The Fire Trail, a Novel: Father Nate’s Memories of Nine-Eleven

Chapter 16, Father Nate Casparian, age 77, caretaker of Comerford House and Chapel, brother to Nicholas Casparian, dying of ALS, former Cal professor, 2014:

nine-eleven crossA sudden silence fell over them like a pall as they stepped slowly and carefully down the gravel path through the gardens, hearing only the sounds of their footfall and the caws of unseen birds high in the pines. Pausing, they looked out to the pale sky spread over Comerford House. When Anna spoke, Father Nate could barely hear her. “I was making breakfast when I heard,” she said. “Where were you on Nine-Eleven, Father?”

The question jabbed the priest’s memory, but he didn’t mind. Memory, he knew, could be healed by love. Anna wouldn’t probe too deep. He trusted her to heal and not hurt. He could see, when she glanced at him, that she simply desired to remember the day, to mourn for America then and now. He tried not to waver, but his face must have betrayed him, for she added, “You don’t have to tell me.”

“It’s okay, Anna. Stories are good. Especially true stories that explain the present, like all true history, all good history, handed down to the next generation. But let’s sit so I can rest my legs again.” He motioned to her to join him on a bench in the garden. Taking a deep breath, he said a quick prayer, forcing himself to give voice to that time of sudden, shocking loss. “I was a parish priest and friar. Nicholas was teaching at Cal. I lived near the church, St. Joseph’s. I remember hearing the news when I turned on the TV early in the morning.”

“Me too.”

“It was before the fire.” He touched his crimson cheek. “And before the ALS.”

“Two more tragedies.”

“But the worst tragedy was . . . Louise.”

“Louise?”

TWIN TOWERS“Louise Casparian, Nicholas’ wife.” Anna grew silent, and Father Nate could see an array of emotions pass over her face. She waited for him to speak. “She died that morning,” he said, focusing on a pale pink rose in the garden. “She was visiting a cousin at her office in New York at the Trade Center. They never had a chance.”

“Oh, no.” He turned to Anna and met her soft dark eyes, caring eyes, eyes that understood loss. Encouraged, the words tumbled out, and he found himself gesturing with open palms, standing, pacing, and sitting again. “We didn’t realize, at first, where she was at the time, but when we didn’t hear from her . . . well, we learned soon enough. Nicholas was devastated, as were the children. They were adults, of course, a son and a daughter with families of their own. But it was so violent, so unexpected.”

“How did he manage such a loss?”

“He plunged into his work. But his academic colleagues claimed that America asked for it, citing our imperialism, capitalism, and wealth, and saying that the terrorists were the real victims. Nicholas was furious. It became his mission to correct their lies.”

“What did he do?”

“He fought them with words and ideas. He set up courses to teach the next generation the truth: America’s history, her institutions, what defines her, his six grand pillars.”

flag“Six grand pillars?”

Father Nate ticked them off on his fingers. “There were the three L’s: Limited government, individual liberty, rule of law . . . let’s see, the other three were free markets, personal responsibility, and traditional values.” 

Anna repeated them as if committing them to memory.

Father Nate continued, venting the concern he shared with his brother and welcoming the healing tonic of Anna’s friendship as though she could carry his burden by gathering it up, at least for a time.

“Nicholas claimed that our country had grown weak and vulnerable to another attack. Clinton eviscerated the CIA, he said, so intelligence was ineffective. He used the word eviscerated, I remember. I had to look it up.”

“And President Bush?”

“Nicholas admired Bush, said he would go down in history as one of our great presidents. He thought the liberal media had reached a barbaric low when they made fun of him. He often said that the guarantors of freedom and free speech were their close cousins, respect and responsibility.”

“I remember how the papers and TV made fun of President Bush, even little things, personal things. I don’t like sneering and bullying. It isn’t right. It isn’t civil.”

Father Nate nodded. “It crosses the border between the civil and the uncivil. But the media bias soon was out in the open. When President Bush’s term was up in 2008, the media orchestrated the next election. The new president, their man, eviscerated, my word this time, the military across the board, leading to our current crisis.”

“And this encouraged the rise of Islamic terrorism?”

“Yes, to put it simply.”

“Americans don’t like war.” Anna looked doubtful, and Father Nate knew she voiced the feelings of many, that if you don’t like something then it must be wrong. Even national defense was now guided by feelings.

Father Nate breathed deeply and spoke firmly, as though explaining to the daughter he never had, telling the truth, emboldened by love.

“Nobody likes war. But balance of power keeps the world safe, prevents war and protects peace. War is inevitable when you have tyrants in the world, regardless of their reason. Russia is another rising tyranny. So the balance of power has now been tipped in tyranny’s favor.”

They headed downhill, following the path.

“What happened to Nicholas’ son and daughter? And their families?” Anna asked as they neared the chapel.

“They’re fine, in Arizona and Maine. Each invited their father to come live with them, but he didn’t want to be a burden. So he sold the house in the Berkeley Hills and moved in with me.”

“He wanted to keep teaching.” 

Father Nate nodded. “He lived and breathed academia and the free exchange of ideas. Working was the therapy he needed. And now he was on a mission, to correct the media’s lies, the lies taught on campus, politically correct lies.”

“Was it really that bad?”

500px-Statue_of_Liberty_7They crossed the lawn to the French doors. He wanted Anna to understand what it means to be a refugee, to emigrate to America. “Anna, our grandparents fled the Armenian genocide of 1915 in Turkey, where their own parents—our great-grandparents—were murdered. They worked hard when they came to this country. They farmed near Fresno, living in a refugee community. Nicholas and I grew up during World War Two. We were raised to deeply value liberty—the freedom to think, speak, and worship as we choose. We loved America. We loved the culture of the Western world. We didn’t have much, but we had America. We were Americans.”

“I understand, Father.” She opened the door. “I’m so glad to hear your story. Thank you.”

“Not an unusual one, even if ignored or forgotten. Thanks for listening to an old friar, Anna.”

“But what happened to Nicholas’ Western Civ program?”

“It struggles. Many faculty still think the West is the cause of the world’s problems, not the solution.” Father Nate shook his head. “I can’t figure them out. Do they want to be like Russia? Or China? Or Iran? Do they want women to be enslaved, children raped? Do they want Jews, gays, and Christians slaughtered, beheaded, crucified? Blasphemers whipped and adulterers stoned? What are they thinking? I’ll never understand the America-haters, and there are lots of them with powerful tenure in respected universities today. They’re teaching our children and grandchildren to hate their own country.”

They stood in front of the table, and Anna tasted her tea. “Cold.”

The Fire TrailFather Nate picked up a towel and reached for a cup. “This Fire Trail killer is a victim of our not enforcing the law. We’ve grown lax because many don’t believe in the source of our laws. Nicholas sometimes quotes Jefferson: ‘Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?’ The words are etched into the Jefferson memorial in Washington, D.C.”  

Anna glanced up at him. “He means that if we don’t believe in the source of the gift we might not believe in the gift itself?”

“Exactly.” 

“Religion is important, I’ve come to see, even if I’m not very good at believing. Now go and fetch Nicholas. I’ll meet you in the chapel. We have lots of prayers to say tonight.”

Christine Sunderland, The Fire Trail (eLectio Publishing, 2016, 128-133)

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