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September 12, 2008 - 9:26pm



I'm sitting on Leslie Whittington's bench. Born 1955.

You can only follow one or two stories, and of course UD - a George Washington University professor who has spent research time in Australia - has followed Leslie's. She was a Georgetown University professor, on sabbatical, on her way - with her husband and daughters - to a research appointment in Australia. She was almost the same age as UD.

My mind trails her onto the plane. I pace myself at her pace, sit down, buckle. I enter her terror and disbelief. Her despair at what her daughters' eyes widen on.


Well, I'm communing with you in a different way now. While a small rain starts up, and the clouds thicken, and airplanes angle in to land, I'm sitting on your bench, leaning over to look at the little reflecting pool underneath it.

I'm not sure about the reflecting pool. I'm not sure it works.

Each bench, memorializing each person who died in the plane or in the Pentagon, floats a foot or so above a lit rectangular pond. The play of light against stone, the rippling of birth dates, the shadows from shaggy bark trees -- this lends life and movement to the memorial. Water's part of that, and it's a good idea. But I'm not sure about the pondlet in particular. It's a puddle more than a pool.

The benches, though. The benches work. They don't shrink from the reality of the crash. They look like airplane wings stuck into the ground.

Also birds' wings.

You're supposed to sit on the "cantilevered benches," as the memorial's website describes them, and commune there with the dead. But only UD and one other woman are doing this. Others seem to think it disrespectful to sit.

Another design failure?

No. It's early days - the first full day - and there's a tentative feel. People aren't ready to think of the benches as furniture. They place little stones on them, and peonies, and military medals, and photos, under clear wrap, of bare-chested guys sitting together on lawn chairs and drinking beer. At the foot of Leslie's bench there's a hardback book -- A Very Long Engagement, by Sebastien Japrisot. On a white sheet of paper peeking out of the book, a typed message, all in caps, appears: OUR BOOK CLUB REMEMBERS OUR FOUNDING MEMBER, LESLIE. The page lists all the books they would have read.

Look up, and you see the immense American flag draped over the rebuilt wing of the Pentagon. Nearby, construction workers dismantle the high rafters from yesterday's dedication ceremony. Skinny long-haired country boys in white shirts that say REMEMBER undo the reviewing stands and the wiring. In the farther background, George Washington Parkway traffic washes by, and, behind that, the dull midrises of DC rise, making absolutely no statement against the gloomy sky.

Strange that UD cried only when she read, on a big memorial stone at the entry, the word CLAIM. We claim this ground... the message on the stone began. It had a great power in this context, that word, conveying somehow the immense wound still suffered, and the insistence on regenerating the world. Our world.

"Ma'am. See that beam? It's about to swing around. Hold off."

As UD walked back to the Pentagon Metro stop, a uniformed man held her and the rest of the departing crowd to one side while the workers directed a crane operator in lifting and depositing the structure. "Back it out, Eddie. Back it out. Hey where you goin."

We watch, patient, silent, polite, as they delicately bring it down to earth.


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