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Fifteen years after 9/11, America still finding her voice

On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, most of us here on the Pacific coast left our homes before we knew America was under attack. Some of us with longer commutes heard the news on our car radios. Others like me, who lived just a few blocks from the post office, didn’t know anything was amiss in the United States until my co-workers, unusually sullen and reserved, began arriving and talking.

In the small Forest Grove post office, our staff included 15 mail carriers, six clerks, a postmaster and a supervisor. Forest Grove is a town of about 23,000 people 25 miles west of Portland near the Coastal Mountain Range. Our community is largely agricultural with a private university in the middle of town. Our ordinary work day began at 7 a.m. with jovial bantering and friendly conversation while we prepared our mail for delivery — but not on 9/11. We were not allowed to play a radio, so on that day each of us wore the headphones we kept stashed in our lockers and worked silently through one grim news report after another. Tuesdays were always busy days in the Forest Grove post office. We had at least one extra mail piece that went to every address. Typically, we would be whining and complaining about the added work. Today, our gripes and complaints would have seemed petty, rude and calloused. We worked silently, but not unemotionally.

I remember telling my supervisor, a Christian, that “St. Peter is going to need extra help at the gate this morning.” He looked at me, puzzled, as if he didn’t know what I was talking about. The silence on the workroom floor was deafening. The only conversation was that required to get the mail delivered. Two and a half hours after arriving for work I was ready to take my mail to the street for delivery on my route.

If I thought the post office was quiet, it was boisterous compared to the streets of Forest Grove. My route, a 10-mile walk, included a small section of businesses and a large residential area in the Clark Historical District. The houses were built in the early 1900s and occupied by long term upper middle income and upper income inhabitants who care about life, each other and their mail carrier. In Forest Grove, large trees of many varieties shade the houses in the summer. On September 11, their leaves were just beginning to change, perhaps a reflection of the change that was taking place in each of us as the day’s events unfolded before us. With every step of the ten- mile trek, I felt the weight of this nation’s distress.

In the few short hours that had passed between the attack on the World Trade Center and the time I began mail delivery, the yards of Forest Grove had been draped in American Flags. Some were huge, resembling the size of our country’s pain, some small, some handmade, each symbolic of our unity as Americans. Then there was the hush, not the sound of peace and quiet, but the sound of disbelief and sorrow. It was as if the entire city had somehow lost its voice.

I made my way through the despondent neighborhoods, stepping around flags and yard signs, being careful not to rub against Old Glory or approach her in any disrespectful way. Occasionally, a customer would come to the door: “Have you heard?” “Come in for a minute and watch this news brief.” I would step inside a house that was only dimly lit or only lit by the TV screen. Then I would go back out into the shrouded neighborhood that used to be full of life and joy. On 9/11 it was a neighborhood in mourning, clothed in black and shades of the darkest gray. There were no Republicans or Democrats, no liberals or conservatives, just grieving Americans. An attack on New York City was an attack on us all.

At the end of the work day, I went to my own home to share my disbelief, fears and regrets with my family. We spent the evening keeping up with the constantly unfolding details of the attack as revealed on the Internet. The street I live on was just as still as the ones I had walked during the day. If Forest Grove was typical of towns across the country, America was mute.

For days after 9/11, I could feel the United States of America grieve. I inhaled the heaviness and exhaled the sorrow. As I walked from porch to porch, I was reminded of the houses on the east coast that would never again feel like home because someone had lost their life in an attack on our freedom. Bumper stickers proclaimed our patriotism. Emotional renderings of the weeping eagle adorned shop windows and countertops. Still, America had lost her voice. The silence continued until I wondered if I would ever again hear the sounds of life on my streets. My streets — these were my streets. My streets were lined with my houses. My people lived in my houses on my streets. My people were suffering as if they had lost one of their own. How long, I wondered, would the stillness continue?

For two and a half weeks I never heard a sound. The blanket of despair hung heavily over the heart and hearts of Forest Grove. I walked 120 miles in the hollowness of my route. Then one day, when I had almost given up hope of ever hearing it again, from way down the street — perhaps two blocks away or more, it was so rare by now — I heard two neighbor women laugh. I felt the spark of life rekindle within me.

America had begun to heal. It wouldn’t be long now, I thought, because America is resilient.

We will never forget the losses we suffered on 9/11, and we may never again let our guard down, but we know that our blessings far outweigh our burdens. Joy comes from God. He wants us to live joyfully.

In the 15 years that have passed since 9/11, 2001, I have retired from the U.S. Postal Services. I have stood at Ground Zero and felt the loss burn through my soul. America, hoarse, guttural and raspy, is still finding her voice, but she is no longer silent.

Mason K. Brown, a retired letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, lives in Forest Grove.