From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

The Unity of Strangers

Candles lit in a circle standing, agreeing, disagreeing but keeping each other’s candles lit.

Gary G. Gach

Tonight a friend called. He was going by himself to a nearby park in Los Angeles with a bunch of candles to think and honor the victims of September 11. He wasn’t sure if anyone else would show up. Nothing had been scheduled. I had been looking for some place to go to share my feelings with others. I gathered a few candles, a small American flag and met him.

At 7:00 P.M., we were the only people in the park, but a small group of people who appeared to be from a church were on the sidewalk handing out candles and lyrics to patriotic songs. We began to sing.

As darkness fell, we set up our candle shrine and more people came. They brought flags and more candles. People began driving by, honking, parking and joining. More people, more flags. Huge ones, tiny ones, one homemade and colored with crayons by a child when his local store ran out. Another friend showed up with her dog that was wearing a red, white and blue kerchief. People started lining the streets and waving their flags. Across the street we saw a long line of marchers carrying votive candles. They had been called about the gathering in the park. The crowd swelled, shouting “U.S.A.!” and waving their flags. There was an older Armenian lady mourning a loss who added her candle to our shrine. They kept coming: Latino families, Asians, young and old, a man in a wheelchair and a homeless man from the park with a flag stuck atop the shopping cart that held all his belongings.

Then, the firefighters came . . . not to tell us we were a fire hazard, but to park their massive trucks on each side of the corner. We cheered these symbols of American heroism and shook their hands. The ladder truck started raising its tall ladder with a big American flag at the top into the night sky. It swung out over the street as it extended and the flag waved. We cheered as the firefighters climbed to the top of the ladder. Cops drove by, honked and turned on their sirens. The corner was ablaze with candlelight and we kept singing. People who never knew the words, learned them. People I’ll never see again sang them with me. More people came. The blare of continuously honking horns filled the air as flag-decorated cars drove by and approved of our demonstration. I spoke to a female firefighter who had just returned from digging for survivors for two days in the rubble of the World Trade Center. She needed to see this kind of support, and we were happy to give it to her.

Later, I met a young woman who had been eating at a restaurant across the street. She saw our group, went home to get her flag and returned. It was a huge flag and she could only hold up one end of it, so I took the other end. We stood in front of the people lining the street, waving the flag. We joined others chanting “U.S.A.!” and singing “America the Beautiful” and “Grand Old Flag” as more fire trucks passed and briefly put on their sirens. CNN News showed up and started shooting, a news helicopter circled overhead, and the ABC and CBS local vans pulled up. Photographers from many papers took countless pictures.

I hope those images are part of a huge patchwork that stretches across America to other cities and all the countries of the free world—to other corners and other strangers standing strong, defiant and steadfast together, heads and flags held high. Despite our many nationalities, religions and political differences, we are united in a sorrow, anger and determination that no ragtag army of madmen can ever defeat. This was a night I’ll never forget, part of a time in history when, no matter how diverse, the people of Los Angeles were one . . . on one corner . . . where only a few had stood only a short time before. That’s what the madmen didn’t count on and what will, in time, defeat them.

Lynn Barker

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