My novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail, is progressing. But little did I know, when I set this novel in Berkeley in September of 2014 (a decision made at least a year ago that almost seemed arbitrary), that so many events would collide in this month that illustrated my themes.
I’m not sure why I didn’t focus on the Nine-Eleven tragedy to begin with, but I didn’t. I was thinking of the time of year, time of sunset (and thus daylight versus darkness). I was thinking of temperature and dryness, and well, naturally, fire hazards. I wanted school to be in session, so that sort of ruled out the summer months, and while dry it needed to be beautiful with a trail that students would run. September seemed the answer. I plotted the month out, day by day, wondering how many weeks the plot should encompass. How long does it take for two strangers to fall in love?
The story begins on September 3 and my characters appear in the next few days. In real life, wars around the world had been escalating over the summer. Malaysia Airlines jet disappeared, becoming a “ghost” plane, never found. Russian fighters shot down a passenger airline over Ukraine. Islamic terrorism was rising and homegrown terrorists from Britain had usefully dangerous passports into the West. Journalists were beheaded and their killers boasted. Events, again and again, and seeming ongoing, verified that the Western Civilization’s borders were being breached by fire.
The President addressed the nation on Wednesday, September 10, the night before the Nine-Eleven memorial. His words seemed too little too late, but indicated a more forceful course in military action. Many Americans hoped and prayed that a clear message would be sent, that we would fight for our peaceful world, we would die for our freedoms. We were still the power that defended liberty and representative government.
So I finally realized my story had placed the September 11 memorial of the Twin Towers attack at its very heart. The story’s action would rise to this point, and then fall away from it. For in our own American history, September 11, 2001, will remain a watershed moment. It is an event that changed us as a nation, woke us up. Some have gone back to sleep, but, thank God, some have remained awake, watching and listening, if not always alert. Those who see the threat for what it was and is – an attack on our way of life as Americans – turned to examine our culture to understand how to be better prepared. Those who recognize the flames coming toward them are sounding the alarm. They are working hard to keep the fire trail clear, retain a true fire break.
Democracy requires patriotism, a civic devotion instilled in school. Classical societies knew this. Our founding fathers knew this. Many have recognized that a good society must cultivate good citizens, men and women educated according to a value-laden curriculum, instilling virtues that allow them to live peaceably together in pursuit of the common good and individual happiness. Instead, the last sixty years has seen a steady erosion of this foundation. Academia has grown cynical and elite and out-of-touch with what actually produces the culture that allows them the liberty to speak, to be cynical and elite and out-of-touch. The ivory towers, like Babel, have risen higher and higher, the windows darkened with ivy, the rooms dim. Patriotism has not been fashionable. Inclusiveness has prevailed. The American way, the way of Western Civilization, these elite say, is just one way among many. We are not exceptional.
Alas, it is not one among many and we are indeed exceptional. America is truly a shining city upon a hill, as was Athens and Rome and Paris and London to the degree that they allowed democratic values to thrive. Over two millennia the development of free thinking peoples and their systems of governing has been unique to the West. So what happened? How did freedom and the flag become something to look down upon from on high? How is it that our homegrown intellectuals sneer and deride the stars and stripes?
Yale historian Donald Kagan writes in the Wall Street Journal:
“Jefferson meant American education to produce a necessary patriotism. Democracy – of all political systems, because it depends on the participation of its citizens in their own government and because it depends on their own free will to risk their lives in its defence – stands in the greatest need of an education that produces patriotism. I recognize that I have said something shocking…”
Indeed. Too many schools haven’t taught love of country for generations, and battles continue to rage in school boards over teaching patriotic curriculum, American history that explains who we are, what we stand for, and what we have to lose if we don’t fight for those ideals.
These are urgent matters for our country. So as I tell the stories of Jessica and Zachary, two grad students at U.C. Berkeley who have come of age in this world and question some of its assumptions, I marvel at how these events have supported my September themes. For Berkeley celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, and this last Wednesday crowds gathered at Sproul Plaza around the corner from my little publishing office. Aged speakers reminisced how they defended free speech by standing on top of police cars with bullhorns.
Today, political correctness reigns at Berkeley and those speakers have become faculty. It is their turn to squelch opposing points of view, promoting those professors who agree with them, isolating those who do not tow the party line. As they preached their creed around the corner from my office, I was meeting with a committee dedicated to establishing a Center for Western Civilization on the corner of Bowditch and Durant. I didn’t realize it at the time that we were huddled and planning quietly while the free-speachers were calling for free tuition and telling tales of sixties sit-ins. I read about it later in the paper and I smiled.
I have reached September 11, 2014 in my manuscript and have written Zachary’s reflections on this horrific day, for reflections on history reflect my character’s character. Soon I shall write the reflections of his mother Anna, and lastly, the reflections of Jessica. And so I shall weave American history into their stories, to enrich what it means to live in this exceptional land of liberty.
And I’m going to place an American flag on the porch of Comerford House, the center of the action. It shall ripple in sunlight and in shadow, high above the bay, looking out over shadowy Berkeley and the shimmering San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate. It shall mark the fire trail that runs behind the house.
To read the first six chapters of The Fire Trail, go to www.LibertyIslandmag.com, click on Open Range, or find my Creator page.