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'My Heart is at Half Staff'
Last uploaded : Sunday 19th Sep 2004 at 04:51
Contributed by : The Editor


I have spent the past ten days in Washington DC. It is my first visit to the United States in many years and I wanted to share with our readers some of my impressions.

One of the stark differences that strikes the visitor from London is the warmth and dedication of American workers. Our flight was hair-raising: we had to land when a cluster of tornadoes was spinning around Washington and I was shaken and frazzled upon arrival. Having left Heathrow without the ?Passenger Assist? I had requested in advance (?I don?t know nothing about it? said the irritated airport attendant) I was greeted in the USA by a smartly-dressed and efficient Passenger Escort before I had even left the aircraft. In the terminal building she ordered a congenial worker to find a trolley for me and then snapped at the Immigration queue, ?This lady is my Passenger Assist; let her go first!?

Having been warned by various people in Britain that ?US immigration is like a Gestapo interrogation? I was blown away by the graciousness of the officer. Then came my first ?moment.? As the cheerful attendant wheeled me and my luggage into the Customs Hall, a huge American flag greeted me, hanging on the wall. I gave a thumbs up to the Customs officers and got three huge smiles in return. How can one explain to my constantly whingeing friends at home in the UK the feeling one has when one sees the Stars and Stripes? Frankly, I am angry that seniors have to scramble around to afford their medications and that the American working public must suffer angst over health insurance costs, whilst in the UK the erstwhile -- and I think magnificent -- National Health Service looks after everyone from cradle to grave. But at the moment when the wheelie turned that corner into the Customs Hall, as exhausted and disoriented as I felt, I was as moved as my grandparents must have been arriving at Ellis Island.

An even more congenial taxi driver welcomed me to Washington, his wide smile a bright contrast to the horrendous weather. I asked him where he was from and his smile disappeared. The years in Britain have dimmed my sensibilities about the immigrant experience; ?I am American,? he asserted with consternation, and I changed the subject. As the car sped along the motorway in torrential rain and tornado-strength winds, the Kennedy Centre loomed up in the mist. Turning into the leafy Kalorama neighbourhood where I was booked to stay, the quaint Stop signs and street lights conjuring up memories of my childhood, I had my Dorothy in Oz moment: I felt I was ?home at last.?

Notwithstanding the surly, sullen Windsor Park Hotel staff (not, I hasten to add, typical Washingtonians but employed to deal with the visitors from the neighbouring embassies) I have had a magical week in the nation?s capital. From post office employees to cashiers in the pharmacy; from restaurant waiters to supermarket shelf-packers this country is a marvel. The warmth and kindness exuded by Americans is infectious. Over the past few days I have begun to shed my brittle London irritability and learn to smile a lot. People smile back over here.

This brings me to the ?tachlis? or guts of my story: last Friday I was given a tour of the Pentagon by the charming and forthcoming Press Officer, Glenn Flood. It was the day before September 11th, 2004 and one could feel the wounds opening again as the personnel passed us by. I was shown the spot where the aircraft had made its impact, killing nearly 200 people, many of them contractors working on a renovation. The majority of those slain had been familiar faces to Glenn for years and one could sense his raw grief, even three years on. One wing of the Pentagon has long corridors covered in tapestries and quilts adorned with woven messages sent in after September 11, 2001 by people from all over the country. One said, ?My heart is at half staff.?

It was a sentiment that stayed with me throughout my first weekend here: on Saturday 11 September 2004 I attended the Patriot Day service at Arlington National Cemetery at which Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld officiated. Five hundred mourners who had lost loved ones in the Pentagon and on Flight 77 were still bent double with grief. One woman who wore a Stars and Stripes blouse was inconsolable. She stood over the grave marker of her lost kin sobbing for what seemed an eternity. But what truly struck me to the depths of my soul was a hard-nosed wire service reporter standing next to me crying onto her notepad.

This week I have been taken around the region by a friend; everywhere we go we see well-groomed, beautifully behaved people of all ages and races. These are Americans. In this article I will not address the issues of the presidential election or the Iraq situation: what I do wish to address is the image I have garnered of the average working American. In ten days I have not heard a swear-word from anyone. In ten days I have had men opening doors for me and calling me ?ma?am? In ten days I have not had one foul word uttered to me by a cabbie, bus driver or motorist. I attended the residents? meeting of the Kalorama section of Washington and was treated to an endearing talk by the local police chief and by various local officials. The meeting went on for two and a half hours; the feeling of community was palpable.

Why am I waxing on this way? Before leaving a friend in London said,? Oh, you don?t want to go to that awful country full of those ghastly people.?

If I ever hear a Brit utter a derogatory word about Americans again I will not be responsible for my actions. Meanwhile, some 43,000 Native Americans are converging on Washington to celebrate the opening of the Indian Museum. They are setting up a tepee at the Pentagon in honour of the dead of 9/11. My heart is at half staff for all of the dead of the past three years and despite the awful events in Iraq I cannot deny feeling a tremendous sense of patriotism as I walk the streets of this blessed and generous nation.


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