Just Like a Tree

Ok, it’s time to backtrack and fill in the gaps I missed in this travel log due to illness and tragedy.  The food poisoning I suffered on May 27 and the tragedy of the fatal parachute accident May 28 gave me more important things to do than write about my travels during Fleet Week.  The shift from the “party” of Fleet Week to the real-world handling of tragedy took precedence.  My shipmates functioned magnificently, and I could not be prouder of them.

There is an irony here too.  My first operational event with the Navy was my first deployment in 2001 at my second command (my first command was overseas shore duty).  The attacks of 9/11 happened on that deployment.  Now, my final operational endeavor with the Navy was 2017 Fleet Week, and we suffered the loss of a shipmate.  My operational career with the Navy is bookended by tragedies involving New York.

Cosmic meaning?  None.  But still ironic.

I enlisted in 1997.  I was strongly considering getting out of the Navy after my first hitch and going to grad school.  I had a B.A. in history and had worked at the Museum of Florida History before budget cuts killed that job.  I enlisted in 1997 partly just to get a job.  Then September 11 happened.

Like many, many others the trajectory of my life was starkly changed Sept. 11, 2001.  That day shifted me almost automatically to commit to a career in the Navy.  However, despite many visits to New York City, I never was able to actually stand on the World Trade Center site.

2017 Fleet Week New York finally allowed me to walk on that hallowed ground where my Navy story really began.  Everything prior to 2001 was a very long prologue.  The story of what my life actually became was founded in September 2001.  That’s when Chapter 1 started.

I was at Ground Zero two days in a row.  Thursday, May 25, was to help cover the visit of a Pearl Harbor survivor to the site.  Friday, May 26, was to cover a mass reenlistment of Navy Sailors and Coast Guardsmen conducted by Adm. Philip Davidson, Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

During the day I had the privilege of meeting Navy Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Enver SibiliaMatinez.  I conducted a formal on-camera interview with him that was later used in one of the videos my Sailors put together.  You see, MM1 SabiliaMatrinez enlisted after watching the Twin Towers fall when he was a high school sophomore in Brooklyn.

I enlisted at a time when war was only a theoretical possibility.  MM1 SibiliaMartinez enlisted because war was upon us.  Talk about a profile in courage!

Instead of a history professor I ended up becoming a public affairs/mass communication specialist and curriculum developer.  I’ve visited 22 countries, met the royal family of Japan, crawled through WWII caves with the dead still inside, and been involved in operations in Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq.  I’ve trained over 3,000 public affairs specialists, freelanced for the Washington Times, and was the assistant in charge of production for Fleet Week New York.

None of this future was even in my imagination Sept. 10, 2001.  Like many others, I had other plans.  Nope; this future that has become my past was founded Sept. 11, 2001.

There is no funeral atmosphere to Ground Zero today.  New York City achieved the balance of making it a place of hope without diminishing the memory of what happened.  It is a place to remember those who died, but also a place to look to the future.  Ground Zero is a tree-filled plaza under open sky.  The great fountains marking the footprints of the lost towers contain the names of the dead, but are surrounded by the unceasing energy of New York City while the living quietly repopulate the area.  If you look closely you’ll see an occasional white rose placed at a name.  This is a tradition marking that person’s birthday.

The actual museum is built underground, in and around the foundations of the lost North Tower.  The above ground part of museum is a building that looks like it has fallen on its side, recalling the fallen buildings here sixteen years ago.  As you head down to the exhibits, you can look up and see the modern, new One World Trade Center tower framed by wreckage of the original towers.  The museum is a sad, quiet place that tells a horrific story.  However, the museum’s configuration prevents you from being left morose.  Nope; as you exit you go back up into the sunlight and life of New York City.  A sense of hope is built into the very design of the museum.

And yet…these eloquently geometric memorials do not hold a candle to a tree.  One tree, and a small one at that.

The Survivor Tree.

The Survivor Tree is a Callery pear.  It’s the only living thing outside in the World Trade Center plaza when the Twin Towers collapsed known to have survived.  (The few people who lived through the collapse were still inside the buildings and trapped as wreckage fell around them, creating odd-shaped zones of life.)

The tree had the entirety of both towers smash down upon it.  It was found buried, burnt, broken, and its roots snapped.

The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation managed to save it.  From 2001 until 2010 it was carefully nurtured and brought back to life.  Today it is back at Ground Zero, the only living survivor present on site 24 hours a day.  It’s a small tree that grows and leafs and doesn’t really look back.  Trees never do.  Oh, they may show the scars of the past, but trees tend to look forward.  That’s what trees do—they grow, always moving forward into the future.

Visiting Ground Zero marked the denouement of my Navy career.  My race is run.  However, as one story ends, another begins.  Ground Zero gave me what it gives many visitors—a sense of closure on the shift in trajectory Sept. 11 wrought on my life.  The sunny, tree-filled plaza also gives one a sense of the future.  I hope the next part of my life is as meaningful as the last one was.  I want to keep looking forward.

Just like a tree.

Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Taylor Elberg examines the “Survivor Tree,” a Callery pear that stood in the World Trade Center and survived the fall of the towers despite being severly damaged. Sailors and Coast Guardsmen gather in the 9/11 Memorial Plaza for a mass, multi-service reentlistment ceremony. Adm. Philip Davidson, Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, reenlisted the Sailors and Coast Guardsmen and promoted several officers. (26 May 2017, Nathanael Miller)

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