Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Never this much light in New York City

I talked to my friend on Monday, the day Wall Street resumed business after the attack on the Twin Towers. He's a banker, and, perhaps out of obligation to his profession, he is not one who easily shows his emotions. He is not easily rattled. He's usually the first with a slightly off-color joke or a flippant comment aimed at taking the edge off a situation. But on Monday, the tone in his voice was unmistakable. There was no joke, no dismissive intonation.

You see, we both knew there was no way to take the edge off of this situation. We'd both been there--Alex at 8:47 a.m. when the first airliner struck the World Trade Center, and me 36 hours later as the corpse of a New York City firefighter was pulled from the rubble. We'd both witnessed things that we knew would change us forever. We knew everything would be different now--not necessarily in any grand, sweeping way, but in a way that rose within us to somewhere just beneath the point of comprehension. It was something--wass something--that neither of us can wrap our minds around, neither of us can explain, neither of us can process. And so on Monday, on the telephone, we shared silence.

And then, finally--his voiced cracking--Alex said, "You know, there was never this much light on Wall Street before."

"Never this much light on Wall Street before." At first I didn't understand what he meant, but then it hit me. Those two towers rearing up into the screaming blue had turned lower Manhattan's canyons into even deeper and darker recesses. Now, with the towers gone, light spilled freely into the city streets like the rush of floodwater down a brittle, dry arroyo. As an English teacher and one who is prone to reading too much into everything, my metaphor meter went into overdrive. "Never this much light on Wall Street," I repeated to myself. And the paradox was clear: Somehow amidst this incomprehensible tragedy, there was immeasurable brilliance, there was light.

And I thought back to how it was for me, stepping off a bus at Ground Zero. Ten o'clock at night. The devastation exposed in the clinical glare white of utility lights powered by the whir and chug of generators pulsing into the night air. It was a light that blinded, yet hid nothing. I thought back to that first ambulance ride I'd ever taken. The stitches were barely pulled snug on the EMT patch I wore on my sleeve. I remembered the advice my partner, a veteran paramedic, gave me, "Just make sure you focus; otherwise the scene will overwhelm you. Find something to do, focus on a task, don't let the scene get into your head."

Yet on Wednesday night at Ground Zero I stood there, completely overwhelmed, completely unfocused. The lights seemed to burn brighter, etching the horror deeper and deeper into my brain. My stomach hurt like I'd been kicked[~]a gut-clenching pain. And it wasn't only the visuals, the things I saw. It was the smells and the sounds. The acrid air. The glass beneath my feet. Someone was talking. We were moving toward a makeshift field hospital. "No, there have been no survivors yet tonight," somebody said. And then a passing firefighter grabbed my arm. "Hey, Doc," he said. "Put that respirator on, will ya?"

I looked into his face, blackened and drained of life. I looked at his immense hand on my shoulder. The width of his shoulders was that of two men. "Thanks," I said, pulling the mask in place. But he was already gone, and once again the scene crowded in on my senses. Off to my left a bucket brigade of volunteers was blazing a path through the immense pile of twisted debris, one brick at a time. To my right, a crane was working, carefully lifting a large piece of concrete into the back of a waiting truck. There were National Guardsmen in fatigues, somebody handing out bottled water.

While I was still taking it all in, a man in a white shirt and a red helmet collapsed to the ground near me. His friend knelt anxiously by his side. Suddenly the stethoscope around my neck reminded me of my purpose. It gave meaning to my being there. I'd come to help, and all at once there was something for me to do, somebody I could help, some way that I could make a difference. I fell into the routine of vitals and patient history, assessment and treatment. Mike had been working for 30 hours without sleep, his friend told me. He was dehydrated, exhausted and bleeding from a nasty cut on his leg. "Rebar," his buddy explained. "It happened yesterday." Mike's heart was racing; his respirations came fast. His eyes were red and tearing. A deep cough echoed from his chest. He told me he'd lost his brother. I flagged down an ambulance for him, and he disappeared like a ghost into the night.

I walked around in a daze for a time after my interaction with Mike. I saw a firefighter in an orange body bag come from the wreckage. I saw an ambulance in the distance, its lights slashing into the night, and I walked toward it instinctually. It wasn't until I was close enough to touch it that I realized it was covered in ash, all its windows blown out, surreally agape. I reached in and turned off the lights.

I made my way to the field hospital where a volunteer was having his eyes flushed, another man was connected to an IV, a search-and-rescue dog whimpered, his eyes burning from the gases, his nose choked with dust. An EMT bandaged a bleeding paw. I stood there for a time with the other EMS volunteers, arms folded, looking on, waiting for the victims of this tragedy to be found. Waiting for something to do. And finally I couldn't take it anymore. The disorganization was immense, and no one noticed as I pushed my stethoscope into my pocket, exchanged my surgical gloves for work gloves, and joined the line of men on the bucket brigade stringing into the smoldering heap like an impossibly large worm snaking into the heart of a very great darkness.

The world closed in on the man in front of me and the man behind me. On the white plastic bucket coming down the line. On those things in my own field of vision. On those things I found. The heavier the buckets the better, I thought--less opportunity to think about anything besides the burn in your muscles and the pumping of your own heart. The first human remains I saw were nothing like a human at all. Perhaps a shattered piece of concrete or maybe a piece of ductwork or somebody's handbag, but not a person. And then there were other pieces and we picked them up, each, one at a time, like we were cleaning up our room or tidying up the yard. Body parts went into green bags, full corpses into orange. There was a system, it was a job, and each of us did it as best we were able.

We kept our sights on that person we would rescue, the living human we would pull from the wreckage. But that never happened. There were no dramatic rescues. No spirits raised, no celebration of the resilience of life in the face of adversity. This was the worst of humanity, and as I rode out of that war zone on top of a fire engine at sunrise, I was disheartened, and I wondered why I had come at all.

But then at the Fourteenth street NYPD roadblock everything changed. The sun was up now, brilliant light spilling across the Hudson River. And there, at 7 a.m., were New Yorkers[~]everyday people, waving flags and cheering at every emergency vehicle that went by. A firefighter who sat beside me started to cry. And it was then that I realized that these times[~]these apparently catastrophic events, these tragedies[~]reveal not only the worst of humanity, but also its best. Those people on the streets of New York were as much the heroes as the emergency workers at Ground Zero. And, in a rush of emotion, I suddenly understood what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote, "I understand the large hearts of heroes."

It was like Alex had said on the phone, except it occurred to me that it wasn't just Wall Street. It occurred to me that there has never been this much light in New York City.

Ret Talbot is an emergency medical technician and the director of public relations at Oldfields School in Glencoe, Md.

Tradition in a time of need

" We will go down to some kind of defeat, I don't know whether it will be military defeat or economic defeat, because of what is happening in us now, or we will come to victory because of what is happening in us now. When it is all sunshine and brightness and the birds are singing and there is no anxious looking up into the skies, you can do more to save America in what is probably her most perilous moment, which is now, in all her history. You can do most to save America by preventing yourself from becoming soft, soft in your will, soft in your brain and your muscles and your nerves. Work hard, goad yourself to your best effort[sigma]it is on that basis that all true living with pleasure is founded, and you will be preparing yourself to be a good American in a hard world."

There is a timeless quality to the advice of the Rev. J. Edgar Park; the former Wheaton College president could have been speaking to nearly any class of students. His admonition, delivered in September 1940 as the United States watched the war in Europe, betrays a knowledge far deeper than the jingoistic rhetoric of the day. Whether the time was World War II, the Civil War or yesterday, Park's essential message lies at the heart of the college mission: to prepare world citizens for a lifetime of learning and service. The history of service by Wheaton students, faculty and staff in America's times of crisis indicates the success of that mission born in 1835.

 

Sept. 11 was a national crisis unlike any previous; its immediate horror was delivered swiftly and without warning, leaving thousands dead and many more asking why and how and who. The campus was still reeling from the initial shock when administrators went into action. By that afternoon, on-campus counselors tended to those upset by the attacks, the Dean's office began the task of helping students locate their families in New York and Washington, D.C., and hundreds gathered in the Dimple to share their emotions, vent their anger, and offer comfort and inspiration to classmates and co-workers.

"The coordinated terrorism our country has experienced today is a life-changing tragedy," Provost Susanne Woods said at the Dimple gathering. "We do not yet know all of what happened, and we must resist the temptation to fall prey to every rumor. But whatever we don't know, we do know that thousands of innocent people have lost their lives today, and that we are all likely to be affected by it."

In the days that followed Sept. 11, emotions transformed into action as leaders in all areas of Wheaton life devised and implemented service strategies. Student Life chartered a bus to transport students to their New York homes and families. Faculty members organized campus forums to increase awareness of Middle Eastern history, culture and sociopolitical issues; served as sources for national news stories; and authored commentaries that appeared in regional newspapers.

The Communications Office joined with Alumnae/i Relations and technical staff to create the "Wheaton Update" Web site, which offered information about local and national emergency services, news and service opportunities. The site also connected Wheaton alums worldwide, who submitted eyewitness accounts and personal reflections of Sept. 11 (excerpts from those accounts appear in the Class Notes section of this magazine; the site can be found at http://www.wheatoncollege.edu/update).

Student response to the humanitarian needs of New York and Washington were immediate and continue today. Fund-raisers by the Multifaith Council, Posse and other groups have raised thousands of dollars for New York relief efforts. "As a New Yorker, I felt that I needed to help the relief effort at home," said Daniel Wolf '02, dean of student's intern for spiritual life. "I asked for the support of the Multifaith Council, and the support that I gained from members of the council was amazing."

Monica Talbot '03, an art history major from Connecticut, took the lead in coordinating Wheaton's resources with several area blood drives, enabling students to contribute to the nation's most immediate needs. She organized carpools to nearby Sturdy Hospital to make it easier for students to donate blood, and she worked closely with Norton's Trinitarian Church to provide Wheaton staffing and donors for a previously scheduled blood drive. In fact, she convinced her lacrosse teammates to join her efforts.

"I had to do something to help," Talbot said. "I think I had survivor's guilt and felt so disconnected to emergency work in New York City. My cousin, an EMT, was in New York [see page 12 for the first-person account of Ret Talbot '93]. I wished I could do more."

The desire to "do more" has long been part of the Wheaton tradition. The earliest record of Wheaton participation in national emergencies is a letter written in 1861 by "a young lady at Wheaton Seminary, Norton" to her father. The letter, published in Grace T. Shepard's Reference History of Wheaton College, illuminates a time when the danger of the Civil War seemed somewhat remote (there was a rumor of escaped slaves, en route to Canada, celebrating their freedom in Norton's town hall), yet the need to contribute to the Northern war effort was overwhelming.

"Norton is comparatively quiet, yet we Seminary girls are wild with excitement," the unidentified student wrote. "We have finished 120 flannel shirts for the noble volunteers, and have bought yarn, and are knitting socks for them. Each girl sewed a motto into the sleeve of the shirt that she made, with her name and that of the Seminary. I hope mine will cheer some manly heart as he goes forth to battle for his country."

Sewing societies, a common activity for women in both the North and South, continued at Wheaton throughout the war. Students used whatever cloth they could gather to cut material for uniforms, and the resulting production was often very ambitious. Shepard wrote that in the winter of 1863, student Edna Sanford knitted 75 pairs of socks, and in a single day, 100 girls produced 100 grey flannel shirts to send to Union soldiers.

World War I ushered in the modern age of America, and Wheaton's response to the war was more modern than anyone could have imagined. In 1917 Grace A. Croff of the English Department, senior class president Margaret S. Gray '18 and Wheaton Record editor Harriet E. Hughes '18 organized fund-raising on campus as part of the YMCA and YWCA's Student Friendship War Relief Fund. Wheaton students raised more than $2,000 for war prison camps in the fall semester of 1917, "denying themselves pleasures in order to help our soldiers," according to the Record.

World War I changed the landscape of opportunities for women after college, and on the leading edge of that movement was Catherine Filene '18. In 1917 the college junior, director of Wheaton's Bureau of Vocational Opportunities, organized the first Intercollegiate Conference on Vocational Opportunities for College Women. The conferences were held annually at Wheaton until the 1950s and investigated careers open to women. A. Lincoln Filene, Catherine's father and then general manager of Wm. Filene's and Sons department store, advocated the conferences in an article in the Wheaton Record.

"There has been some fear on the part of many colleges of this country that the cultural aim of the college would be endangered by introducing vocational studies and vocational guidance into the curriculum," Filene wrote. "I think it's safe to say that anyone who looks forward into the future and sees how women are coming more and more to be a factor in our economic life, cannot help seeing the vital need of connecting in some way college and business." Today the Filene Center for Work and Learning, established in 1986, continues the tradition of linking students to career and service opportunities beyond the Wheaton classroom.

During the Second World War, Wheaton students, faculty and staff organized relief efforts with military precision. Hardly an issue of the Wheaton News was published without some mention of campus activity, from war-relief fund-raisers for Russia, China, Britain and other countries to knitting clothing for French prisoners of war and entertaining troops from nearby Camp Myles Standish. And that was just the beginning.

In December 1941, when the U.S. entered World War II, Wheaton became the first college to establish its own Defense Corps. Faculty and students formed military-style response units on campus, such as first aid, motor corps and fire fighting units, and campus wardens presided over frequent evacuation and defense drills. According to Louise S.G. Perry '23, writing in the Wheaton Alumnae Quarterly of her Defense Corps duties at Wheaton, the threat to the college and other East Coast locations was believed to be serious: "When an air raid warning sounds, two crews of [campus] fire fighters will go to their posts in the top floors of each dormitory to extinguish any incendiaries that may fall."

Josephine "Dody" Wilding Freeman '44, herself a refugee of Nazi Germany (see the spring 1999 Quarterly for more on Freeman's story), recalled a flurry of war relief activity on campus. "In my senior year I was an air raid warden at Larcom," she said. "Many of us knitted clothing and created 'Bundles for Britain.' Along with a good many others, I took a first aid course."

In fact, Wheaton offered a number of new courses related to the war. Created "in reply to the increasing sense of obligation for women to enter into some branch of war service where they are most vitally needed," the courses included mechanical drawing, a chemistry course in lab techniques, analytical geometry and nutrition.

"Wheaton was totally behind the WWII war effort, both students and faculty," recalled Bojan Jennings, professor of chemistry emerita. "We raised a large Victory Garden and grew as much food as possible for the Wheaton kitchen. Students did a lot of the work."

Jennings was among the faculty who volunteered at the exchange at Camp Myles Standish, which was then a staging area for troops headed overseas. She recalls spending the entire Thanksgiving 1943 break at the camp with several other Wheaton faculty members, including drama professor Nancy Conger and English professor Kate Burton.

"Everyone knew that many of these kids would not return, and they knew it, too," Jennings said. "The PX had a grim, overcharged atmosphere, with everyone trying to keep every one else's mind off what was going on. We did not want to be anywhere else. Nancy's fiancé was overseas, as was my husband, a Navy lieutenant serving in the Pacific Theatre. It seems to me that everyone had at least one loved one in jeopardy somewhere."

The Vietnam conflict brought to campus more political protest than relief work. Perhaps the most controversial expressions of protest were the moratorium days of 1968[^]69 and the student strike of 1970, which split student and faculty into opposing camps yet provided the foundation for open discussion of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia.

"It was a very divisive era," recalled professor of political science Jay Goodman. "The Vietnam War was a daily subject in poly sci classes, among students, and in special lectures and programs we had in the department. Many of our students were active in regional and national anti-war movements while other groups were supportive [of the war effort]."

One student active in campus protest was Marcia Polese'70. Now president of Polese Clancy, a Boston communications firm, she was a student Moratorium Day organizer.

"People were so anxious to 'do something' in terms of having their voices heard--having an opportunity to stand up for what they believed in--that my role was more of a facilitator, providing time and space for so many to say so much," Polese said. "While other campuses actually experienced bitter debate and even some violence, the Wheaton approach was more oriented toward open dialog and organized debate. There were a lot of differing points of view, from the most radical to the most conservative."

Today the open debate and tradition of service continue, with student journalists penning convincing commentaries for and against military operations in the Middle East and fund-raisers planned nearly every week.

"During the weeks, months and years ahead, my dream is that we use our imaginations to dream together[~]use our vision to create a world as we would a work of art--so that we can resolve our differences in ways that go beyond the old solutions of violence, war, hatred and blame," Polese added. "This is the work we must all do together, as students, friends, professionals and citizens."

We Did Not Choose Our Fate That Day

Photo of Elizabeth Morton ’91My thoughts today are different from Sept. 11. What I remember is the same, but images and more information fill my mind. I saw people act in a way that only true crisis brings. The look, the feel, the smell of one single day, one that I now know could only come from a world-changing event. Firefighters, rescue workers, police officers, security guards[~]all doing their jobs, just as we were in One and Two World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. on that beautiful, perfect fall day in New York City.

In my flight from the towers, I helped people who could not help themselves get down 40 flights of stairs to safety. We were one, all New Yorkers, no matter where we were from. I saw acts of courage and strength offset the sight of people dying with dignity and grace. We did not choose our fate that day; only God knew.

With four people per stair, shoulder to shoulder, 50 people both in front and back, my thoughts were of getting out of the building and taking as many people with me as possible. Fifty of the analysts that I'm responsible for were located at Lehman Brothers' Jersey City, N.J., office that day. I thanked God, because with 50 more people to get out, we now recognize could have made a difference between life or death.

That day my body was flooded with adrenaline and also with something else. Never before had I been that close to death, and I was filled with a feeling of peace and love. My friends and family and their prayers were with me, providing comfort, support and strength so that I could help others.

My thoughts turned to my friend Sara Manley Harvey, whose wedding I just attended in August. She was on the 93rd floor, working for Fred Alger. I prayed she would make it, but in the end, she didn't. I prayed for my friend Karen Fang on the 87th floor, who worked for Fiduciary, who did make it because she was at a conference. Eighty-seven of her co-workers were killed. I didn't know that my coworker, Ira Zaslow, didn't make it, nor did Mary Lou Hague, with whom I did volunteer work. She worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, making her one of the hundreds lost.

We passed firefighters in plain clothes coming up the stairs. The looks on their faces were of sheer bravery. I told them about a handicapped man on the landing of the 27th floor, thanked them, and told them how much I appreciated their being there; they replied, "We're just doing our job." I pray that man was rescued and that they got out. I wished that I was physically strong enough to take him down the stairs, but the best I could do was calm people down and make sure that everyone with me got out.

Since that day, I have spoken at memorial services, volunteer groups and employee assistance programs, and it reaffirms my purpose, which is now clearer than ever--to help and motivate others. Reclaim your life, live each day as if it was your last and you will never be disappointed.

My family and friends are doing well. With bruises on my legs, I went back to work on Sept. 17 in Jersey City, where most of our group has relocated. I will continue to spread a positive word and encourage people to move forward with their lives. Terrorism does not exist without terror. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it best: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."