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Jewish World Review Sept. 28, 2001 / 11 Tishrei, 5762

Bob Greene

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The honor of your
presence is requested -- WHEN all of this is someday over ...

(And why do those words have the sound and feel of a prayer?)

When all of this is someday over, there is somewhere that I hope some of you will make a point to visit.

Not many people go out of their way to travel there. The place is in a public park in Colorado, in the city of Colorado Springs, and most of the world doesn't know it exists.

It is a national memorial -- probably one of the least-viewed memorials in the United States. Because it is not in Washington or in one of the large cities on the East Coast, tour groups seldom come by.

Yet for the last two weeks I have been thinking about it almost every day and every night. And when these current days of uncertainty and national danger are finally over, I think you might value the experience of seeing this place.

It is the Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial -- the place where firefighters honor their own. It consists of a statue and a memorial wall; it is maintained by the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Had not the terrorists attacked our country two weeks ago, relatively few Americans would likely be thinking about firefighters these days. Firefighters do what the firefighters did in New York and Washington -- run into burning buildings while everyone else is running out -- on a daily, nightly basis, all over this nation. And the public whom they serve seldom pauses to consider what that means.

The fact that the Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial is in out-of-the-way Colorado Springs is somehow understandable. Firefighters aren't looking for loud applause, or spotlights; they are not drawn to gaudiness. The national memorial in the park in Colorado Springs is for them, and their families. They know where it is; that is what matters.

The reason I know about it is that, two years ago, it was my great honor to go to Colorado Springs at the invitation of the International Association of Fire Fighters, on the weekend when the names of the firefighters who had died in the year just past would go up on the memorial wall. The wives and children of the fallen firefighters had come to Colorado. Unlike the world-famous annual ceremonies in which the movie, TV and music industries honor their best-performing members, this ceremony is never televised.

It was. ...

Well, it was as beautiful a weekend as I have ever been privileged to be a part of. The families had come from all over America; 58 firefighters had died since the last gathering. The families were accompanied by honor guards of firefighters from their own communities, and from other cities and towns; all of the firefighters were attired in their best dress uniforms.

I had dinner the night before the ceremony with Wanda Park, 33, of Cullman, Ala., whose husband, Johnnie, had died; his name would go on the wall. The dinner, in a hotel ballroom for all who had come to Colorado Springs, was a little muted; the families were tired and sad, and most didn't know each other.

Mrs. Park looked around the room and said to me: "When you're in a room with so many firefighters, you think he should be here, too. It's hard to know that I'm here because of him, instead of sitting beside him. I see all these firefighters, and I think: `Where is he?'"

The ceremony is always on a Saturday in September; this year it received even less notice than usual, because all the national attention was, of course, being directed toward the East Coast.

But 74 more names were inscribed on the national memorial wall in Colorado this month, and a new, second wall -- empty of names now, waiting -- was put in place. Next year, there will be hundreds of names on the new wall -- the names of the men murdered by the acts of the terrorists on Sept. 11.

The families of the firefighters, not just from New York but from smaller towns all across the country, will be there, too. Families of firefighters who are alive this morning -- but who will fall in the line of duty before another year has passed.

The firefighters do this for their own every year. I hope that, some year, you will decide to join them for the ceremony. You will never forget it.

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

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