Hill of Beans

And I feel like a beetle on its back
And there’s no way for me to get up
Love’ll get you like a case of anthrax
And that’s something I don’t want to catch
— Gang of Four, “(Love Like) Anthrax,” 1978

Copyright 2011 Ben S. Pollock

JUST AFTER ELEVEN — Two hundred eighty-something million Americans had nothing on the few thousand people who sustained a direct loss in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Me among the majority.

Maybe 9/11 cost me the career as I was predicting it at the time. Maybe it cost my mom aspects of her last years. Maybe it cost me what my 40s could have been and can’t be reclaimed in my 50s. But also perhaps substantially everything that happened through yesterday, the 9/11 10th anniversary, might have happened through 2011 regardless.

Would the United States have been in one or two wars in the greater Arabian Peninsula googolplex in the last decade? Probably, but maybe not two at once. Would the U.S. economy gone up and down 1 1/2 to 2 times? Sure, a lot can happen in 10 years.

Nearly 3,000 civilians and responders died in those first hours, survivors are suffering long-term ailments from inhaling toxic dust from the smoldering wreckage. To consider the first 9/11 decade does not denigrate true responses to the assault.

Volunteer military personnal (there being no draft to make participation — even with deferments and exemptions — more democratic) have been killed in action in the Near East for actions rationalized by 9/11. We mustn’t forget their individual sacrifice, even as we are compelled to question what soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen were sent to do. Openly doubting current and past leaders is an expression of American freedom.

“Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.” — Death of a Salesman

On Monday, Sept. 10, 2001, My Beloved and I figured out details of how I would drive 50 miles to Fort Smith fairly early Tuesday.

Childhood home of Ben Pollock, far right
Childhood home of Ben Pollock, there on the far right with brown roof.

My mom, Joanne Mendel Pollock, was being discharged from St. Edward Mercy Medical Center and needed to get to her house, the family home since the mid-1950s. She’d had another serious emphysema episode and got intensive lung treatments and tests for a few days. This was the hospitalization that finally convinced her to move to assisted living.

Watching CNN and ABC delayed my leaving Tuesday morning. Maybe Mom should be put in a cab? A little checking put that option to rest. The National Guard was not closing the Interstate Highway System. I’d already gotten permission for a half day off; neither the executive editor nor the managing editor had a problem with me still using that personal time; deadlines were extended for attack coverage. My car had nearly a full tank. Mom said it was up to me.

She needed me. It’s good to be needed, to be useful, especially in a time of national crisis. The second plane had hit, but neither had collapsed when I backed out of the carport in Fayetteville, with NPR’s sober continuous coverage broadcast on KUAF.

This trip gave me the reporting used in my weekly column, to run the following Sunday. In it, the trip was only “family business.” Here’s what wasn’t in the piece:

  • Seeing the hospital staff, doctors to orderlies, craning their necks up at the ceiling-mounted TVs every chance they could.
  • The unusual quiet in the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market on Rogers Avenue, where Mom picked up medicines on the way home; the cashier was near tears and at the same time had the panicked eyes of a frightened pet.
  • Mom’s and my quiet talk about her plans for the week and who’d come check on her.

Helping Mom make the best choices for her had little to do with 9/11, outside of the need-writ-large lesson that delays in acknowledging the obvious actually hurt not help. Mom’s bludgeon was living independently would be impossible within months.

Outside of timing, what does 9/11 have to do with the last 2 1/2 years of her life, outside of being a calendar cue for me? She was 20 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, living in California when enemy sightings were claimed, with orders for civilians to head to shelters. In such times, one was forced to make hard decisions with no dithering. She told me of leaving her apartment with her driver’s license, lipstick and cigarettes.

Is that sad? Sure, the end of Mom’s vigor. But within six months we sold the house and moved her to an apartment 15 minutes away in Fayetteville, and the next two years had hundreds of hours of sharing with my mom.

“It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of … little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” — Casablanca

Also not in this columnist’s 9/11 piece was the office atmosphere as seen when I arrived around 1 p.m. All newsrooms have a Disaster Mode, and the one that Tuesday was little different from any other function-shift to that of covering massive natural or manmade disasters. Informing the public in depth, culling out rumors and narrow views, with immediacy, is what newspapers do in crises, with a reliability that no other medium yet manages.

I had just completed a year as editorial page editor for The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas. Writing duties were split with the executive editor, and we’d edit one another. Before I was promoted to the job in August 2000, from metro editor, for decades he had written nearly all editorials. He wanted that World Trade Center/Pentagon/Shanksville one, yes sir, and would complete it while coordinating overall coverage with the managing editor. That was fine with me, and I helped other editors that afternoon and evening.

When the executive editor gave it to me, I couldn’t get past his headline and lede paragraph. I don’t claim to remember it precisely, but this respected newsman of retirement age wrote to the effect that he had had it with all the Arabs and all the Muslims, he didn’t care which.

“We can’t run this,” I said.

“Why the hell not?” he said (and we never before dialogued with any heat in my near-three years with this paper).

The most reliable news sources, I said, reported the attacks very likely were organized by al-Qaida but cautioned confirmation would take a while.

“For all anyone knows tonight, this could be another Oklahoma City 1995 and Tim McVeigh,” I told my boss. White American yokels could fly planes as easily as drive tons of fertilizer downtown. He rewrote the editorial.

At the end of the week, he edited my Sunday column with essentially no changes. My 9/11 opinion was to question indirectly the role of Big Oil in the response that the U.S. would choose.

On Wednesday the 19th, the executive editor asked me to come in a half-hour early Thursday. At that time he sat me down in his office with the human resources director, and explained my job was being cut, and me along with it, along with three other staffers.

From all reliable reports, my layoff had been months in the planning and was directly a backtracking from a large expansion the year before, the one that made me editorialist. My duties reverted to the executive editor. He retired within months.

Sept. 20, 2001, began what turned out to be 30 months of unemployment. Six months later, IBM downsized My Beloved, and she ended up unemployed 30 months herself. In the interim I completed graduate school, taught undergrads, filled in writing editorials for the Northwest Arkansas Times and worked part time for my old employer, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Ten months after I received my master’s diploma, the Demzette was between hiring freezes, had an opening and put me on full time.

Outside of timing, what does 9/11 have to do with the modest millennial recession and the first months-long jolt in the decline of print media? I am not claiming, “me, too,” but 10 years out, let’s take a look. That’s all.

“We got a thousand points of light” — Neil Young, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” 1989

The small band of terrorists died in this cluster of suicide attacks. Their handlers were killed or incarcerated, along with thousands of innocents, past the first and second terms of George II. Osama bin Laden was killed May 1, 2011, in Pakistan, 2.5 years into the presidency of Barack Obama.

Al-Qaida’s main protectors, the Taliban, still control lots of Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. Yet, U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan after nearly 10 years.

U.S. troops remain in Iraq. George II used 9/11 to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein, neither country nor despot having anything to do with al-Qaida, and “weapons of mass destruction” a canard because George I took care of any a decade earlier, 1991. Washington leaves in power any number of brutal dictators, because they have economic and strategic use to our country, even when these men have taken American lives.

President Obama says like predecessors of both parties, diplomats and generals, that military withdrawals have to be gradual. One final lesson of Vietnam was that once the commander in chief calls it, retreat takes but weeks. Would a clear 1972 pullout have had similar results to the real one in 1975, aside from three years’ worth of Southeast Asia deaths (theirs and ours) and domestic tumult?

Maybe the reason for a stepped “regime change” is more about protecting U.S. interests. Further, perhaps there’s no better training for U.S. military personnel than real wars, especially in this time of what to us are unconventional enemy tactics. Perhaps the Pentagon finds this unsimulated, non-games of war is worth the cost of a relatively small number of lives of young American patriots in uniform.

Economic recessions come and recessions go, well they don’t go away fast, but for 10 years the United States seems to have prepared for the next 9/11.

Personally, I’m rehearsed and ready: I often remind my family that I love them. And my resume stands ready to ship out.

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One thought on “Hill of Beans

  1. Yet it’s the problems of … little people that resonate with us and teach the great lessons. You pick yourself and your loved ones up and carry on as best you can. You check your sources and make sure you’re fighting the right enemy, because we’re all flawed.

    Isolationism doesn’t work, and yet often walking away is the best thing to do. As citizens of the world, we should always be on the lookout — in the most unexpected places with the most unexpected companions — for the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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