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Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 2001 / 4 Kislev, 5762

Bob Greene

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The way we were -- do we want it back?


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- OUR nation's leaders have told us over and over, in the months since Sept. 11, that we should make every effort to get back to our regular way of doing things.

I often work with a Tribune copy editor named Bill O'Connell. One weekend afternoon I phoned in from outside the office, and was going over some questions Bill had about the column. I told him I would call him an hour later to make certain the column was ready to go to press.

When I called back, his voice sounded different. I asked him why.

Bill is 48. Thirty years ago his father, Dale G. O'Connell Sr., had died of cancer. To honor his father, Bill has spent the last three years writing a private book for his family, about his late father's life as a teacher and a coach in New England and the Midwest.

This fall, Bill decided to take his 84-year-old mother, Estelle O'Connell, on a personal "book tour" late in her life -- on a trip to visit all the places that had meant so much to the O'Connell family. The trip was to be a celebration of the late Mr. O'Connell.

Bill wanted to take his mom to the schools where Mr. O'Connell taught and coached, to the old arenas where he played basketball, to the house he finally got to call home after stops at 18 foster homes.

Mrs. O'Connell, who lives in Joliet, was not afraid to fly after the terror attacks. She dressed all in red, white and blue for the flight she and Bill would take from Midway Airport. There was nothing -- no terrorist, no government warning -- that was going to stop her from savoring this trip.

Bill and his mom flew to New Hampshire, and started a driving tour of all the places that had touched his father's life. To the family home in small-town Maine, to the high school where Mr. O'Connell taught biology and coached the track team to three state championships, to the city where Mr. O'Connell was born, to the home of an old friend who had been a high school football teammate and then a fellow member of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Every step of the way, Bill took photos to illustrate the personal book he had spent three years writing for his family, photos of the places that have meant so much to the O'Connells. In many of the photos, Mrs. O'Connell posed. Some were lighthearted -- Mrs. O'Connell standing next to the Uncle Sam totem pole in a town where Mr. O'Connell once scored a gymnasium-record 48 points in a basketball game. Some of the photos were wistful -- a swimming hole where Mr. O'Connell was a lifeguard in 1937, at the age of 19. Some were melancholy -- Mr. O'Connell's gravesite.

When Bill and his mom returned to Illinois, Mrs. O'Connell was overjoyed, proud. She went home to Joliet feeling fulfilled. Bill had the photos developed.

And now it was the weekend that Bill and I were working on the column. I made that one last call of the day to him, and, hearing his voice, asked what was wrong.

He had gone down to his car, parked in an outdoor lot close to the newspaper office. Someone had broken in.

The thieves apparently had been after a bag of clothes they could see through the car windows. There were some shirts Bill had bought, and some shoes.

They took the clothes, all right. And they took something else:

All the photos. Every picture Bill had taken on the trip with his mother to celebrate his late father's life. Every picture, and every negative.

They're gone. In this new world we allegedly are living in, with renewed respect for everyone around us, and new recognition of the preciousness of small and loving moments, someone had decided to do what some people have always done: take something just because they can. Hurt someone just because they can. Grab something and run just because they can. The way they always have.

Bill, of course, is sick at heart. When I last spoke with him, he still had not told his mother that the photos are gone, and that he has no idea how to find them.

We keep being told that we should go back to the kind of lives we were leading before Sept. 11, in the kind of world in which we lived before Sept. 11. Business as usual, just like before -- that, we are told, should be what we strive for.

I certainly hope not.



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

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