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Memorial Day. This first weekend of summer has long been a time of picnics and barbecues and trips to the beach. To their credit, Americans never actually forgot the sacrifices of those who gave the final measure to protect the freedoms we now hold so casually. But their sacrifices were safely pigeonholed in a brief ceremony at the cemetery, a few moments of young kids scrambling to pass out flags in the sun -- even that, these days, usually observed on TV.
Not so distressing, that way. The corpses of the frozen dead at Choisin Reservoir, or massacred at Malmedy? Another world. Heroes distantly remembered, symbols conveniently abstract, words of some historic speech memorized and recited by the best student in the class.
That was the way it was supposed to be, the way we expected it to remain, up through Sept. 10, 2001.
Of course, America’s independence was won because the French threw in on our side those many years ago. Franklin couldn’t convince King Louis’ ministers to do that till the colonials proved they could win a real pitched battle against British regulars -- not just some skirmish against a sleepy mercenary garrison, such as Trenton or Princeton. A real battle to prove our revolution could succeed.
Washington couldn’t produce that victory -- he was busy fighting a brilliant but doomed withdrawal from Philadelphia before Lord Howe’s superior advancing army, in that late summer and fall of 1777.
No, the one vital, necessary victory was won by New Haven shopkeeper Benedict Arnold, not even officially in command, grievously wounded but rising again and again, rallying the troops from the front as one horse after another was shot from beneath him, marshaling his forces to defeat an army of stunned British regulars emerging from the northern New York forest at Saratoga under the command of Gen. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne.
“What forces?” both Ambassador Franklin and King Louis of France wanted to know. Washington had the entire regular Continental Army with him at Philadelphia. What army had won the great battle at Saratoga? No army, came the answer. Men without uniforms. American farmers in homespun, answering their country’s call.
Plenty of America’s heroes do wear uniforms. But as in all our wars, not all do.
Todd Beamer, 32, was an Oracle Inc. executive from Hightstown, N.J. Jeremy Glick, 31, was a sales manager for an Internet service provider. Thomas Burnett Jr., 38, was a California businessman. Mark Bingham, 31, a former college rugby player from California. All four were on United Airlines Flight 93 when it left Newark bound for San Francisco at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
The plane never arrived. Terrorists armed with knives seized the flight, turned it around somewhere near Cleveland and headed for Washington, D.C.
After making her promise to call his wife and their two young boys, Mr. Beamer told the GTE supervisor, Lisa Jefferson, that he and the others -- now aware thanks to their cell phones of what had happened to three other hijacked flights that day -- had decided they were not going to stand by and remain mere pawns in the hijackers’ plot.
Without uniforms, without orders.
After Mr. Beamer extracted his promise that Ms. Jefferson would call his family, he dropped the phone, leaving the line open so the phone company supervisor could hear his final words, as he headed for the front of the plane to force it down in a remote strip mine area, 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Mr. Beamer spoke for a nation.
He said, “Let’s roll.”
And then there was silence.
Lisa Jefferson hung up the phone at 10 a.m. Eastern time, realizing no more would be heard from Flight 93.
Now, again, it’s Memorial Day. The bugles blow, laughing children place flags on the graves of the fallen, the surviving comrades of the silent dead squeeze into too-tight uniforms to march a block or two beneath the flag.
But these days, the dead are no longer so distant. In that one brief moment, Todd Beamer and Jeremy Glick, Thomas Burnett Jr. and Mark Bingham ceased to be “civilians.”
They remembered what they were. They were the militia, our militia, though this time deprived of arms by their own government, despite the solemn guarantee -- the firm, written guarantee a number of the states demanded before they’d ratify the Constitution -- that “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
They went forward, anyway.
Surely they’ve earned their medals and their flags, as well, don’t you think?
“What kind of government have you given us?” Mrs. Powel asked Mr. Franklin as he emerged, at last, from the sweltering hall in Philadelphia.
“A republic,” he said ... “if you can keep it.”
A version of this column first appeared in 2002.