Line blurred between reality of war, everyday life

October 09, 2001|By Michael Olesker

ON SUNDAY, the man on the television said American attacks were about to begin. But the family had plans for the Fells Point Fun Festival. A few minutes later, the television showed the nighttime skies over Kabul lighted up with flashes and President Bush declaring, "On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes." But in Baltimore, the sun was shining and the fresh air beckoned.

Which was our primary reality? The man on the television informed us there were American missiles that could "hit a specific window on a specific floor in a building a thousand miles away." In an hour of anxiety, this was meant to calm us: Our weapons are better than theirs. Then came the face of Osama bin Laden, taunting us from a cave, celebrating the attacks of Sept. 11, asking God to bless the hijackers who had killed thousands of innocents. His calm, and his surroundings, were meant to unnerve us: You cannot bomb me back to the Stone Age, he seemed to be saying; I am already there.

So we turned the channel on the television. Instead of bin Laden's plans to destroy America, we found the ballpark in Baltimore. The Ravens were beating up the Tennessee Oilers. There were 69,494 people in the stands, all sublimely happy, all momentarily oblivious to the thing happening on most of the television channels at home.

When we turned back to the news, bin Laden had not gone away. He was calling on Muslims to take up a holy war. The experts on the television told us such a war could last a long time. But the Fells Point Fun Festival was ending in a few hours.

The telephone rang before we could leave. The youngest in the family, watching the war from her apartment, wanted assurance the country would be all right. She had a girlfriend on the other line. The girlfriend is 22, involved with a young man, wondering about the future with the people on television saying such terrible things.

"I had the worst nightmare," the girlfriend said. "It was my wedding day. And the best man, and all of the ushers, were wearing gas masks." Across multiple telephone lines, there was only silence. "I never thought a war would hit so close to home," she said finally.

Which is the dream's message: that she feels frightened even in a moment of sublime joy? Or that, despite all fears, life must go on? Which is our primary reality - that creepy man issuing his threats from far away, or the sunny day and the Fells Point Festival?

We reached the festival after circling for long minutes. Where can you park when thousands have arrived from all over the metro area, filling the streets? We walked in from the east side, where the beer garden was situated. The music was peppy and the atmosphere pleasantly lubricated. The war seemed to belong to some parallel, temporarily disconnected reality.

Except for this: So many of the booths offered patriotic flair. American flags were all over the place, and T-shirts with references to the attacks, and to U.S. determination to strike back.

"How long have you been here?" we asked a young woman we know.

"Since this morning," she said. "It's getting chilly."

"Did you hear, we started bombing?"

"Oh, yeah," she said, somewhat laconically. "Somebody mentioned it."

She turned to a friend.

"I meant to mention it to you," she told him.

The friend shook his head in wonder. "What kind of strange world is this," he asks, "where you can't wait to get home and turn on TV to see about a war?"

Which is our primary reality - that business on the television, or getting on with our everyday lives? The television has always been our source of amusement, of our removed, secondhand involvement in the events of the day. Usually there's been a wall between the things seen on the screen and our lives.

A few months ago, we had a railroad accident along Howard Street in Baltimore, seen on a television screen and then translated to reality when it took some of us a little longer to get to work. This was seen as great upheaval at the time. Many were forced to arrive several minutes late for work. What calamity!

That was another world ago. On the night of the first air attacks, we dropped in for a few minutes at a synagogue in Northwest Baltimore. Osama bin Laden had mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian troubles. A seniors group was supposed to gather for its monthly dinner at this synagogue. Outside, on a darkened parking lot, we saw a security officer in a car. Inside the synagogue door, another man sat at a desk and eyeballed all who entered.

"America is full of fear," said Osama bin Laden.

But there was a full house at the dinner. The war had arrived, but the people in this synagogue said life must go on. The scenes on the television were pretty scary. But Osama bin Laden, for all his boasting and all his threatening, was squatting on the floor of a cave.

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