Thursday, September 15, 2011
You Will Know That I Am Gone
In the weeks before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, WNYC and WQXR, the local public radio stations, asked listeners what they wanted to hear as they thought about the attacks and the events that followed.
I meant to contact them and make my own suggestion. I kept telling myself to do it, seriously, dude, don’t forget to do this or you’ll be very sorry.
However, like a lot of others things in my life, I never got around to doing it.
I find this especially irritating given that one of the many important lessons that came out of 9/11 was that we should do things now and not put them off until later—because there may not be a later.
But I ignored that lesson and so on Sunday I listened to other people’s musical choices, while my own played only in my mind.
For the record, the song I wanted to hear was the old folk tune “500 Miles.” Credited to Hedy West and copyrighted in 1961, the song is a mournful ballad about a traveler who is broke, far from home, and ashamed to go back.
I always associate this song with Peter, Paul and Mary, since I grew up listening to their version of it. There’s something so haunting about Mary Travers’s voice that goes right through my heart every time I hear it.
The song has been recorded by scores of performers over the years, including Sonny & Cher, Jackie DeShannon, Bobby Bare, Elvis Presley, and, yes, even Jim Nabors, who sang it during an episode of Gomer Pyle that I somehow managed to miss.
The song is about loss and missed opportunities and the opening is deceptively powerful.
“If you miss the train I'm on, you will know that I am gone, you can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles…”
“500 Miles” has taken on a special meaning for me since 9/11. Shortly after the attacks, Goldman Sachs, my then-employer, relocated me and all of the other staffers who had been working at Liberty Plaza, which was across the street from the Trade Center, to its property on Water Street.
The change put a little distance between the ruins and me and got me one R train stop closer to home. I was also near Battery Park and I often went there during my lunch break.
A Walk in the Park
One day as I walked through the park I was shocked to see that The Sphere, the metallic sculpture that had once stood in the Trade Center’s plaza, had somehow survived the attacks and had been relocated to the park.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t think anything could have escaped the collapse of the towers, particularly a piece of artwork.
Created by German sculptor Fritz Koenig, The Sphere is 25 feet high and cast in 52 bronze segments.
It had been placed at the center of a ring of fountains designed by trade center architect Minoru Yamasaki to mimic the Grand Mosque of Mecca.
The Sphere stood at the place of the Kaaba, described as the most sacred site in Islam. And to think that it was all destroyed by Islamic extremists...
Six months after the attacks, the sculpture had been relocated to Battery Park and rededicated with an eternal flame.
As I stared at The Sphere, I could hear someone somewhere in the park playing “500 Miles” on the guitar. I didn’t look to see who it was; I don’t think I wanted to know. I just wanted this slow, somber tune to be the soundtrack for my discovery.
Of course the song was written decades before 9/11 and has absolutely nothing to do with the attacks, but the idea of losing someone, of knowing that they’re getting farther and farther away from you, seemed painfully appropriate in a city that had lost so many thousands of its people.
“Lord I'm one, Lord I'm two, Lord I'm three, Lord I'm four, Lord I'm 500 miles from my home.”
When I hear this song now I think about the victims’ friends and families who never got the chance to see their loved ones again.
“The artwork was meant to symbolize world peace through world trade,” according to Wikipedia.
We all know how well that worked out. But The Sphere still managed to survive that horrific day and, as the plaque near the sculpture says, it “endures as an icon of hope and the indestructible spirit of this country.”
The Sphere should serve as a reminder for us to keep striving for peace and to never let it slip away like a train leaving the station.