Sixteen years after the planes struck, I found myself standing in the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, staring at twisted stalks of metal, what was left of the front half of Ladder 3’s truck. And I felt something I hadn’t since I was 12 years old during a family summer road trip. We stopped in Montana to tour the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Lt. Gen. George A. Custer made his infamous last stand against an overpowering band of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors in 1876. Arriving at the museum, we were surprised to see the parking lot filled with cars and dozens of people standing around and chatting in small circles. Then my mother saw the sign.
It was June 25th, the anniversary of the battle, and this was a celebration to commemorate it. A devastating loss for the U.S. Army. A remarkable victory for the Sioux and Cheyenne. My father ordered our family back into the car. The memorial, he said, wasn’t for us, and it was better if we left it for people who had a stronger connection to it.
I thought about his words earlier this year at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum as my tour group approached the main exhibit space. We could see the rest of the collection on our own, at our own pace, our guide told us. If we didn’t feel comfortable touring the rest on our own, we could go to the end of the exhibit and meet up with our group near the exit. I started to move in that direction, feeling much like that 12-year-old boy in the back of my family’s tan Buick; something stopped me. There were people in our group who had been there, or who had known someone who had been killed.
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And then something extraordinary happened: As I walked into the main exhibit space in bedrock, one of the people in our tour group started to talk to me about that day and what he remembered. What had it been like, I wondered; he didn’t seem to mind me asking questions. I was worried I was going to feel like I had stumbled into a stranger’s house and couldn’t find the door, but the person I tagged along with made me feel like an invited and honored guest. He seemed to want me to be there. He told me about the confusion of the early morning, the adrenaline rush of fleeing for safety, and the weight of the grief that hung over the city for years.
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I look back now on that sunny day in June at the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and I wonder what might have happened if my family had made an effort to connect with the people commemorating the Battle of Little Bighorn’s anniversary. I wonder now if we would have met someone there like the person I met in New York City, someone who could have told us about their ancestors and what they did and how they were affected. Perhaps my family could have walked away feeling as humbled and gracious as I did when I left the museum at Ground Zero.
Header image by Anna Hiatt