56: Electing to Serve

56: Electing to Serve

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Electing to Serve

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.

~Thomas Paine

On Sunday, September 9, 2001, my brother-in-law returned to New York City after visiting my husband, my four children, and me in West Virginia. My oldest child began his first year of college out of state during my brother-in-law’s visit. Our life was quiet, normal.

On Tuesday, September 11th, after my three younger children left for school, I turned on the morning news to see the impossible: a plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center. My husband and I grew up in Brooklyn, a short subway ride from the World Trade Center. I watched the buildings rise bit by bit until they towered over the other skyscrapers in the city.

I called my husband to check on where my brother-in-law’s office was. As we talked, I watched the second plane hit the South Tower.

Eight of my cousins worked in the financial district in Lower Manhattan. But I did not know exactly where.

My next phone call was to my seventy-five-year-old mother, living alone in Brooklyn. She was closing windows to keep out the ashes. My aunt’s Staten Island telephone buzzed a busy signal for hours. I learned later that as Mom and I talked, our family members and friends ran, then trudged, through the debris to leave Manhattan.

I also had several friends who worked in the Washington, D.C. area, and cousins living in Pennsylvania. The principal and vice principal of my children’s school, at a conference in Washington, D.C., had run from the Capitol Building, on the heels of the building’s security guard. The guard had ordered bystanders to run; then he ran. Friends of ours, returning from Europe, were stranded in Canada for several days.

This attack affected so many people in my small world, all over the country. Within a few days, I was defiant. I went out. Salespeople thanked me as I walked through the stores in several malls. “If we stay home, they win. We can’t let them win,” I said.

I hung an American flag in a front window of my home. I placed a 9/11 decal on my car window. I wrote a thank-you note to local firefighters after they put up a display of solidarity with the people of New York.

Later, I learned that three of my cousins had indeed been at a breakfast meeting in the South Tower when the first plane hit. One cousin, remembering the 1993 bombing, forced the other two to leave the building. It collapsed as they walked away. I could be strong because the loss, though great, had not cut as deeply as it had for other Americans.

Still, shopping and hanging flags did not satisfy the need that I had to express my love for my country. I began to receive recruiting calls from several branches of the military, the result of taking two language courses at a local college. Military service was not a viable option for me.

Then in 2002, a friend sent an e-mail asking for primary-election poll workers. That was something I could do! Once my husband and I worked out childcare, I called Voter Registration and was accepted.

Thirteen years have passed since I first worked at the polls. I have assisted at four polling places and met hundreds of voters in my county. Many poll workers have served far longer than me, like Myna who has worked the polls for more than thirty-five years. She carefully taught me election law, while warmly greeting voters whom she had known through her many years in the precinct. Myna always dresses in red, white, and blue on Election Day, down to her sneakers, and even painted her house red, white, and blue inside and outside. Bill wisely navigated us through difficult situations with a smile. Mary Lou and Desper kindly welcomed me and treated all the poll workers like family, bringing special treats to help us through the long day. Some poll workers made significant sacrifices. Phyllis missed one year due to a grave illness, but served with us the next year even in her weakened state. Corrie served as a poll worker on her day off from driving a county school bus during the week. Tiffany, a single mother, used her day off from the county prosecutor’s office to work at the polls.

Many voters thank us for serving, but it is an honor. The fourteen-hour days, the detailed paperwork, and the frayed tempers when the lines are long are a small price to pay for the opportunity to serve my country in a way that makes our country different, in a way that makes our country enviable. The citizens of the United States can vote for those who will make policy and see it through, according to the voice of the people. We can oust those who are incompetent or work against the interests of the country in a bloodless revolt. We do not live under the thumb of tyrants who would destroy what they do not understand: the right to freedom, the right to speak up about our future.

The scars of 9/11 are still with me. When I watch the memorial services each year, I remember that horrific day, pray for the families that suffered great loss, and give thanks that I didn’t lose anyone. And then I prepare to volunteer on Election Day, the way that I serve and honor my country.

~C. F. Williams

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