Postcard brings tragedy home

October 29, 2001|By Tom Mudd

DUBLIN - The white postcard fluttered through the mail slot. For several hours, it lay there, along with a dunning notice, some instant recycling and a credit card statement.

It was the white postcard that caught and held my attention, delivering to me a message from the dim past, caught up in the garish present.

I kept picking it up, staring at it, fingering it. The edges were already frayed just a few hours after the mailman slipped it through the door.

In a sense, the postcard was a challenge, demanding that I ransack my memory and match a face to a name.

The name was Thomas D. Burke.

The postcard was sent by the alumni association at the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass., where Irish names are so common that Thomas Burke might as well be John Smith.

Thomas Burke. Thomas Burke. Wait a minute. Tom Burke? Burkie, or something like that? Yeah, I think... No. I thought I had something, but it's gone.

It took nearly an hour to find the fat purple yearbook I took with me from Worcester 16 years ago.

When I located it, it opened to the very page on which Thomas D. Burke's picture appears.

The smile on the face was not the one I remembered, but similar.

The eyes and the curly hair, though, matched a memory that had been buried somewhere deep in my mind.

The memory filled me with fond warmth at first, but it was replaced quickly by an icy stab of grief.

The picture brought him back.

It made me recall a lean young man wearing old jeans, a T-shirt, the mustard-yellow jacket and bored expression of workers in the dining hall.

I saw him sitting at one of the long tables to chat with my roommate. I recalled the slow smile that brightened his face when my roommate said something funny.

In the weeks and months to come, I would see that slow smile many more times. On "Easy Street," the path leading from my dorm to the student center; on the quad; in the student pub.

Over our four shared years on a Massachusetts hilltop, Thomas D. Burke and I rarely exchanged more than a "Hey, Tom" and some small talk. And after we graduated in June 1985, I hardly thought of him again.

Until the postcard came.

Since then, I've been thinking of what Stalin is supposed to have said, that one death is a tragedy while a million are a statistic.

Here in Ireland, a neutral country thousands of miles away from Ground Zero, I hadn't fully come to grips with the reality of what happened on Sept. 11.

But there was that postcard.

I've learned since then that Tom Burke was working at Cantor Fitzgerald when the World Trade Center was hit.

The postcard told me he married his college sweetheart, and they had four boys.

Those boys now occupy my mind, though I have never seen them.

I want to think they have piercing blue eyes, just like their daddy's. And I want to think that a day will come when the youngest of them will sit at a long wooden table and laugh at a joke made by a funny guy like my old roommate.

Maybe this boy's smile will be every bit as bright as his father's. But won't there always be at least a trace of sadness there?

For me, a statistic has become a reality. And all I want to do is amble down Easy Street and say it once again:

"Hey, Tom."

Tom Mudd, a Towson native, lives in a suburb of Dublin, where he is European bureau chief of IndustryWeek magazine.

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