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The Greatest Generation
An Poem by Joan Murray

audio Listen to Joan Murray read her poem.

Joan Murray notes: "I was inspired to write this poem when I saw a group of young firefighters heading down to New York to help out at the World Trade Center site. What struck me was their youth and their nervous -- almost giddy -- excitement. They seemed to be lit from within. By stepping forward to do this unimaginably difficult thing, they had crossed a line. They had become larger -- and they would never be the same. I realized they were people my parents would have recognized. And in the wake of this tragedy, people like them -- from all walks of life -- were suddenly visible to me."

We thought that they were gone --
We rarely saw them on our screens --
Those everyday Americans
With workaday routines,

And the heroes standing ready --
Not glamorous enough --
On days without a tragedy,
We clicked -- and turned them off.

We only saw the cynics --
The dropouts, show-offs, snobs--
The right- and left-wing critics:
We saw that they were us.

But with the wounds of Tuesday
When the smoke began to clear,
We rubbed away our stony gaze --
And watched them reappear:

The waitress in the tower,
The broker reading mail,
The pair of window washers,
Filling up a final pail.

The husband's last "I love you"
From the last seat of a plane,
The tourist taking in a view
No one would see again,

The fireman, his eyes ablaze
As he climbed the swaying stairs --
He knew someone might still be saved
We wondered who it was.

We glimpsed them through the rubble:
The ones who lost their lives,
The heroes' double burials,
The ones now "left behind."

The ones who rolled a sleeve up,
The ones in scrubs and masks,
The ones who lifted buckets
Filled with stone and grief and ash:

Some spoke a different language --
Still no one missed a phrase;
The soot had softened every face
Of every shade and age --

"The greatest generation?" --
We wondered where they'd gone --
They hadn't left directions
How to find our nation-home:

For thirty years we saw few signs,
But now in swirls of dust,
They were alive -- they had survived,
We saw that they were us.

Joan Murray is poet-in-residence at the New York State Writers Institute at the State University of New York at Albany. Her books include Looking for the Parade and Queen of the Mist: the Forgotten Heroine of Niagara. She lives in Old Chatham, Ny.