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The men who tried to steal the sky

Saturday, September 15, 2001

On nights when the clouds are shy and the air is bold, I leave the cottage in Somerset, unfold a cot in the long grass out back and talk to the sky.

The adults in the family love Somerset for the mountains and the cool and fill the woods with laughter at happy hour. The children come to swim in the pond and catch the uncountable bluegill and a single bass we soon expect to greet us by name and request live bait.

Me, I come for the sky. It is a surprisingly convivial place on a clear night, with Venus peeking over the two giant stave oaks I have named Robin Hood and Maid Marian. Tiny, Earth-born dots of light glide across vast distances and I think about who might be aboard them, where they are going, what they are doing and if they are looking out their windows, unaware that a little man cocooned in a sleeping bag is thinking of them.

I can guess the airplanes and their destinations by altitude and trajectory. West-to-east, too high to make out the shape, says they are on a long journey. Lower, and headed west, and I imagine them in Pittsburgh in 15 minutes. Lower still, with chattering propellers and landing lights set at right angles, and I guess Johnstown or the local airport.

Lover of elsewhere that I have come to be, I watch the occasional meteorite and worry when the slightest wisp of vapor eats a slice of the moon. But, always, the airplanes, their distance, their trajectory, pulls me back into that ineffable connection that unites people who will never meet one another, whose human bond consists only of watching and being watched.

It is a strange and warm way to fall asleep, talking to an old friend when the old friend is the sky.

In an hour when the stars were hidden by the light of common day, a plane crossed that sky going west-to-east, too low, with no airport in sight to receive it.

Somewhere, as it passed over my house in Mt. Lebanon, 20 minutes away from the sky above the cabin in Somerset, passengers on United Flight 93 took a vote. We know this because some of them had taken out cell phones. They heard about other hijacked flights being taken into buildings full of people. Autonomous citizens, trapped in a metal frame 30,000 feet above me, took a vote and decided to fight.

Which ones charged first, we cannot know. Which ones made it to the controls, we cannot say. We cannot know, for now, who fell in combat and who simply fell with the plane.

We know that all of them were connected in some way. We know they fought.

I could never again have felt right lying out in that field at night thinking of victims transfixed helplessly in seats. I would have been staring helplessly into so much empty space and every shooting star a mockery.

But they fought.

They were -- they are:

Jason Dahl, Leroy Homer, Lorraine Bay, Sandra Bradshaw, Wanda Green, CeeCee Lyles, Deborah Welsh, Christian Adams, Todd Beamer, Alan Beaven, Mark Bingham, Deora Bodley, Marion Britton, Thomas E. Burnett Jr., William Cash-man, Georgine Corrigan, Joseph Deluca, Patrick Driscoll, Edward Felt, Colleen Fraser, Andrew Garcia, Jeremy Glick, Lauren Grandcolas, Donald F. Greene, Linda Gronlund, Richard Guadagno, Toshiya Kuge, Waleska Martinez, Nicole Miller, Mark Rothenberg, Christine Snyder, John Talignani and Honor Wainio.

I feel as if I should stand when I write their names. May they walk in a place they can breathe holy air. They gave me back my sky.

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