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Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 2001 / 7 Tishrei, 5762

Bob Greene

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The overture to a
dark and lasting opera -- THERE was a phrase . . . most of us are too young to remember it.

But our parents knew it, and their parents knew it too. It's an important one to recall now.

In the years following the last time the United States suffered a surprise attack by an enemy intent on humbling and humiliating it -- in the years following Pearl Harbor -- the phrase became a part of the national language.

It was a measure of time -- or, more specifically, a description of time.

People -- both officially and in everyday conversation -- didn't talk about "Eastern (or Central or Pacific) Standard Time," or "Eastern (or Central or Pacific) Daylight Time."

The phrase went like this:

"At 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Eastern War Time . . ."

That's how the time of day was defined. And it meant something.

It meant that the war -- World War II -- was not a momentary thing, or a sudden spike on a chart, or a matter that would soon enough pass.

The war was a way of life. There was a dailiness to it -- the war, not just for those overseas fighting it, but for their loved ones at home working and waiting, was as much a part of the fabric of daily living as the air Americans breathed. It wasn't a facet of life -- it was life. You measured the ticks on a clock by it. Eastern War Time.

We should keep that in mind, as we all prepare for what lies ahead. We have all become so accustomed to allegedly big stories coming out of nowhere, capturing our attention for a few days or a few weeks or even a few months, and then completely vanishing, like some movie that's had a large opening weekend and is then replaced by, and forgotten because of, newer movies with new promotional campaigns. The front-page news itself has often seemed that way -- so all-consuming for a brief period, and then gone. Like the song lyric: "They will never forget you till somebody new comes along. . . ."

This, by all signs -- including President Bush's direct and unambivalent words to us -- is different. This is not going to fit any pattern that we have come to expect. This is not a stunning diversion. This has every prospect of becoming not a part of American life, but American life.

It has been over a week now since the attacks on New York and Washington. There is a sense of both heart-racing resolve and emerging fatigue. We feel as if we have been through a lot -- and we have. The people of New York, and the men and women of the Pentagon, have been through something for which there truly are no sufficient words; the rest of us, even if relatively removed geographically, have been, as a people, through something that has torn at us deeply, kept us awake long into the uncertain nights.

And one thing it may be useful to bear in mind is this:

If our world feels this way after one terrible week, consider that our parents went through this kind of turmoil for almost four continuous years. Use that as a measuring device -- take the way you feel after the week since that Tuesday, and multiply that week by 52, and then multiply that by four. Not a mathematical equation -- but a summation of the potential toll on the soul.

That is what the president is talking about when he warns that this almost certainly will not be a brief episode. That is what he is talking about when he says that life will not be the same. It's almost too much to absorb, one week into it -- that what we all have experienced is not a self-contained chain of life-altering events, but merely the introductory stanza, the overture, to a dark opera that may stretch out for many, many acts not yet composed.

The specific language of our world has not been revised yet -- except for certain now-ghastly places in our country that people who hope to kill us have knocked down and mutated, our frames of reference are the same as they were before that Tuesday.

Whenever the president addresses the nation from Washington, though . . . whenever the secretary of state or the secretary of defense delivers a statement from the capital of our country . . . take a look at your watch.

President Bush or Secretary Powell or Secretary Rumsfeld may not use the phrase -- may not say the words.

But until further notice, when they speak they will be speaking on Eastern War Time.

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

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