The Old Soldier

I was driving past Hightower Grocery when I heard the news on the radio. Two planes had slammed into the World Trade Center. A third hit the Pentagon. It was hot out. The fields had been begging for rain for over a month. I looked out the car window to where an unlucky farmer’s corn crop had turned to great stalks of brown. I noticed my hands. They were shakikng. I flipped from one radio station to another, hearing winded reports from newscasters who were trying to grasp the enormity of what had just happened. They sounded excited. And confused. And scared. They had reason to be.

I pulled my car over to the shoulder of the road and dug my cell phone out of my purse. I called my sister and asked if she’d heard. “I think this is Armageddon,” she said. “The beginning of the end.” I could hear her ragged breathing on the other end of the line. I thought about our childhood, the way she used to drop her hand off the top bunk and let me hold onto it until I felt safe enough to fall asleep. I felt the corners of my mouth tugging downward. I told her I had to go.

At the television station where I work, we hovered around the live feeds coming in from New York. Our news director was already convinced that what was happening had something to do with the Middle East. He grabbed the nearest phone and called his daughter, who worked for an international agency in Kosovo. She was telling him something that made him turn away from us and rub his temples with his free hand.

The phones were ringing by then. Viewers calling, wanting us to tell them these attacks were specific to New York. Wanting us to help them feel safe in their one-story houses in the small state of Arkansas. I couldn’t calm their fears. I had no idea what might happen next.

By three that afternoon, drivers were cutting in line at local convenience stores, running over curbs, blocking traffic, doing whatever it took to get to the gas pumps. We took our cameras out and filmed ordinary people fighting to control an extraordinary fit of panic.

After work, I stopped at the market. Someone had brought in a TV and most of the customers were gathered near the cash registers, their carts still empty, watching ambulances scream across the tiny screen. The cashier was wiping tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. I handed her my loaf of bread. She started to hand it back and then realized what she was doing. She drug the loaf of bread across the scanner, and then all 10 cartons of yogurt, even though each was exactly the same. I paid with a 20. Held out my hand waiting for the change. She stood with the 20 in her hand, looking past me to the TV. I watched the big clock above the exit, saw the second hand go from the five to the 10, before I decided it didn’t really matter if I got my change back. I put my own groceries into a plastic bag and headed for the door.

I was already on the road when I looked up and saw him, a middle-aged man dressed in an army uniform that gaped at the coat buttons and rode high above his wrists. His salt-and-pepper hair was pulled back in a pony tail, making a long “S” shape down his back. He was standing on the interstate bridge, a massive American flag gripped in both hands, the flag waving to the drivers below. I pulled off the road for the second time that day. I stepped out and leaned against the car and watched for a while. Cars slowed down as they passed the old soldier. Some rolled down their windows to wave. I don’t think he noticed. He seemed to be standing at attention, like a guard protecting something sacred. I understood it then, why the flag needed to be high and lifted up that night, and why he was the right person to do it.

I think about him from time to time. I wonder if his life changed that night. I think about the flag he carried. I hope he keeps it safe.

Marla Cantrell, Arkansas

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