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Jewish World Review March 6, 2002 / 22 Adar, 5762

Bob Greene

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In between the darkness and the light ... -- IT'S as if we as a nation are living in an in-between world -- a world in which we are at war, yet are encouraged to not only whistle past the graveyard, but pretend that the graveyard is really a peaceful meadow until those moments ("heightened alert") when the graves are supposed to dominate our view again. ...

Some day, when we have figured all of this out, these confusing months will be the subject of doctoral theses -- if not books -- all their own. This in-between world can't last forever, even though we are told that the war against terror just might; five years from now, one way or another, our country is going to feel different from this. For now, though, the state of in-betweenness dominates; we're not where we were before, but we're not yet where we are going to end up. We're feeling our way.

Nowhere is our in-between world more discernible than at the airports. Life had to go on after Sept. 11, and in this country life equals movement. The airports, and the airplanes, are neither the maximum-security encampments we were told they would be, nor the relatively free-and-easy wayposts they once were. They're in-between, and thus are a mirror of the country. I traveled by air over the weekend, and airport life today. ...

Well, is it characterized by the soldiers in camouflage gear, or by the ramp workers tossing footballs? Both were evident, within moments of each other, during the weekend; in combination they attested to the divided days in which we live.

The soldiers -- National Guard troops -- posted at the security checkpoints are old news by now, in our society in which "old" is anything that has been going on for two months or more. What is instructive is not the sight of them, but the improbable fact that they've begun to fade into the scenery. Soldiers primed for battle, in civilian concourses -- and some travelers hurry past them as if they are skycaps. This is one aspect of the in-between America that will inevitably change -- things will become calmer, and the soldiers will go home, or things will become the opposite of calm, and their numbers will multiply.

Then there was the football -- there was no mistaking it. It kept arcing back and forth from the tarmac area beneath the big boarding-gate windows. It would rise, crest, then descend; a second or two later it would sail back into view from the other direction. Someone down there was playing catch -- in a week of officially declared high alert, there was a football game in progress near the airplanes.

On the flight itself, the in-between world could be glimpsed in the reading material of the passengers. I saw one person reading a cover story in People magazine that profiled women who had been pregnant when their husbands had died in the Sept. 11 attack, and who have since given birth to their babies; the portraits were a kind of combination: a sign that hope always survives, and another nudge of that September day into the scrapbooked past. A man on the flight was reading GQ; on a corner of the cover were the words: "Buy this magazine or the terrorists will have won"-- a lightly sardonic jab at our goodhearted uncertainty about how somber to be, an echo of the old National Lampoon "Buy-this-magazine-or-we'll-kill-this-dog" cover.

One of the flight attendants, five miles up in the in-between skies, used a curious phrase, in the context of the nervous times, to emphasize the no-smoking rule: "If you're smoking, you'd better be on fire." But then, on the straight, he informed the passengers that new federal regulations prohibited "loitering" near the cockpit, and asked anyone needing to use the restroom to remain in his or her seat until the bathroom at the front of the cabin was vacant.

When we arrived in our destination city, a sign in the baggage area welcomed attendees at a car-company convention, at a trade association meeting ... and "NYC Firefighters and Families." We were far from New York, and there was no explanation for that last one, but every set of eyes went to it.

We'll find our way out of this eventually, all of us will -- in-between, by definition, is an impermanent state -- but until then, we learn as we go. In the arrival terminal were all the sights that can be found at every American airport: Snack stands. Souvenir shops. Soldiers.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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