Sense of control a casualty when tragedy touches a life

This Just In...

August 26, 2002|By Dan Rodricks

A FEW DAYS, a few hours, a few minutes here or there, and everything could change. A missed turn to the right, a wrong turn to the left, a forgotten look into the rear-view mirror, a misplaced phone number, a canceled appointment, an overdue flight - the stuff that can alter lives forever.

No one likes to contemplate such vagaries, especially the Type-A's among us who believe they have ultimate control over their lives - and that no scruffy flock of seagulls can fly into our turbines.

But one of the things that burned and collapsed on Sept. 11 was the idea that we of the efficient, modern world, with our lives organized by Palm Pilot and informed by cellular phone, could not be suddenly thrown into nightmare. We were given a mass lesson in that new reality.

And then there's the cauldron of what-ifs and might-have-beens. While not everyone has a personal story to relate about a missed appointment or late train, there are plenty of New Yorkers and Pentagon employees who must live with questions of fate and pangs of survivor guilt.

Recently, I heard the mother of a 9/11 victim mention how, coming out of graduate school, her son wanted to work for no other company but the investment firm that had its office on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center. His life ran on time that day; he got to work when he was supposed to. Among the many who died with him were four customers who apparently had appointments on the 104th floor, first thing on 9/11.

"A sense of control over our work and our lives is a major issue for many of us," Maria Eckerd, a psychologist, wrote in Making Bread, a magazine for career women. "But tragedies such as the attack on New York are beyond our control. We feel vulnerable, as if we are the victims rather than the masters of our fate."

And, even many miles from Ground Zero, there's survivor guilt.

"We wonder," Eckerd wrote, "why we were lucky enough to escape - why we were late for work, picked that day for vacation or a doctor's appointment - while others were severely injured or died. It is hard for us to be glad for ourselves in the face of the misfortune of others. We search for logical reasons for the vagaries of chance."

I've been thinking about this - and the idea that decisions we make, major or painfully ordinary, can affect not only our own lives but also the lives of others - just in the last week.

But it wasn't the approach of the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks that got me to wondering about the twists and turns of human experience - the things we do or do not do that can become matters of life or death - but the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Bay Bridge.

In a recent piece about this, I mentioned the names of the four men who died during the bridge's construction between 1950 and 1952. One of these names - John Posavec - caught the eye of James Hopkins, a 79-year-old Baltimorean.

"In 1945 John Posavec and I were freshmen members of Duke University's varsity baseball team. He was a very fine shortstop. I was a pitcher," Hopkins wrote in a letter dated Aug. 15. "John never returned to Duke after that freshman year and I did not know how to get in touch with him after that. I graduated from Duke in 1949 and took courses at Johns Hopkins. I went to work at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point in 1950.

"In April 1950 I had some business at the employment office. When I was preparing to leave I heard this familiar voice yell, `Hey, Hoppy!,' and I turned around and there was John Posavec. John was now a schoolteacher, after graduation from a small college in Pennsylvania. He asked me if I might help him get a summer job at Beth Steel. I did try but they were not sure yet if there would be any summer jobs. When John called me the next night I had to tell him I had had no luck, and I wished him well."

Posavec apparently got a job on the Bay Bridge project just a month later. He was hired as a night watchman on a floating concrete plant. A storm hit and capsized the concrete plant, and Posavec drowned. He was 28.

"I did not know of John's death until the summer of 1952," Hopkins wrote. "For the past 50 years I have really thought that if I had been able to help John get a job at Beth Steel that he would still be alive. He was one of the finest young men I ever knew. He always had a big, big smile."

Hopkins thinks about this from time to time - when he crosses the Bay Bridge, and other times. He doesn't obsess about it, but the feeling is there, poured into his memory and his heart, a what-if that remains alive, like a young man's smile, in some corner of his conscience after half a century. I think there are a lot of people in this nation who know that feeling, know that smile.

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