There is a line in a Jerry Herman song called “It’s Today” that has been replaying in my heart all week.
“It’s Today” is from the Broadway musical Mame. The song is sung by a woman who is throwing a party without having any real reason to celebrate. The line goes:
“Though it may not be anyone’s birthday, and though it’s far from the first of the year, I know that this very minute has history in it – we’re here!”
This very minute has history in it. A week ago, on Sunday, May 1st, 2011, I was sitting in the Orchestra of Broadway’s Longacre Theater, enjoying the last performance of another Jerry Herman show, La Cage aux Folles, which was playing its closing performance. It’s usually not too easy to enjoy a closing. The actors often break down in tears and so do the diehard fans who all hate to see a show they love play for the last time. The La Cage cast was amazing, though: if they wanted to cry, most of them held it in and gave one of the best closing performances I’ve every seen, upbeat and joyous. That particular cast, it should be noted, was amazing all the way through their run. That they gave an amazing closing performance, too, was in synch with just how fabulous they all are.
So where was I on the minute that had history in it on May 1, 2011? At the very moment when Navy Seal Team 6 was making their surprise landing atop Osama Bin Laden’s million buck hidey-hole, I was watching one of the finest ensemble casts Broadway has ever assembled. I would estimate that the Navy Seals landed just about when A.J. Shively began to sing “With Anne on My Arm,” about the girl his character wants to marry, or perhaps when Christopher Sieber and Harvey Fierstein sang the next number, “With You on My Arm.” Both songs are two of my all-time Broadway favorites.
If you have to be clueless while history is in the making on the other side of the world, I cannot think of a better way to have spent such a historic moment.
On September 11, 2001, I arrived at my old job and received the news, while still in the elevator, that a “small plane,” or so it was said, had crashed into the World Trade Center. I worked on the 28th floor of a skyscraper and assembled with other employees at the window. Something was wrong, I felt, with the way the fire was burning in the affected tower, and I said so aloud. There were streams of flames coming from several stories above and several stories below the crash area, six streams in all. It didn’t seem right, somehow, for a small plane to have caused pockets of fire to emerge from so many stories of the building. Something was weird, off about it. “I’m no forensic expert on fires,” I remember saying, “but something’s really wrong with this one.” Right after I said it, we all found out why. Another plane hit the second tower. This one, we could see, was a jet, and that’s when we knew the first one had not been a small plane or an accident, either. It was a terrorist attack, deliberate and lethal.
That day changed the New Yorkers who were there forever. My worst moment came after my building had been evacuated. I went out on the street with no way to get home because New York was in “lockdown mode,” the bridges and tunnels were closed, the buses and subways had been stopped, and the TV had said eight planes were unaccounted for and probably “incoming,” maybe headed for more high-profile buildings. All of the planes over American airspace had been grounded, except for those eight. Out on the street under these unprecedented conditions, two loud planes could be heard overhead. People began to scream. I wondered what would be better: to try and take cover by a car or in a doorway? In a split second I decided that the doorway was my best bet. Cars had gasoline and that could explode; doorways didn’t. Welcome to the new world of targets and terror.
I braced myself for the plane attack that was surely coming if all the planes had been grounded and these two were somehow overhead.
Then I saw them, as did the rest of the screaming people on the street: not missiles of hijacked destruction at all but two beautiful F16’s, there to defend us from any further attacks. Everyone’s screams turned to cheers. Our military had arrived, and we were all safe, though to this day I can still jump several feet in the air if I hear too loud and unexpected a noise and am reminded of those first moments of panic.
The idea that the mastermind of this attack somehow never got caught made me feel like we were all living through a particularly bad movie. Bin Laden would periodically issue videos of himself to the media, taunting Americans further. That made it seem even more like we were all trapped in a wretched film. I was always reminded of The Joker in the Bat Man movie, taking over TV air time with his crazed pontificating.
It’s particularly delicious to note that it was the courier who delivered those videos to the media that brought about Bin Laden’s eventual downfall. That tracking down the messenger led to the man who created the message.
I wish it were possible to know which of our armed forces members comprised Navy Seal Team 6. I understand that keeping their identities under wraps is probably for their own protection and to prevent reprisals, but for how long will they really remain incognito? Sooner or later, we’ll all find out who they were. It would be so much nicer to know their names already so that we could thank them. While I was happily watching a beloved show, they were flying into the compound of Public Enemy Number One. They didn’t know what they would find. They didn’t even know if they would come out of the ugly modified fortress alive – yet in they went.
In some ways I wish they had been able to bring Bin Laden out alive so that he could have been put on trial for what he did to us. Yet that was not to be.
Someday I hope we New Yorkers will be able to give these brave team members a ticker tape parade, a celebration to show our pride in them in the same area of Manhattan that, nearly ten years ago, was hit so hard – on an achingly beautiful day – with such terror. In the meantime, thank you, Navy Seal Team 6! Thank you for going where nobody in their right mind would ever want to voluntarily tread. Thank you for giving us some closure. Thank you for the fact that red, white and blue lights now victoriously adorn the half-built Freedom Tower on the site where we lost so many people when we lost the other towers. We are grateful to you in more ways than we could ever express. And while the rest of us were enjoying our Sunday and didn’t know that particular moment had history in it, you certainly did, and went forward anyway.