God Bless America

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It is only fitting that as we remember the 15th anniversary of the horrific attacks on our homeland on September 11, 2001, that we look to the words, intent and history of Irving Berlin’s classic song God Bless America. Originally written by Berlin in the summer of 1918 for a Vaudeville show, Berlin revised his original score in October 1938 as war was imminent in Europe and Kate Smith first performed this now classic on Armistice Day 1938. Consider the words of Berlin:

“God Bless America”

By Irving Berlin

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,

let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.

Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, as we

raise our voices in a solemn prayer.

God Bless America, land that I love.

Stand beside her and guide her

through the night with a light from above.

From the mountains, to the prairies,

To the oceans white with foam.

God Bless America, my home sweet home.

God Bless America, my home sweet home.

© Copyright 1938, 1939 by Irving Berlin

When most of us think of this song we only consider the second verse, a verse that we all learned in elementary school. Once you realize that there is a verse preceding the verse we all know and consider the somber vision it predicts, God Bless America takes on an entirely new meaning. Though the original version was written nearly 100 years ago and revised nearly 80 years ago this first verse holds a special meaning today.

Early that beautiful September morning 15 years ago today the peace we all knew was shattered. Planes flew into both of the Twin Towers sending them tumbling to the ground and sending thousands to their grave. A short time later another plane, that it is assumed was to target The White House, flew into the north side of the Pentagon and a final plane went down in a field in Pennsylvania after a group of brave American patriots refused to let the terrorist hijackers fly yet another plane into the U. S. Capitol Building. Having been at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Headquarters directly across the street from The White House at the time, the following reflections are of a life altering few days.

September 11, 2001

What started out as a bright, clear and crisp fall morning changed in an instant. The Mississippi Bankers Association was in Washington for their Annual Hill Vistits. Among the scheduled activities was breakfast with the Chairman of the FDIC. Donald E. Powell had been in his role as FDIC Chairman less than two weeks when he met with this group of bankers. The mood was light and jovial as Powell discussed issues dealing with bank regulation and took questions from the crowd. As the breakfast was breaking up a staff member approached Powell at the podium and whispered in his ear. The look on Powell’s face went from a relaxed man enjoying his new position to one of sheer shock and terror. About the same time as he announced that we needed to immediately evacuate the building the plane that hit the Pentagon hit the ground. From our vantage point on the top floor of the FDIC building we had a bird-eye view as the fireball rose over the massive building housing America’s military leadership. At this point we had just become aware that planes had hit the Twin Towers. Several things still stand out in my mind about that morning. First, there was an eerie calm that settled in over everyone. There did not seem to be any panic as we evacuated the building and walked back to our hotel. Though Powell had asked all of his visitors to leave the building he had his staff contact the employers of all at the breakfast and let the folks back home know that we were safe. Second, as we were walking back to our hotels cars were rapidly emptying parking decks and the streets were flooded with both people and cars. Even with the extreme conjestion there was a quiet that I will always remember. No honking horns, no screaming, just a sense that something terrible had happened and many questions about what would happen next. Anyone who has travelled to Washington, DC with any regularity knows that planes do not fly over DC and with the exception of Marine One absolutely no aircraft get anywhere near The White House. At this point three planes were down and there were reports that there was another plane somewhere northwest of DC headed towards the U. S. Capitol Building. The quiet just mentioned was suddenly shattered as four F-16 fighters, in battle formation, flew directly overhead (remember that we were directly across from The White House). Someone close by, while looking at the planes scream by heading northwest, remarked “the sound of freedom”. Little did any of us completely understand just how accurate that sentiment would be. As the day progressed it became evident that America was under attack but the immediate identity of the attackers was not clear. For over 12 years there had been military involvement in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Kuwait. Radical forces were on the radar of the military but no one really believed that the United States would ever be attacked at home. The world changed that day and we have not been the same since. The streets in DC rapidly emptied. Busy thoroughfares, such as Connecticut Avenue, could have been used for a street party without having to put up any barricade. Security at downtown hotels immediately increased with entrance to hotels being limited to only those who could show proper identification and justification for entering. Later in the day it became increasingly evident that the attacks had been the product of radical elements in the Middle East.

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Early Wednesday morning it became very evident that transportation out of DC would be virtually non-existent and what methods that were available would be very limited. Armed soldiers, standing at-the-ready, were stationed at every street corner for 2-3 blocks surrounding The White House. Tensions were very high as suspicions ran very high to anyone of Middle Eastern descent. A call to the Greyhound Bus Station was met with a response of “we are closed”. Upon being asked if they were closed why did they answer the phone the response was that one bus would be leaving the station heading south in 45 minutes. Not caring where it was headed other than out of DC a mad dash was made to the bus station. Exiting the hotel the Bellman helped summon a cab. Entering the cab the first thing I noticed was that the cab driver was wearing a turbine. Wanting to get to the bus station as quickly as possible I stayed in the cab but silently prayed that his cab would not have a backfire. When we reached the bus station and I inquired how much the fare was the cab driver said “You owe me nothing – I just want to do something to help”. I felt so very ashamed of myself. With 10 minutes to spare before the bus departed I purchased a ticket to Montgomery. As luck would have it the bus was headed to Charlotte, NC. Connections from there would be easy to get home. With all that was happening around us there were about 10 folks that boarded that bus and headed south. As we passed the Pentagon the acrid odor of jet fuel and burned wires filled the air. Not a sound was made as we started our journey.

I had not asked if this was a direct bus to Charlotte but took the ticket and assumed we would get south as quickly as possible. As we made our way into Fredericksburg the bus turned west and out through the Virginia countryside. It was if God wanted us to understand, and appreciate, just exactly what was at risk after the attacks of the day before. As we made our way through Charlottesville, Lexington, Lynchburg and Danville memories of American history came flooding back into my memory. We were travelling through areas that our forefathers had fought on during the American Revolution. Men and boys had given their lives so that we might have a free land in which to live. Seeing where our country began, and thinking about what had happened just more than 24 hours earlier was a very humbling experience. What would normally have been a five or six hour trip to Charlotte took nearly 12 hours. In Charlotte we took a break for dinner, the bus refueled and when it was time to head to Atlanta those who had been on the bus from Washington were allowed to board before the new passengers. I had left in such a hurry I had time only to throw my things into a suitcase and get out of the hotel. I was hot and tired. I was feeling somewhat sorry for myself HAVING to ride a bus rather that enjoy the comfort a short two hour flight from Washington to Atlanta. Then something happened that hit me squarely between the eyes. A young Hispanic man boarded the bus. He was well dressed and carrying his clothes – not in a suitcase but in a single Wal-Mart plastic bag. He was not complaining. He did not appear to feel sorry for himself. I realized at that moment that we all have much to be thankful for, our families, our health, our freedom. I also reflected on those who the day before had so unexpectedly lost their lives in a senseless act of terrorism. The ride from Charlotte to Atlanta was one of great reflection.

Thursday, September 13, 2001

After a layover in Atlanta we changed buses and were heading to Montgomery. Anyone who has ever travelled along I-85 South and passed the Atlanta Airport at night knows how bright and busy the airport always is. As we made the trip that early September morning we passed what could have been described as a black hole. No lights were on. There was no activity. It was if the Atlanta Airport had disappeared. Once again we were reminded of how our lives had changed in an instant. About 3:30am that morning we arrived at the bus station in Montgomery and I was picked up by a friend and taken to my home. That Thursday was a day of rest and reflection. A day of giving thanks for a wife and family that love me. A day of thanks for the freedom we enjoy to express our individual beliefs without fear of imprisonment. Thanks for the men and women who sacrifice and serve to make our lives better. A day to thank God to be alive.

Friday, September 14, 2001

I left Montgomery early that morning heading to Birmingham for a Staff Meeting with my employer. As I came over Red Mountain into downtown Birmingham that morning I was listening to the radio in the car. As you come into downtown Birmingham one of the first sites you see is the Vulcan Statue. Vulcan, a tribute to the steel industry in Birmingham years ago is also a symbol of strength. Strength was something we all needed after the events earlier in the week. Just as I spotted the Vulcan Statue the Ray Charles version of America the Beautiful started to play. To say that it was an emotional moment would be a great understatement but it was a fitting way to culminate a very emotional week.

In Reflection

All too often we tend to take our freedom for granted. We might not stop to say thank you to the men and women who serve us in the military, or as first responders or as medical professionals. We tend to take for granted that our friends and family will be there when we get home not thinking about the fact that they could be gone in the twinkling of an eye. We take for granted the form of government we have, as dysfunctional as it might be from time-to-time, which makes us safe and secure and free. We take for granted the precious right we have to elect those who govern us. As we remember those lost on September 11, 2001, 15 years ago today, let us also remember those who are away from home who are protecting us and our precious rights. The next time you run into someone who serves as a first responder, serves in the military or is taking care of us in the medical field please take a moment and say thank you.

In closing, look back to the words of the song God Bless America in the first, oft ignored verse, which sets the precedent for that prayer of Irving Berlin, GOD BLESS AMERICA.

The Alabama House will reconvene in Regular Session at Noon on Tuesday, February 7, 2017
The Alabama Senate will reconvene in Regular Session at Noon on Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The views and opinions contained in this report do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the clients of Public Strategies, LLC.