30 December 2012

9/11 to Newtown: Tragedies link family members in the difficult quest to cope with unbearable loss

In her most recent Washington Post column, Lisa Miller notes that the families of Newtown are going through the difficult process of surviving their great losses. Each family must find ways to cope in their own ways, as have the families of other tragedies: 9/11, Columbine and Virginia Tech.

For example, Adele Welty, whose firefighter son, Timmy, was killed on 9/11, was not one who believed in "moving on." For her, the memory of her son was something to keep close, every day. Jay Winuk lost his brother Glenn in the South Tower on 9/11. "It's hard to imagine that you'll ever heal," he said, "But to provide a happy life to your children or other people, you have to heal. It doesn't mean that the pain ever goes away. The questions remain. How could people go so wrong as to cause so much pain in so many innocent lives?" Monika Iken's husband Michael was killed on 9/11, and though she has remarried, she still feels "like we're still connected spiritually. He sends me signs. I'm always aware of his presence. Rainbows come out of nowhere. Butterflies."

Beverly Eckert's story of horror, loss, pain and healing is very much the same. After Sean's death, she had to answer the monumental question: How do you go on when you lose the person who was at the center of your life, of your heart, your soul? Every day after 9/11 was Beverly's answer to this question. You live a life with meaning. You never forget. You survive. You fashion yourself a new life. You make the world a better place.

21 December 2012

Family members of the Sandy Hook School shooting victims will be powerful forces in the debate on gun violence

I was listening to the Diane Rehm Show on NPR and heard one of the guests make an important connection between 9/11 and the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Susan Davis of USA Today was discussing the looming national discussion about the ways to reduce gun violence, and she said that one potentially crucial factor will be the family members of the victims. She noted that after 9/11 it was the family members who were a powerful force in making the country safer. Beverly Eckert and other family members organized demonstrations, vigils, lobbying campaigns, press conferences -- anything that would keep their concerns from being shunted aside or defeated. Many of those who had firsthand knowledge of the workings of Washington have said that if it weren't for the 9/11 family members, the efforts at reform would not have happened. The political opposition -- from the Bush White House, its allies in Congress, the Pentagon, FBI and CIA -- would have just been too great. Beverly and the other family members did not know at first they were up against such formidable forces. They only knew that for the sake of their loved ones they had to do something, and that they would not give up. So that small group of inexperienced, low-budget but passionate, savvy and determined citizen activists took on Washington and won.

The family members of Sandy Hook are still reeling, still healing. But soon they will be asking themselves, "Why did this happen? How can we make sure it doesn't happen again?" Then they will join hands, united in the love of those they lost, and take on the powerful forces arrayed against them. For once, the biggest political bully in Washington, the NRA, may finally meet its match.

18 December 2012

A lesson from Beverly Eckert: cherish those you love every day, "Because life can change in an instant"

Once again, hell has visited earth.

This time, it was at a grade school in Newtown, Connecticut. The pain it brought, the gaping, black-draped sadness, reminds us of times past when a day of horror left us weeping for the loss of those we loved. For so many, including me, the slaying of those 26 innocents brought back the shock and vertigo of 9/11.

Now, just as then, the first question is "Why?" Then, a gathering sense that something must be done. "We can't tolerate this anymore," President Obama told the people of Newtown. "These tragedies must end." In the same way, Beverly Eckert, other family members, politicians and others worked tirelessly to make the country safer after the hell of that clear September day in 2001.

At times such as these, there are other lessons as well. The most important being: show your love in words and deeds each and every passing day. Because you just never know. This thought was in my head on Friday, December 14, the day of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Just two days before I had been transcribing an interview with Beverly's sister, Karen Eckert. I had asked her to tell me about the days before and after 9/11 because this was the one subject I did not cover with Beverly. She had talked to me at length about her early years in Buffalo, her life with her husband, Sean Rooney, and her work after 9/11. But I knew that even though she had spoken about the day itself many, many times -- to friends and relatives, to journalists, and at official hearings -- it would still be the most difficult part of our collaboration. So I had left that topic as the last one, because it would not be easy, and because I thought we would have time. Turns out, we didn't.

Karen told me that Beverly's memory of the times with Sean just before 9/11 were peaceful, warm and filled with a deep, mellow love. On the evening of September 10th, Sean had his arm around Beverly as they sat at the end of the day in their den, a soft rain outside, the soothing strains of "Theme from a Summer Place" playing on the stereo. Both of them had a sense that life was good, and the reason for that was that they had each other. The next morning, as he was leaving on his commute to the World Trade Center, Sean walked up behind his beloved, softly kissed the back of her neck, and said, "You make me so very happy."

It was the last time she would be kissed by her best friend, her partner, her one love. The magic of that moment stuck with her, treasured until the end. And the lesson, too. Karen said that after Sean's death, Beverly "always used to say to us: 'If you love someone, don't leave the house without telling them something nice -- 'I love you' or 'This is great' -- because life can change in an instant.'"

30 May 2012

Vivid childhood memories of the street where she lived

Who was Beverly Eckert, and how did she become that person? These are some of the deeper questions I'll try to answer in No Truer Hearts. My task was made much easier because of all the help Beverly provided during the course of our collaboration. In addition to sending me scores of emails over the years, she gave extensive interviews, and opened up her bulging files of articles, documents and reports. She also provided visual tours of parts of her life, paging through fat photo albums and giving me copies of videotapes with media coverage of her post-9/11 work.

But my favorite source is one I received from her sister Karen after Beverly's death. It is a small book that Beverly had written around 1963 at age twelve titled "Summer on Wickham." In it, Beverly recounts tales of the previous couple of years, when she and a group of her buddies happily roamed the sidewalks, streets and fields around Wickham Drive in Amherst, New York.

This little literary gem is remarkable for a number of reasons. It is quite well written, considering the author's age. Beverly was at times very dramatic in recounting some of her adventures, like this one about a bicycle outing that went awry.
The heat of the day was oppressive, so it was hard going for bicycles. Finally [Beverly and her friends] came to a hill which had a stone wall going all the way down. "Hey Bev!" yelled Cheryl. "If you want to go down faster, keep your feet off the pedals!" "All right," agreed Bev. She pedaled furiously till she reached the part where the hill began. She started down this, her feet off the pedals. The stony wall had jagged edges of rock protruding from it on either side. Bev, as she was going down, looked over this wall. Her heart stopped beating. A car was coming down the driveway that was at the end of the stone wall!
The stories in "Summer on Wickham" provide nuggets of gold for the biographer, for they reveal aspects of young Bev's character: her leadership qualities, her zest for life, an eagerness to make friends, her amazing creativity, and a budding sense of romance. The book is a wonderful gift that she left behind, of cherished memories, frolicsome vignettes of youth, and a window onto her young but precocious personality. Every time I read it, I smile at the memory of Beverly, and remember as well similar episodes in my own youth, and the things Beverly and I had in common, Baby Boomers growing up in America's new and expanding suburbs. And on this day after her birthday, I hope these words bring others closer to her memory and to her bright and vibrant soul.

10 May 2012

A proper home for the Koenig sphere

The Koenig sphere as it is remembered, glistening in the WTC plaza

The sphere post-9/11, the sun still glinting from its damaged surface
As the years have passed, most of the struggles over how 9/11 should be remembered at Ground Zero have been resolved. But now the final resting place of a very special work of art is in question, again.

In the months and years after 9/11, there were many battles. Back when the twisted steel girders and mountains of ash and remains of those who perished were being taken from the site, family members were pushing hard to make their voices heard. When developers and city officials tried to erase most of what was left after the towers fell and thousands died, Beverly Eckert and other family members said no. Their voices were united in the Coalition of 9/11 Family Members, a group that focused on making sure Ground Zero would not be bulldozed, buried, developed and forgotten, with only a token space devoted to a memorial. 

Beverly and other family members had to fight hard, but often they won. Thanks to their efforts, major features left behind after the destruction of the Twin Towers was cleared away were incorporated into the design of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The issues the coalition fought for are listed in this 2005 petition.

But once again people are talking about the sphere, a massive metal sculpture designed by Fritz Koenig which was damaged by the pieces of the falling Twin Towers and was displayed for years in Lower Manhattan's Battery Park. The sculpture, which is titled "Sphere for Plaza Fountain," after it's original location, must soon be moved to make way for a long-scheduled renovation of the park. But moved where?

It seems that the owners of the the artwork, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, have not figured out where to place it. Beverly and other coalition members felt strongly that the sphere belonged at Ground Zero, as an integral part of the memorial complex. Thousands of others feel the same way, and have signed a petition to that effect.

There are many good reasons for 9/11 Memorial officials to incorporate this unique and deeply evocative survivor of that horrible day. The artist himself said it was meant to be a symbol of peace through world trade. For countless people who worked in the Twin Towers or visited them, the sphere tells a moving story, bridging the happy, busy days before and the tear-stained days after. It captures the memories of those times before the horrible day, of sunny lunches shared with friends by the plaza fountain, of school trips to the big city, of business deals, of work, play, wonder and love in the shadow of those magnificent buildings. But now the sphere shows scars, dents and scrapes from that day. 

May it gleam once again in its proper place under many, many sunny days.

14 February 2012

'All There Is' -- A Box of Valentine Chocolates: CSM Review

The publication of All There Is of course was timed to coincide with Valentine's Day. Today's Christian Science Monitor review of the David Isay book was described as "sweeter – and occasionally gooier – than a box of chocolates" by Heller McAlpin. Not surprisingly, the reviewer said the exceptional love story of Beverly Eckert and Sean Rooney was the "most moving" of the lot. 

An article about the book and Beverly's story appeared in the Stamford Advocate.

12 February 2012

Like Pebbles in a Pond..

Sometimes the words just fail, and only images come to mind.

It was just three years ago when the sickening, horrifying news spread out from the crash site, on the home of the Wielinski family at 6038 Long Street, in the quiet village of Clarence Center, New York, on the flight path to the Buffalo airport. Continental Flight 3407 had stalled, gyrated out of control, and fell like a rock, bursting into flames when it hit the ground. All 49 on board perished, as did Doug Wielinski, while his wife, Karen, and daughter, Jill, were able to struggle out of the wreckage of the burning house.

We all spend just a few brief moments on this beautiful earth -- a mere instant in the long history of humankind. And the life of each breathing soul is like a pebble tossed in a high and lazy arc over the calm waters of a clear, blue pond. The very moment that pebble strikes the surface of the water, gives rise to a ripple, which generates another and another and another. They spread outward from the center and lap upon far shores and near, often in mysterious and wonderful ways.

In this way did the lives of those on Flight 3407 affect those around them. Ripples in a pond.

I have been thinking about how to best end the story of Beverly Eckert, and it makes sense to talk about the wonderful ripples sent out from her exceptional life. There will be an accounting of the ways she made this country safer, changed the way airlines operated, the way skyscrapers were designed. But there will also be stories about the people Beverly touched, changed, helped and loved. It is these ripples that are a kind of eternity, moving through time, through hearts, through generations.

The ripples of some pebbles just go one and on.

10 February 2012

Beverly Eckert's Love Story in New Book Sparks (Accidental) Interest in 'No Truer Hearts'

Many people know about Beverly Eckert, but very few know about her biography. So I was momentarily surprised by a somewhat mysterious email I received last week from the owner of a small bookstore in Upstate New York asking if I could send her copies of No Truer Hearts.


I replied that I would be happy to send copies of the book -- once it was published! After thinking about the possible reasons for such a query, I lit upon the probable solution: people were confusing the new book, All There Is (see previous blog post) with mine somehow. Not long after, a woman from the Small Press Department of Barnes & Noble Inc. (!!) emailed me with a similar message: could you send us a copy of your book? It was nice to get the attention, but frustrating not to be able to ship out copies of the finished volume. (Lord knows I've been trying hard to get it done!) Plus, it gave me a big boost to know people were interested in Beverly's story, even now.

Finally, a few minutes ago I received confirmation of my initial theory by putting myself in the shoes of a potential Upstate New York reader who had heard in the news that a book telling Beverly's story had just come out. How would this reader look for the title of this book? Ask Mr. Google, of course! So I googled "Beverly Eckert book", and the first three results were to this blog and to my web site, anthonytoth.com, which has information on Beverly and No Truer Hearts. Mystery solved.

Just proves the importance of having a strong online presence for an obscure (but talented) writer. It's called building a "platform," all this non-writing self-promotion. In plain English, it's simply spreading the word, which is what writers desire anyway.

Now to get on with the writing! (And then to send a copy to that nice lady from Barnes & Noble once I'm done.)

02 February 2012

New Book of Love Stories from StoryCorps Features the One About Beverly and Sean

The love story that is at the center of No Truer Hearts is the one involving Beverly Eckert and Sean Rooney. A book released today also tells this story, in Beverly's own words. The title is All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorps, and it was written by Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps. The book contains a number of love stories, and Beverly's is based on the recording she made for StoryCorps in New York City in 2006.  This article in the Buffalo News gives a good summary.

Love stories are the most important ones, because love is the most imortant thing.

02 January 2012

Funding dispute delays construction of 9/11 museum

Beverly Eckert and other 9/11 family members fought hard to preserve "down to the bedrock" the place where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center rose and eventually fell. It was hallowed ground to them, worthy of respect, of preservation, of memorializing. The National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center opened, on time, to the public on September 12, 2011. Just last week, officials announced that more than a million persons have visited the memorial. Many gazed upon the rows of names of those who perished while listening to the stream of clear water eternally flowing into the void where the tall towers once stood.

A museum is also being built on the site. It will house exhibits describing the events leading to the attacks of 9/11. The museum will also pay homage to those who responded to the attacks and those who did not survive, telling their stories in a variety of mediums. Visitors also will be able to see parts of the World Trade Center that were left behind, tangible fragments of a massive building complex that was in a day turned to rubble, the smokey and dusty resting place of nearly 3,000 persons.

There were hopes that the museum would open its doors in time for the 11th anniversary of the attacks, but a funding dispute beteen the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum Foundation has thrown that possibility into doubt.