- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

I buckled Sean and Jeremy into their seats in the parking lot of the BJ's store in Columbia, Md., climbed into the driver's seat and started the engine. On the radio, Dan Rather was asking a field reporter in downtown Manhattan whether reports that one of the World Trade Center towers had collapsed were true.

"Can you see the tower?" Mr. Rather asked. "Is it still standing?"

My first reaction, and this is the absolute truth, was, "What a dopey question. How can you be in doubt over whether a million-story tower is still standing?"

My second reaction, which came a split-second later, was, "The World Trade Center has collapsed?"

I couldn't drive home fast enough. In the 20 minutes it took to get there, the whole awful episode was recounted by breathless reports coming from the radio. A hijacked plane had hit the World Trade Center. No, two hijacked planes. Another one hit the Pentagon. Still another was lost in Pennsylvania somewhere. Four hijacked planes? What was going on?

Five-year-old Sean was getting a little jittery in his car seat listening to all the talk about flaming death and exploding planes, and fire trucks and ambulances. "What's going on?" he asked. I shushed him.

Two-year-old Jeremy, who over the summer had developed a fascination with every airplane he saw in the sky, kept repeating "airplane" every time he heard the word on the radio, completely and happily oblivious to his world unraveling around him.

We finally got home, and I plunked them downstairs in front of some cartoon on the Disney channel. I raced upstairs and turned on the television. Buildings were burning everywhere, it seemed. The apocalypse had come. The World Trade Center was gone. Part of the Pentagon was gone. Thousands of people were gone.

My wife, Lisa, a federal government employee, called to say she was coming home, along with the rest of the government work force. I stumbled downstairs to check on the boys and tell them Mommy was coming home. They were still watching television, and Sean was still curious about what was happening. I mulled over what to tell him.

When my mother died two months ago, Sean accepted the news with relative calm. Nana was in heaven, and she wasn't coming back any more. His little mind could grasp that, or something close to that.

This was different. This was fear and evil and anguish and a myriad of unanswerable questions all rolled together in one brutal, unspeakable package. There could be no talk of heaven. Sean didn't know any of these people. I didn't, either. How do you tell a 5-year-old about global terrorism when he thinks the worst thing that can happen is running out of ice cream?

The rest of the week went by in a daze, dominated by death tolls and tears and billowing smoke. Then we did the best thing we possibly could have done under the circumstances. We went to the beach for a whole week.

It was a trip we had planned months earlier with some friends and their children. Sixteen of us eight adults and eight children under the age of 6 in a house in Bethany Beach, Del. The news reports still rolled in, day after unrelenting day, and the specter of war grew greater every day.

But something happened along the way. My fears began to melt like the last big snowdrift of the season.

Every day we played on the beach, built sand castles and ran in and out of the water. Sean and Jeremy woke up every day surrounded by friends and laughed all day long. We went for long walks on the sand, played miniature golf and rode go-karts at night, ate pizza and boardwalk french fries and all sorts of other ghastly-for-your-health foods and thanked God every day for friends and family and heroes in firemen's hats and police uniforms.

I tried my best to explain to Sean that some very bad people had done some very bad things to us, and lots and lots and lots of people had gotten hurt, but we eventually would be OK. I told him that in bad times like this, lots of people step up and become heroes because they help other people even when they might get hurt themselves, and that's what a hero is, not just somebody who can sing or dance or play sports.

Too often, we don't even know who the real heroes in our society are because they never get their pictures on TV until a crying family at a baseball game is holding it on a big hand-lettered poster that says, "We miss you Daddy" or another family is crying over a flag-draped coffin at Arlington National Cemetery.

OK, I left that last paragraph out of what I said to Sean. I forgot what my last paragraph to him was going to be because, at that moment, a plane flew overhead. Somehow, above the noise of the surf and sea gulls, Jeremy either heard it or looked up and saw it. Excitedly, he grabbed my hand and said, "Airplane." Meanwhile, Sean grabbed my other hand and said, "Let's build another sand castle."

We did. Planes were flying again, our families were laughing, and I knew deep down that although everything wasn't back to normal and maybe never would be, we were on our way.

I also knew that Jeremy and Sean will have plenty of time to discover what heroes are and aren't. Who knows? Maybe one day they'll be heroes themselves.

Mark Stewart is the father of two boys, Sean and Jeremy. He is a copy editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at mstewart@washingtontimes.com.

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