft smile. “Hey, Roy.”
“Are you okay?”
That question told John Gage two things. Roy had been following the news with the same attention he had, and Roy had just seen the reports on the missing firemen.
“What a day, huh, Pally?”
Johnny could detect a tiny smile in Roy’s voice at his use of the old nickname.
“Yeah, Junior, what a day.”
“Thirty years ago that woulda’ been us, Roy.”
“What do you mean?”
“Going in those buildings. Evacuating people. Storming up flights of stairs to reach the people trapped above us. We would have done it because we were trained to. Because it was our job. Who the hell woulda’ thought those buildings would come down like that? And so fast. They never had a chance, Roy. The rescue workers never had a chance to get out.”
“No, they didn’t,” was all Roy said because Johnny spoke the truth. Those men and women, firefighters and police officers and harbor patrol agents, didn’t have a chance to get out. And yes, thirty years ago it could have been him and Johnny. They had worked together in the second largest city in the United States. They’d done rescues in skyscrapers on several occasions. What made this massive rescue effort gone wrong so tragic was that it didn’t have to happen. It was a deliberate act instigated by a man whose name Roy couldn’t pronounce, and whom the authorities couldn’t locate with any great certainty.
John Gage and Roy DeSoto talked a long time that morning. The connection they shared through years of working together as firefighters and paramedics brought each of them comfort on a day when the only comfort to be had came from small things. Small things like talking to an old friend or hugging your child. Pleasures Johnny, like most people, often took for granted until something of this magnitude happens and you realize how lucky you are, and how it’s the small things that make life worth living.
At twenty minutes after three, John left the fire station to pick up Trevor. His squinted as he stepped into the afternoon sunshine. The fire chief hadn’t even noticed the sun was out that day. It didn’t seem right that the sky was so blue and bright on a day when Heaven’s angels were surely crying.
It was after Johnny had embarrassed his son by hugging him in the schoolyard that the fire chief led the boy to the red Dodge Durango. Eagle Harbor’s assistant fire chief, Phillip Marceau, was remaining at the station while Johnny went home. If John were needed he’d be called back. Otherwise, Phil had encouraged him to pick up Trevor along with instructions to enjoy the remainder of his day off.
Trevor sat in the passenger seat and dug a sealed envelope out of his backpack.
“Here. This is from Mrs. Harper. I’m supposed to give it to you.”
Johnny raised a questioning eyebrow. Trevor was a lively boy, but he didn’t cause problems in school. Johnny had never been given a sealed note before.
“Did you get in trouble today?”
“Nope. I was a model child, as always.”
Johnny looked away so his precocious son wouldn’t see his smile. “Then what’s this about?”
Trevor shrugged. “I dunno.”
While Trevor secured his seatbelt Johnny opened the envelope and pulled out a form letter. From his parking spot in the school’s lot he silently read it.
By now you are aware of the tragic events that rocked our nation early this morning. The staff of Eagle Harbor Elementary School concluded the children in grades K through 5 are too young to be overwhelmed by the constant flow of information and horrific images being broadcast on television. Therefore, today’s events were not discussed with children in those grades. As a parent, it is for you to decide how much of this tragedy you wish to discuss with your child. If your child asks questions about the events we encourage you to answer those questions in a way your child can understand. Please remember, above all else, it’s important at a time like this to assure children they are safe and will be protected by the adults entrusted with their care. As always, the staff of Eagle Harbor Elementary School is here to assist you. Please do not hesitate to speak to your child’s teacher if you need guidance before broaching this subject in your household.
The Eagle Harbor Elementary School Staff
Johnny folded the letter. He put it in a pocket of the khaki jacket he was wearing that had the fire department’s logo on the front and his rank insignia on both sleeves. As they drove through the quiet, rustic streets of Eagle Harbor Johnny didn’t mention the letter he’d just read. Instead, he asked Trevor about his day in school.
“School was okay. I got an A on my math test.”
“Good for you. Do you have a lot of homework?”
“Then after chores and supper you need to get started on it.”
“I knew that’s what you were gonna say. You say it every single time when you pick me up from school. I’ve been goin’ to school since I was five, Papa. By now I have the routine down pretty good, okay?”
Johnny laughed. “Okay.”
“Besides, I got another problem, Pops. A big problem.”
“And what’s that?”
“You know that girl I like? Brooke?”
“I’ve heard you mention her a time or two, yes.”
“Well, I gotta figure out a way to dump her.”
“Yeah. See, it’s like this.” Trevor turned in his seat as much as his lap belt would allow so he was facing his father. “She’s an older woman. In the fifth grade. Now I thought this older woman thing would be good for me. You know, help me settle down a little. Make me more mature. Stuff like that.”
“For a while I guess it worked. For a while. . .about two whole days, I actually kinda enjoyed feeling like I was in the fifth grade. But you know what, Pops?”
“Pretending to be ten ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Brooke. . .she doesn’t want me to play with the guys anymore. She wants me to play with her at recess and only her. And she gets mad if I talk to any other girls.” Trevor laid a hand on his chest. “Now personally, I think there’s a lot of fish in the sea and I’m not ready to reel one in yet. I think Brooke has the wrong idea.”
“The wrong idea how?”
“She keeps using words like ‘commitment’ and ‘going steady.’ Papa, I don’t wanna go steady with any girl. I don’t care how cute she is. I’m just a kid. I gotta lot of good years left in me. I wanna have some fun before I settle down and start a family.”
It was all Johnny could do to keep from laughing. After what he’d witnessed on television nothing could bring him more pleasure than this inane conversation with his son.
“Well, it sounds to me like you do have a real problem there, Trev.”
“No kidding. So what should I do?”
“First of all, don’t hurt Brooke’s feelings.”
“No. I don’t wanna do that. I just wanna know how to dump her. When we visited Uncle Roy this summer Mr. Kelly told me you know all about dumping women. Or did he say you know about women dumping you? Whatever. Anyway, maybe you could give me some pointers, huh?”
“The next time we visit Uncle Roy I’m going to make certain Mr. Kelly isn’t invited over,” Johnny mumbled.
“What’d you say, Papa?”
“Never mind. Okay, Trev, here’s what you do. Tell Brooke that you’d like to be her friend, but that right now your father says you’re too young to have a girlfriend.”
“Wow! That’s a great idea, Pops! It makes you look like the bad guy, and I end up smelling like a rose.”
“That’s right. It makes me look like the bad guy, which doesn’t matter considering I’m far too old to ever be concerned with asking Brooke for a date, and you end up smelling like a rose.”
“She’s in the fifth grade, you know.”
“Brooke. You said you’re too old to ask her for a date, but she’s in the fifth grade.”
“I realize that. But I’m still too old to ask her for a date.”
“I guess, but she is pretty mature.”
“Not mature enough for me by a long shot.”
“Okay. If you say so.”
Father and son rode in silence for a mile before Trevor spoke again.
“Papa, why did those bad men steal planes today and crash them into buildings?”
glanced at his nine year old. “You know
“I heard some of the big kids talking on the playground. They got to watch it on TV in their classrooms. So how come the bad men did that?”
“There’s not an easy answer for that, Trev. First of all, I doubt if those men were ever taught right from wrong by their parents.”
Trevor’s eyes widened with disbelief.
“You mean like they were never told it’s wrong to steal an airplane and crash it into a building?”
“Pops, you’ve never told me it’s wrong to steal an airplane and crash it into a building, but even so, I know I’d be in big trouble for doing it.”
Johnny smiled at his son. “Then you’re a lot smarter than those hijackers.”
“What’s that word mean?”
“It means to commandeer a plane or a vehicle of some sort. To steal some means of transportation.”
“Oh. Well if they needed a plane, how come they just didn’t take it and land it at their own houses? How come they flew the planes into buildings?”
“They were trying to make a statement, Trev.”
“What kind of statement?”
“By flying those planes into buildings the hijackers think they can tell us our way of life here in America is wrong. They think that by flying those planes into buildings they can tear down our way of life. What they don’t realize is that being an American has nothing to do with how tall our buildings stand, or where our military leaders report for work. Being an American is about freedom. It’s about the right to choose, as individuals, what is best for each one of us. It’s about the right to hold religious services in whatever house of worship we desire. It’s about the right to vote for the men and women we want to run our country’s government. And being an American means coming together as a family when something bad happens. It means coming together to rebuild what was destroyed, and it means coming together to fight in order to keep our country safe and free.”
“Like soldiers do?”
“Just like soldiers do.”
“If we have a war will you be drafted?”
Johnny chuckled again. “No, kiddo, I won’t be drafted if we have a war. Just like I’m too old to date Brooke, I’m also too old to be drafted.”
“Will Uncle Roy be drafted?”
“No. Uncle Roy’s too old to be drafted as well.”
“What about Chris or John?”
“Chris’s disability would keep him from being drafted, and he’s too old for the draft also, as hard as that is for your papa to believe. As far as John goes, I doubt he’d be drafted, Trev. John provides a valuable service to this country as a forest ranger. Regardless, I really don’t think you have to worry about him being drafted. Actually, I don’t think you need to worry about anyone being drafted. For now the men and women currently enlisted in our military would be deployed if an act of war is declared.”
“I heard the older boys say we’re gonna fight some guy named Ben Landon.”
“His name is Osama bin Laden. And at this point no one knows for certain if he was behind these attacks, so it’s too early to predict who we might or might not fight.”
“Papa, were there people on those planes and in the buildings? People besides the hijackers I mean. I heard Justin say so.”
Justin was Justin Crownwell, a thirteen-year-old grandson of Nana Marie - one of Clarice’s many sisters.
“Yes, Trev, there were people in those planes and in the buildings.”
“Were they hurt?”
Johnny gave a slow nod. “Some of them were hurt, son.”
“Did any of them die?”
The fire chief didn’t answer his son until he’d driven the Durango down their long driveway and parked it in front of the garage. He turned then and looked into Trevor’s dark brown eyes.
“Yes, Trev. Some of them died.”
“Why would those bad men want to do that? Why would they want to kill people just because those people are Americans? What did we ever do to them?”
“Kiddo, I don’t know.”
“But it’s not right, Papa. People shouldn’t die just ‘cause they got on a plane to go visit someone. We got on a plane to go see Uncle Roy and Aunt Joanne this summer. We shouldn’t have to worry that a bad person is gonna crash that plane into a building when we’re going on our vacation.”
“You’re right, we shouldn’t. And we don’t have to. This was a very isolated incident, Trev. The government is already discussing ways to increase security at airports around the country. We can’t let this make us afraid. If we do, then those bad men win. Then they have a power over us we can’t let them have. You don’t need to be afraid. New York is a long way from Eagle Harbor.”
“But Mom and Franklin live in New York. And they’re in London right now. They have to fly home next week. What if bad men get on their plane?”
“Bad men won’t get on their plane. There will be a lot of security at Heathrow – the airport in London your mom and Franklin will fly out of. You don’t need to worry about this, Trevor. Mom and Franklin will be fine.”
“But what if the bad men come back? What if they go to Los Angeles where Uncle Roy, and Aunt Joanne, and Jennifer, and Libby, and Chris, and Dixie live?”
John Gage sat in the vehicle a moment wondering how you make a promise to your nine year old that nothing bad will ever happen in the world again, when age and experience tell you that’s not true.
“Trevor, I can’t make a promise that bad things won’t happen to people we love. We always hope that’s the case, but sometimes it’s not. What I will promise you is that I will always be here for you, and that we’re very, very safe. Eagle Harbor is a very safe place to live.”
“But a bad man came here and kidnapped you.”
“Yes, a bad man did. But I’m okay now, aren’t I?”
“And you know Evan Crammer is dead and that he can’t ever hurt me again, right?”
Trevor dropped his eyes so his father wouldn’t see the tears the frightening memory of a man named Evan Crammer brought forth.
“I know, Papa.”
“Okay then. That’s all that matters.”
Johnny unlatched his seatbelt then unlatched the belt encircling his son’s slim waist. He pulled the boy to him and gave him a firm hug while kissing the top of his head.
“You’re safe, Trevor. Papa will always keep you safe. Eagle Harbor is a great place to live. We don’t have to worry about hijackers coming here.”
Trevor nodded against his father’s strong chest. He wrapped his arms around Johnny’s middle for a long moment before finally pulling away. He picked his backpack up from the floor of the vehicle, opened the passenger door, and climbed out. He paused to look at his papa.
“But what about the kids in New York?”
“What about them?”
“You can tell me we’re safe here in Eagle Harbor, and I believe you because I know Eagle Harbor is a good town. Everybody is nice here. No bad men crash planes into buildings. But what about the kids in New York? What are their papas gonna tell them tonight when they ask if they’ll be safe?”
Trevor didn’t wait for his father to answer him, which was just as well because Johnny had no answer for his boy. He watched as his nine year old carried his backpack by the straps and trudged to the house as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Johnny remained in the Durango thinking over Trevor’s question.
But what about the kids in New York? What are their papas gonna tell them tonight when they ask if they’ll be safe?”
“I don’t know, Trev,” Johnny said softly as he stepped from the vehicle. “Papa just doesn’t know.”
Johnny shielded his son from the news on television that night. Overall, that wasn’t difficult to do since John rarely allowed Trevor to watch TV on a school night. Between chores, supper, homework and the need to take a shower, there was rarely time left for TV before Trevor was sent to bed. If time was to be had, Johnny had long ago gotten into the habit of playing a board game with his son or reading to him. The subject of the terrorist attacks wasn’t brought up again that night by either Trevor or Johnny.
John’s day off was Wednesday. He took Trevor to and from school. Once again Trevor didn’t mention anything more about Tuesday’s tragedy so Johnny didn’t either. And once again, the television was kept off in the Gage household after Trevor returned from school in the afternoon. It wasn’t until the boy had gone to bed, and Johnny knew he was asleep, that the fire chief settled into his recliner and turned on the big screen TV in the living room. He kept the volume low so it wouldn’t wake Trevor up. Johnny watched as firefighters worked through the night searching for survivors. He could imagine the despair they were feeling by now, but trying so hard not to show. He was proud when he saw the replay of the three young firemen raising the American flag over the rubble. He got a lump in his throat when he heard about one firefighter who had taken a vacation day Tuesday. That vacation day spared the man’s life. All twelve of his shift mates had died when the first tower collapsed. Johnny knew the sorrow felt by that man, who was now helping with the rescue efforts, had to be overwhelming. Johnny thought about his days at Station 51 and the camaraderie he’d shared with Hank Stanley, Mike Stoker, Marco Lopez, Chet Kelly, and of course, Roy DeSoto. To be called in from vacation to report to the scene of a disaster only to discover those men you worked with, and by and large lived with, were dead? It was heartbreaking to even consider it, let alone realize a man was living through that experience right now. A man who was thankful he’d be able to go home to his wife and children when this was all over, while at the same time a man wondering why he was still alive and his friends were not.
On Thursday Clarice brought Trevor to the fire station after school, as was their habit when Johnny was on duty. Johnny was in meeting with the members of the police and fire commission, and Clarice was soon involved in conversation with Carl’s secretary, leaving Trevor to his own devices. That didn’t matter to the boy. Eagle Harbor’s fire station was Trevor’s second home. He’d been just a year old when they’d moved here. He didn’t remember his father working anywhere else.
The three young firefighters seated around the television turned to look when Trevor entered the room.
“Hey, little chief,” came the greetings.
Trevor helped himself to three cookies from the cookie jar, and then poured a glass of milk from the quart container his father always kept in the refrigerator. He sat at the table eating his after school snack. He had an unobstructed view of the television in the dayroom area of the big kitchen. He laughed when Crazy Kenny turned to look at him and pretended to be picking his nose and eating boogers. Crazy Kenny did lots of weird stuff that made Trevor laugh. Of course, some of that same stuff made Papa frown and say, “Ken, knock it off.”
Trevor’s smile faded when the television cameras zoomed in on the destruction in New York. This was the first time he’d seen the damage the planes had done. Trevor’s mother and stepfather had an apartment in Manhattan across from Central Park so he’d been there a number of times. He’d even eaten in a restaurant called Windows on the World. Windows on the World was on the one hundred and seventh floor of the World Trade Center, almost at the very top. But that restaurant wasn’t there anymore because Peter Jennings said the giant pile of rubble Trevor was seeing used to be the Twin Towers of the Trade Center.
Trevor felt like Peter Jennings was looking right at him when he said, “And it is estimated that close to three hundred firefighters are still missing after being caught inside the Twin Towers when they collapsed. Though firefighters and other rescue workers haven’t given up hope at finding the men alive, with each hour that passes hope grows a little dimmer.”
Before Peter Jennings had a chance to say anything else, and before Trevor had a chance to see his father, the klaxons went off. Crazy Kenny hit the off button on the remote control, tossed the instrument on a shelf then ran from the room. After the fire trucks had pulled out of the station, and Johnny had pulled out of the lot in the Fire Chief’s Durango, Clarice took Trevor home.
Clarice noticed the boy was subdued when he came in from the barn after feeding the animals. She asked Trevor what was wrong, but only received a quiet, “Nothing,” in return. At six-thirty Clarice went to the stairs and called for Trevor to come to supper. The boy emerged from his bedroom.
“But Papa isn’t home yet. He was supposed to get off work at six.”
“Maybe he’s still on that call they got while we were at the station. Come on, love, it’s getting late. You know Papa always says not to wait for him if it reaches six-thirty and he’s not home yet.”
“But I wanna wait.”
“No. No waiting. Supper is hot. It’s time to eat.”
Trevor was unusually quiet throughout the meal. He kept turning in his chair to look out the bay window that gave him a clear view of the front yard and driveway.
“Trevor, turn around and eat please.”
“Love, he’ll be here soon I’m sure. He’s either on a call or he’s finishing up things at the station. Now eat so you can start your homework.”
“Do you think something bad happened, Clarice?”
“Do you think a building might have fallen on Papa?”
Clarice knew Johnny hadn’t allowed Trevor to watch any television the last few days, and she wasn’t aware of what the boy had seen at the fire station. Therefore, she smiled at what she perceived to be Trevor’s silliness.
“No, Trevor, a building hasn’t fallen on your papa. Eagle Harbor doesn’t have any big buildings to begin with, and in the sixty-eight years I’ve lived here I’ve never seen any of the buildings fall down. I’ve seen a few men fall down coming out of the Golden Nugget Saloon, but I’ve never seen any buildings fall.”
“It could happen though, Clarice. Sometimes bad things happen that no one thinks is possible.”
“Sometimes they do, but not very often in Eagle Harbor, love. Now eat your supper.”
Clarice stood to clear her empty plate. Trevor contemplated what she’d just said. He thought she was wrong. They had an airport in Eagle Harbor. Gus Zimmerman owned it. Bad men could take a plane from that airport and crash it into the Eagle Harbor Medical Clinic. The clinic was three stories high. It was the tallest building on Eagle Harbor. Maybe that’s what had happened. Maybe bad men stole one of Gus’s planes and crashed it into the clinic, only Clarice didn’t want to tell Trevor that. Maybe Papa was in the clinic right now helping people get out. Just like those firefighters in New York were helping people to get out when the Twin Towers fell.
“Clarice, I think maybe bad men took a plane and—“
Before Trevor could finish the phone rang. He listened to the one-sided conversation and quickly discerned it was Nana Josephine, one of Clarice’s sisters. Trevor knew that meant this conversation could last a long time.
Clarice didn’t notice the boy scrape most of his food into the garbage can before putting his empty plate in the dishwasher. Trevor retreated to the living room where he stared out the massive picture window until it grew too dark to see. When he disappeared upstairs Clarice thought Trevor was doing his homework. But homework was the last concern Trevor had that night. With the images from the television still vivid in his mind, along with Peter Jennings saying, “And it is estimated that close to three hundred firefighters are still missing after being caught inside the Twin Towers when they collapsed. Though firefighters and other rescue workers haven’t given up hope at finding the men alive, with each hour that passes hope grows a little dimmer,” Trevor retreated to his father’s room. He curled up on the big bed, clinging to Johnny’s pillows while he cried.
Johnny arrived home shortly before eight that evening. When he asked Clarice where Trevor was she said, “Upstairs doing his homework. Your supper is in the oven, John.”
“Thanks. Sorry I’m late.”
“That’s okay.” The woman bustled around the kitchen, grabbing her purse, jacket, and a manila folder. She had an eight o’clock meeting at the Methodist Church. Because of her job for the town’s fire chief, Clarice sometimes missed events she had planned to attend due to a call he was on, or some other occurrence that held John up at the station. But since John was home now, Clarice could leave.
“Tell Trevor I said good-bye.”
Johnny smiled as he watched the woman hurry from the house with her purse under one arm and a folder of church materials under another. He was glad he’d gotten home in time for Clarice to make her meeting. God knew she’d missed enough meetings over the years because of his schedule.
The fire chief hung up his jacket in the laundry room closet then bent to unlace and remove his boots. He placed the boots on the closet floor then opened the door that led into the vast, homey kitchen. He walked through the kitchen and into the great room. He climbed the stairs to the upper floor calling, “Trev!” as he went.
Johnny paused when he came to the landing. Trevor’s bedroom was dark, as was the bathroom. The hallway light was off as well; meaning Trevor’s study nook was dark.
He can’t very well be doing homework in the dark. And he never goes to bed before eight-thirty on a school night unless he’s sick.
“Trevor?” Johnny questioned as he flipped his son’s light on. The room was empty, the bed still neatly made.
Johnny flipped on the hall light. Panic hadn’t started to set in yet. Like a typical boy, his nine year old sometimes liked to hide and jump out at him with a loud, “Boo!”
“Trev? Trevor, where are you?”
Johnny paused a moment to listen. It was then that he heard what sounded like muffled sobs.
The man followed the sobs to his bedroom. He turned on a bedside lamp just as Trevor was sitting up. The boy swiped an arm across his eyes as his father sat down beside him.
“Trev, what’s wrong?”
“Noth. . .nothing.”
“It doesn’t look like nothing.” Johnny reached out and used his thumbs to wipe the remaining tears from Trevor’s face. He brushed the boy’s bangs away from his eyes then plucked a Kleenex from the box on the nightstand.
“Here. Use this to wipe your nose.”
Trevor did as his father instructed, then leaned over to toss the tissue in a small garbage can.
“Now do you wanna tell me what’s wrong?”
“I guess. . .” Trevor dropped his eyes to the bed. His wet lashes gleamed in the dim light. “I guess I got kinda scared.”
“Scared of what?”
“I. . .it’s stupid, Papa. Never mind.”
“It’s not stupid if it’s scaring you so much it makes you cry.”
“I shouldn’t cry. I’m nine now, you know.”
“I know. But just because you’re nine doesn’t mean you can’t cry if something scares you.”
Trevor thought about Johnny’s statement a moment then looked at his father.
“Papa, Evan Crammer scared you, didn’t he?”
“He sure did.”
“Did he ever scare you so much that you cried?”
Johnny slowly nodded. This wasn’t something he’d ever confessed to anyone, but for whatever reason it seemed important to do so now. For whatever reason Trevor needed to know that yes, grown men do cry.
“I cried the first time I encountered Evan Crammer many years ago when Jennifer was a little girl. There came a moment when I thought I wouldn’t be able to protect Jennifer from him because of my injuries, and that frightened me.”
“Did crying help you not feel afraid anymore?”
“No, I guess it didn’t.”
“How did it make you feel?”
“At the time, pretty hollow inside. Very alone.”
“That’s how I feel, Papa. Hollow. Like there’s nothing inside me anymore.”
Johnny took his pillows out from beneath the quilted bedspread and propped them against the headboard. He reclined against the pillows then pulled Trevor to his chest. He wrapped his arms around the boy.
“Why do you feel hollow, kiddo?”
“I saw on the news that three hundred firefighters are trapped in those buildings, Papa. In the World Trade Center. You didn’t tell me it was the World Trade Center those planes flew into.”
“No, I didn’t. I’m sorry. I didn’t think you needed to know that right now.”
“Papa, I woulda noticed they were gone the next time I was in New York to see Mom.”
Johnny smiled. “Yes, I guess you would have.”
“How come the firefighters didn’t get out before the buildings fell down?”
“Because they were helping people. They were on the upper floors trying to get people evacuated. They didn’t have time to get out, son.”
Trevor nodded against his father’s chest. He turned on his side and hugged Johnny.
“Papa, I don’t want you to be a firefighter anymore.”
“Well then, how am I going to earn money so we can pay our bills, and buy groceries, and so someday you can go to college?”
“I’ve been thinking about that. You could open a pizza parlor and a candy store, Pops.”
“A pizza parlor and a candy store? Now why would I want to do that?”
“Because everyone loves pizza and candy. It’s sure to make a lot of money, don’t you think?”
“Not unless all my customers plan on eating Tombstone Pizza.”
Trevor had to admit that was the one small part of his plan he hadn’t figured out yet. His father wasn’t a very good cook, so homemade pizza like you get in a real pizza parlor was probably out of the question.
“Maybe Aunt Joanne could come live with us and be the cook. She makes good food.”
“She does,” Johnny agreed. “But I have a feeling your Uncle Roy would object to Aunt Joanne coming to live with us and leaving him behind in L.A.”
“He can come, too. He could. . .Uncle Roy could stock the shelves with candy.”
Johnny laughed. “I’ll have to throw that offer out to your Uncle Roy just to see what he says.”
“You don’t think he’ll go for it, huh?”
“I rather doubt it. Your Uncle Roy is happy being the paramedic instructor for the fire department. I don’t think he’ll want to move to Eagle Harbor.”
“Could a building fall on Uncle Roy?”
“No, Trevor, a building can’t fall on Uncle Roy. Uncle Roy doesn’t go out on calls. He’s a teacher now. He hasn’t been on active duty for more than five years.”
“But. . .but,” Trevor sniffled as his tears started again. “But you’re on active duty. A building. . .a building could fall on you, Papa.”
“No it can’t, Trev.”
“Yes it can.” Trevor started crying harder as he buried his face in his father’s chest. “It can. I know it can. All those firefighters. . .they’re all dead, Papa. I know they are. Their kids. . .their kids are waiting for them to come home, only they won’t. They’ll never come home again, Papa. Never.”
Johnny hugged his son tightly. He didn’t shush the boy, nor did Johnny tell him to stop crying. Instead he encouraged Trevor to let out his fears and his grief. The fears and grief an entire nation was feeling this week, and like a nine-year-old boy, was having a difficult time putting a voice to.
When Trevor’s sobs began to abate Johnny reached to his right and plucked another Kleenex from the box. He lifted Trevor’s chin and wiped the boy’s face. He encouraged him to blow his nose, then threw the Kleenex away.
“Trev, there’s some things I really need you to understand, and to believe. Can you listen hard now to what I have to say?”
“O. . .okay.”
Johnny ran a hand through his son’s shaggy hair as he spoke.
“First of all, the chances of a building collapsing on me are very slim. We talked about this on Tuesday. Eagle Harbor is a small town in Alaska, Trevor, not a big city in New York State. Terrorists target areas where a lot of people are gathered so they can do the most amount of destruction, and where they know instant TV coverage is a given. Do you know how long it would take Peter Jennings to get to Eagle Harbor?”
“A while I guess.”
“Exactly. No terrorist would be interested in this town. But that doesn’t mean you have to be afraid the next time you visit your mom. The FBI and other law enforcement officers are working very hard right now to bring anyone involved with the terrorists to justice. And, our government is working hard to come up with ways to make everyone safer, regardless of where a person lives.”
“But the clinic has three stories, Papa. It could fall on you.”
“And just how would that happen?”
“A terrorist could hijack one of Gus’s planes and fly it into the clinic.”
“Trev, trust me. That’s not going to happen.”
“But it could.”
“Anything can happen, son, but the odds of a terrorist hijacking one of Gus’s planes and flying it anywhere, let alone into the clinic, is slim to none.”
“Sometimes buildings fall ‘cause of a fire. Or ‘cause they’re not built as good as they should be.”
“Sometimes they do,” Johnny agreed. “But again, I don’t believe that will happen to any buildings here in Eagle Harbor.”
“Some of the buildings are really old, Papa. One hundred years old, Clarice says. Maybe they’re not safe and you don’t know it.”
“I do fire inspections of those buildings on a regular basis. I feel confident they’re safe.”
Trevor glanced up from where his head still rested against Johnny’s chest. “You’re sure?”
“But what if there’s a fire?”
“Then it’s my job to assist with putting it out.”
“But what if you’re in a building that’s on fire and it collapses?”
“Then we’ve come to the next thing I need to tell you, and that you need to understand.”
“Trevor, I’m a very lucky man because I love what I do for a living. Not every man can say that. Some men work forty years at a job they hate just to earn a paycheck. I’ve worked thirty-three years at a job I enjoy and am good at. If I die fighting a fire you always have to remember two things.”
“What two things?”
“That I died doing a job I loved. That I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, and how far I’ve come, since the first day I started working at Station 8 back in L.A. when I was just twenty-one years old. I know that might be hard for you to understand right now, but someday, when you’re a grown man, it will make sense to you.”
“Is that why you want me to go to college? So I can pick out a job I’ll love to do?”
“That’s exactly why I want you to go to college.”
“But what if I want to be a firefighter and paramedic just like you, Papa?”
“Then I’ll support that choice after you’ve attended college and earned a degree.”
Trevor nodded. They’d had this discussion several times in the past year. Trevor was well aware college attendance was something his papa expected of him.
“You said you had two things to tell me, Papa. What’s the other one?”
“That I love you more than I can voice, and that even after my body is no longer here, my spirit will always remain with you.”
“But I thought a person’s spirit went to Heaven after he dies.”
“It does. But I think a person’s spirit also lives on inside the hearts of the people he loves. Does that make sense?”
“I think so. It’s like when I think of Pacachu. I remember sitting on his lap and hearing his stories, and that makes me smile.”
Johnny nodded at the reference to his grandfather. The man had died when Trevor was five, but the boy had some memories of him and spoke of him on occasion.
“It’s just like that, Trev.”
“But I don’t want you to die, Papa.”
“And I don’t plan on doing so anytime soon. But it’s important that you understand all the firefighters who lost their lives in New York on Tuesday were, above all else, doing their jobs, Trevor. They couldn’t turn back because they were afraid, or because they had children at home waiting for them. They might have wanted to turn back, but people needed to be rescued and the firefighters wanted to help those people worse than they wanted to protect themselves. That’s what a firefighter does. That’s the kind of man he is.”
“Have you cried for the firefighters, Papa?”
“Yes, Trevor, I have. I’ve cried deep inside my heart many times for them since Tuesday.”
“I’ve cried, too, Papa. I cried tonight until my stomach hurt ‘cause I was scared for you, and for the firefighters in New York, and for all the kids whose papas will never come home again. It makes me so sad.”
“I know it does, son.” Johnny kissed his boy’s forehead while saying softly, “I know it does. It makes me sad, too.”
“So sad that you cry in your heart like you said?”
“Yes. So sad that I cry in my heart.”
“Is that where a firefighter keeps his tears, Papa?”
Trevor laid his hand on the left side of Johnny’s chest. “Here, Papa. Is this where a firefighter keeps his tears so no one sees them running down his face?”
Johnny gave a slow, thoughtful nod.
“Yes, Trev. At times like these, that’s where a firefighter keeps his tears.”
Trevor snuggled deeper into Johnny’s chest. He remained safe and warm in his father’s embrace long after he fell asleep. Johnny knew he should carry the boy to his own bed, but then he thought of all the children who would never know the warmth and security of a father’s hug again. It made him hold onto his boy tighter, and made him thank God for this simple moment that meant more than any words could describe.
On Friday the students of Eagle Harbor Elementary School gathered around the flagpole on the playground to observe a minute of silence. It was, as President Bush had declared, a national day of prayer and remembrance.
Trevor already had his head bowed and his eyes closed when he felt someone take his hand. He looked up to see his father standing next to him. Other firefighters and police officers had walked over to the school from the station with John Gage. They stood amongst the children now, their presence letting the kids know how much their support and prayers meant to every man and woman wearing a uniform. Regardless of whether that uniform signified service to a small community like Eagle Harbor, service to a big state like Alaska, or service to a vast military organization like the Marine Corps.
The stars and stripes, and the flag of Alaska, both flew at half mast from the school yard pole, just like flags across the nation were flying at half mast. As a light wind filled with a nip of autumn gently billowed the flags from their perch, the principal asked the students to bow their heads and observe a minute of silence in honor of all the men, women, and children who had lost their lives as a result of Tuesday’s tragedies. Johnny squeezed Trevor’s hand as together they bowed their heads and closed their eyes. When that minute of silent prayer and reflection had passed, the seventh and eighth grade choir led everyone in singing God Bless America. Johnny saw a lot of teachers wipe their eyes, and spotted a good number of his employees crying as well. Carl had turned away and was looking toward the road, but Johnny had no doubt as to why. The big bear-like police chief, and veteran of the Vietnam War, didn’t want anyone to see his tears.
When the singing came to an end Trevor released his father’s hand. Johnny watched as his son stepped through the crowd and went to stand by his teacher. Mrs. Harper had carried a small wooden box outside, like the kind a child might stand on in order to make himself seen over a podium. Trevor climbed on the box without hesitation, as though something had been prearranged between himself and the woman.
Mrs. Harper looked out at the crowd as she spoke.
“We didn’t expect anyone to gather with us today other than faculty and students, but we’re honored that so many of you who serve our town so bravely have joined us. This week has been a difficult one for all of us, and most especially for the children who are trying so hard to understand why innocent people lost their lives in senseless acts of violence even we grownups can’t explain. I’ve wiped a lot of tears from the faces of my students, while trying to offer words of reassurance.
“This morning I decided it was time to put away books, and rulers, and assignment sheets, to instead have my class of fourth graders express how they’ve been feeling in whatever form they desired. Some of my students drew pictures of images they’ve seen on television. Two of my students are in the process of creating a Website that will pay tribute to those who died. Some of my students wrote poems, while others are working together to compose a song about that sad day. Trevor Gage wrote a letter this morning. It moved me so much that I asked Trevor if he’d be willing to share his letter at our gathering here around the flagpole. As most of you who know Trevor are aware, one can hardly call him shy, and public speaking is not a cause for concern on his part.”
The adults in the crowd chuckled, and Johnny felt Carl jostle him with an elbow as if to say, “Like father, like son.”
“Despite that,” Mrs. Harper said when everyone had quieted again, “I know reading this letter won’t be easy for Trevor. It’s never easy to share your work with the public when that work comes from your heart.”
Mrs. Harper smiled at her young student while handing him the paper he’d given her just an hour earlier.
“Trevor. Whenever you’re ready.”
Trevor looked from his sheet of white paper to his father, then back to his paper again. He’d never considered that Mrs. Harper might be impressed with what he wrote. After all, a few words on a piece of paper didn’t display talent in the same way designing a Website did. Nor was it impressive in the way painting the American flag on a classroom wall was like Rebecca LaForge had done. Trevor wasn’t sure anyone would even like what he wrote. Maybe they’d even boo him and throw tomatoes at him like he’d seen happen on TV shows. But then Trevor looked at his father again. He saw Papa’s smile, and the ‘thumbs up’ sign that was a special thing just between the two of them, and was Papa’s way of saying, “Everything’s okay. I’m right here if you need me.”
The wind ruffled Trevor’s hair as he stood on the makeshift stage wearing his denim jacket with a red, white, and blue ribbon pinned to the front. The art teacher had made the ribbons and passed them out when the students were exiting the building for the noon ceremony.
Trevor felt Mrs. Harper briefly place an encouraging hand on his back, and heard her quiet, “Go ahead, Trevor. You can start now.”
Trevor took a deep internal breath and willed his knees to stop shaking. In a voice stronger than he thought he possessed, he started to read.
“My papa told me bad men hijacked planes and flew them into buildings on Tuesday. I don’t understand why you let the bad men do this. Couldn’t you stop them? Or were they so bad they wouldn’t even listen to you?
“Papa said those men were trying to make a statement. They don’t like the good things we have here in America like pizza, and Nintendo, and M&M’s, and lots of TV channels. They want to take those good things away from us. But Papa says being an American has nothing to do with how tall our buildings are, or where our military people go to work. Being an American is about freedom. It’s about the right to choose what is best for each one of us. It’s about the right to go to whatever church we want to, or the right to not go to church at all. Being an American is about coming together as a family to rebuild what was destroyed, and it means coming together to fight in order to keep our country safe and free. Because of what the hijackers did, America is a close family again. I don’t think the hijackers expected that, God.
“I was very sad when I heard people in those planes died and people in the buildings died, too. I didn’t know the buildings the planes hit in New York were the World Trade Center until I saw it on the TV news. Papa never told me. I’ve been in the World Trade Center with my mom and Franklin. Franklin bought me lunch there once in a restaurant called Window on the World that was on the one hundred and seventh floor. Franklin didn’t even mind when I threw my cheeseburger up on his shoes ‘cause heights make me dizzy. I didn’t know heights made me dizzy until I was looking all the way down, down, down to the ground. That’s when I barfed on Franklin.
“I heard Peter Jennings say three hundred firefighters are missing because the buildings fell on top of them. That really scared me, God, because my papa is a firefighter, too. He has been for years and years. He’s kinda old now, but he can still run fast and haul hoses. That’s important stuff to be able to do when you’re a firefighter. Papa was late getting home on Thursday night and I cried because I thought maybe a building had fallen on him, too. Buildings in Eagle Harbor, where I live, aren’t very tall, but still, I don’t want one to fall on Papa. Papa said he doesn’t think that will ever happen, but I’m still worried. Please don’t let a building fall on Papa, God.
“Papa is sad, too, because so many firefighters died. He doesn’t know any of them like he knows Uncle Roy and Crazy Kenny, but it still makes him feel bad that those firefighters are dead. Are they with you in Heaven, God? I hope so. They were good men and women. I didn’t know them either, but I’m sure they were.
“I asked Papa if he’d cried for the missing firefighters. He said he cried deep in his heart. Papa says that’s where a firefighter keeps his tears so no one sees them running down his face. That doesn’t mean Papa thinks a man shouldn’t cry, God. It just means he knows firefighters have to be brave for everyone else. You have a big job to do just like the firefighters, God. Do you keep your tears in your heart, too? If you do, then I bet this week your heart is so full it wants to burst. That’s how all our hearts have felt since Tuesday. Heavy, and full, and ready to break from the tears we cry inside.
“Even though Papa says a building will never fall on him, and terrorists will never come to Eagle Harbor and hijack one of Gus’s planes, I still worry about it. Please watch out for Papa and all the firefighters here in Eagle Harbor. Even Crazy Kenny who Papa says is half nuts, and the other half insane. Crying in your heart hurts just as much as crying real tears. I know, because I’ve done both this week. Please don’t make us cry anymore, God. America has cried enough, and it’s hard for me to think of where a firefighter always has to keep his tears. Sometimes firefighters just need to be able to cry like the rest of us.
“Sincerely, Trevor Gage.”
John Gage’s tears weren’t kept in his heart that afternoon, nor did he turn away to hide them from anyone who might be watching. He allowed them to run unhindered down his face as he knelt to hug his son.
“How come you’re crying, Papa?” Trevor asked when he stood back from his father’s embrace.
“Because a firefighter shouldn’t always hide his tears, Trev. Because sometimes people should see a firefighter cry for the brothers he’s lost.”
Trevor nodded his understanding. He hoped God was listening when he’d read his letter. And he hoped God was watching now as the firefighters who were gathered around the flagpole cried silent tears for the colleagues in New York they’d never met, but for whom they now mourned.
It was Trevor who took his father by the hand this time in order to offer strength. Together they walked into Eagle Harbor Elementary School, the American flag behind them flying forlornly at half-mast, but waiting. Always waiting until she was fully raised once again, as she most certainly would be, to fly proudly over the country she loved.
Papa, Trevor, and the Flag.
*Sketch of Papa, Trevor, and the Flag by Ria. Please click on Ria’s name if you’d like to send her feedback regarding her beautiful sketch.
*Trevor Gage appears in two other stories in Kenda’s Emergency! Library. Dancing With The Devil and The Phantom And The Parselmouth.