Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

The Mark of History

How do you remember a hero? That's the first question that confronts me when I think about the events of September 11th, 200. There's also the question of what makes a hero, waiting in the back of my mind. But I'm willing not to suspend asking that second question long enough to assume that everyone declared to be a hero on 9/11 -- firefighters, people who helped their co-workers escape the World Trade Center, the passengers on Flight 93 -- actually is one. Given the broadest definition of "hero," then, how should the heroes of that day be commemorated?

Watching 9/11-related documentaries for the class I taught in the spring put me in a strange space. I went out of the way to avoid the initial round of commemorations. The easy patriotism of the window decals and refrigerator magnets that sprang up all over the place after the initial shock had worn off seemed to confirm the worst stereotypes of Americans' studied ignorance. The vast quantity of marked-down items a year later made that easy patriotism look even shallower. But my resistance to the commodification of national belonging was also an excuse for me to avoid spending too much time contemplating a painful subject. Maybe it's because I was then the parent of a two-year-old, but September 11th, 2001 and its Afghanistan and anthrax-dominated aftermath unsettled me a great deal more than I thought they would. Looking back on that period now, over three years later, I recognize that I have a lot, as the psychologists say, to "process."

In his previous journal, thewhitaker wrote something about the homemade memorials to the victims and/or heroes of Flight 93, the fourth jet highjacked on September 11th and the only one not to reach its target. His description of the diverse items featured in the different memorials was admirably compact:
There were uniform patches from fire, police and EMT outfits from seemingly every city in the United States, however obscure, affixed to the wood; there were notes and poems, hats.  Around the gravel lot were family momentos, and a small wooden angel for each person killed.  The bereaved left necklaces, smooth stones with messages scrawled upon them, and photographs.  One message, left by the husband of a victim, read "Baby, you made everything sparkle."  Even now, it seems many people--including myself perhaps--feel like such broad atrocities happen in a fog, but as I scanned the notes and letters and messages upon rocks, I thought about that woman who made everything sparkle.
I understand what he means. Specific examples are more likely to make us feel than general principles. That's why war-making is always a war on the individual. So long as we're talking of "Americans" or "Iraqis" and not Roberta from Grand Forks or Ali from Mosul, the horror is easier to keep at bay.

I haven't had much firsthand experience of major events. I've watched things happen on the news, but that's not the same thing as being there. The only time I went through something that most of my family did not witness along with me was the October, 1989 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. I don't have that kind of memory of September 11th. But I have more of a personal connection to that day than I did with other world-historical moments. The sister of a friend, someone I'd met several times, was on the twenty-eighth floor of one of the WTC towers and survived. Close friends of my family since my childhood were slated to be on Flight 93, but changed their plans at the last minute. Perhaps some of you have stories like that. My biggest personal connection to those events, however, was knowing one of the men regarded as the likely heroes of Flight 93.

I read the news stories about the passenger revolt that apparently led to that Washington D.C.-bound plane crashing in a southeastern Pennsylvania field. Something stirred in me when I read of the former athlete credited with helping to lead the charge on the cockpit. Yet it wasn't until days later that I learned that the athlete was Mark Bingham, someone I got to know while we were undergraduates at UC Berkeley. Learning that Mark had, in death, become a minor celebrity was a strange experience for all who knew him. That he had acted heroically was no surprise. Mark was always going out of his way to help people. And he was so fearless as to seem foolhardy. What made his sudden fame so complicated was that it went hand in hand with public discussion of his homosexuality. In our last class, some of you asked why so many people found it necessary to commemorate Mark's participation in the passenger uprising on Flight 93 by referring to his sexual preference. I understand, I think, what you were getting at. If the point of the story of that uprising is that people who didn't know each other and had little in common worked together toward a common goal, not worrying about their differences, then singling out Mark for his difference seems like a strange move. At the same time, however, I know why that move was tempting for those who knew Mark or at least knew that he was proudly and unapologetically gay. Even before 9/11, there was something about Mark Bingham that made people reflect on what his existence meant for their ideas of homosexuality. Simply put, Mark was a rock on which stereotypes were smashed to bits.

My kindergarten teacher wrote on my first report card that I was, "all boy," as if to reassure my parents that I were developing normally. I'm not sure the words fit me that well. But they certainly fit Mark Bingham. If anyone was "all boy," it was Mark. When I met him he was the president of the "jock" fraternity at UC Berkeley, a member of what was then -- and remains -- the country's best college rugby team by far, and the kind of guy who liked nothing better than to drink a few beers and talk sports. Clean-cut, indifferent to his attire in the best frat boy manner, Mark was the furthest thing from most people's idea of a stereotypical gay man.

I met him, though, because he was in the process of coming out of the closet. My best friend Christopher -- cpratt -- who had realized he was gay years before but had not yet had a long-term relationship, placed an ad in the local paper seeking a man who shared his interest in the "bear" subculture -- burly, bearded men who would just as soon be in the woods as in a disco -- and, presumably, the appearance to go along with it. Mark responded to the ad, even though he looked nothing like the sort of "bear" Chris had in mind. Amazingly, despite the fact that Mark was hardly Chris's type, despite Chris's total lack of interest in sports, despite Mark's ignorance of experimental literature, despite Chris's insistence on playing idiosyncratic electronic music at top volume, the two of them hit it off beautifully.

By the time of my graduation party a few months later, Chris and Mark had become a couple. Initially, Mark introduced Chris as a "friend" to his fraternity brothers. Chris spent a lot of time over there "under the radar." One day, I got to join him, marveling that the brothers consistently addressed each other in X-rated banter befitting Polk Street or the seamier locales in the Castro, pretendin they were lovers, despite the homophobia for which their fraternity was known. They were kidding around, of course. But it was still pretty freaky watching them chill to Public Enemy as they commented on each other's bodies. "Wait till they find out what their president has been up to!," I thought. When Mark did come out to the house, however, his brothers were far more accepting of his sexual preference than I -- or he -- would have guessed. It was a big lesson for me, on top of the lesson that Mark himself had provided: stereotypes can lead you far from the truth.

Mark soon moved into Chris's apartment, upstairs from the one first I and then he had shared with my ex-girlfriend. Eventually, Chris's younger brother Tim -- tpratt, whose first son was named "Mark" in Bingham's honor -- and his then-girlfriend Mary moved in too, sharing the extremely tight quarters. Although there was friction, Mark managed to get along with everyone. Even after he and Chris had broken up, they remained good friends. I spent my first year of grad school, also at UC Berkeley, living in a garage adjacent to a house shared by several other graduate students. When I left, Chris moved in. When Chris got to move into a room inside the house, Mark followed him into the garage. I saw a good deal of Mark over those first years of graduate school, visiting my former residence. We talked basketball, since he and I were really into the Cal Bears and Chris only cared about "bears." I remember one day after Mark had sprained his ankle playing for a San Francisco semi-pro rugby team, when he offered to take me on in a game of one-on-one. "You'll kill me," I objected. "No, no. It'll be fun!" It says a lot about Mark that A) he surely would have beaten me badly and B) the beating would have been delightful.

Unfortunately, I never got to let him school me. Chris moved to San Francisco. Mark moved out of the house too. I'd hear about him from Chris from time to time, but Chris was so busy with work that our conversations were infrequent for a few years. I did, however, see Mark at Cal games. The last time I spoke with him in person was at a Cal-Oregon game. He was there with his boyfriend Paul. I was with my wife, newly married. We chatted amiably for a few minutes and headed back to our respective seats. A year later, I was slated to see him at a barbecue Chris was having at his new house in San José. Mark couldn't make it, though. He did, as I later learned, send a, "Sorry I can't make it," e-mail to Chris with a P.S. advising him to say hello to me. Chris found the message last year while cleaning out old e-mail from the 1990s. It was really strange to read this "last" communication from Mark and see my name. I'm not very melodramatic, but I really had the sense that he was saying "Hi" from beyond the grave.

My favorite memory of Mark is from the early days of his relationship with Chris. I was done with my classes for the day, wandering around an unfamiliar part of campus when I ran into them. They were going to San Francisco in Chris's old forest green VW Cabriolet and suggested I join them. The trip over the Bay Bridge with the top down was a blast. More fun still was the service I did them in the Castro. Chris and Mark wanted to rent a video, but were too embarrassed to ask for it. I volunteered, going into video store after video store with a smile on my face, inquiring, "Do you have Bear _____ Party?" It wasn't my fetish, after all, so I had no reason to be sheepish. Later, after determining that the video was not in stock anywhere, we dined at the aptly named "Hot 'n Hunky" on 18th. I got the triple cheeseburger. It was particularly delicious.

I thought of all these things in the months following September 11th, as the story of Mark's intertwined heroism and homosexuality made the rounds in the media. His close friends surely thought about him even more. As Chris recently noted on his blog, though, a lot of people who had barely met him, who knew him less well than I did -- and I would never say that I was a close friend of his -- suddenly turned into his longtime chums after the press coverage of Flight 93:
This morning, at breakfast, somehow we got to talking about Mark, and about how shortly after he died he suddenly seemed to have a lot of friends.

Richard, this is the snippet I was trying to remember:

"Don't claim pissing rights to a dead person's memory unless you have either spent at least 10 late nights or one weekend out of town with them, or had dinner with their parents."
I'm sure the tendency to have people claim Mark for their own without having "pissing rights" of this sort was hard for those who did have them to take. But that's the price one pays for having a loved one become a celebrity.

One day I saw a book about Mark's story -- I'd known of its existence, but hadn't thought to order it -- on sale at the Borders on Oracle. I read through it, was pleasantly surprised with the way its account of Mark matched my own recollections, and bought it. That night I read the whole thing cover to cover. I'd never known someone who merited a biography before. Reading it was an odd feeling, but a good one. I learned things I hadn't known about Mark's childhood. I learned things I'd heard only the barest mention of about his life after I no longer saw him much. And I saw details of Mark's time with Chris that overlapped my own memories of him.

Since the book was written by a reporter for The Advocate, his life story was structured around the fact of his homosexuality. That didn't strike me as odd, though, both because it was important to Mark and because I had gotten to know him as he came out of the closet. For me, Mark's generosity, athleticism, and wiry, restless energy really were connected to the part of him that gave the lie to stereotypes about gays.

I recognize, though, that other people could read of Mark's childhood, his rugby-playing, his business activities, and his actions on Flight 93 and think that sexual preference was not nearly so important a part of his character, that it was even incidental to what really mattered about him. It depends how you look at things. In that light, it's possible to argue that Mark's transformation from popular but "unknown" Cal alum into a hero of the gay community was actually an example of exploitation. Certainly, many of the people who worked to "out" Mark in the media in the days following 9/11 did so, not only out of respect for Mark, but because it was in their political interest to have middle America realize that it's possible to be a red-blooded American hero and also a homosexual. I happen to share their political interest, given the ideological climate of the George W. Bush era. But, as I already noted, I also understand that it's possible to interpret Mark's story very differently and still have good intentions towards him, the other heroes of Flight 93, and the American citizenry in general.

When I read the entry that thewhitaker put in his previous journal about Flight 93, I decided to find our long-buried photographs of Mark . We have lots of photographs, neatly boxed up, but in no particular order. It took me a long time to find the roll I was looking for, because it was at the bottom of the last box I searched through. Because I had to go through so many photographs first, however, my appreciation for the power of snapshots increased enormously. Seeing a sequence of my own pictures from the past two decades brought back memories that had long been dormant: a drive down the California coast with my future wife; an event for underprivileged youth she organized before an Oakland A's game; a Christmas with my family back in Maryland; my ex-girlfriend's cat. And then there were the pictures from my wife's life before she met me, where I could sometimes figure out the circumstances surrounding a photo, but rarely knew enough to understand them fully. They seemed to possess a special power, like artifacts from a civilization I can only know through its ruins. By the time I got to the roll with photos of Mark, then, I was already predisposed to revel in their documentary significance.

Interestingly, I only remembered one of them distinctly. Although I had thought of them as "my" pictures, I realized in looking at them that they were actually taken by my future wife. She didn't have a camera back then, so I gave her the Minolta 110 I'd gotten in elementary school. Because my camera lacked a flash, however, it was her to task to document our indoor activities. I was surprised, then, to see this picture, a nice complement to the one from the book:

And I had no memory of Mark looking through my CDs that day, even though he clearly did:

I must admit to being pleased to see that he had apparently been examining my treasured Blue Sunshine album.

The one photo I did remember was the one I'd had in mind when I began my search through the boxes:

Ironically, I had such a clear memory of this one because it later made its way onto the informal gallery we maintained on the pantry door Mark is sitting in front of. When you stare at a picture day after day, month after month, it burns into your mind. I recently ran across another picture, taken almost nine years after the one of Mark and Chris, in which you can see a later incarnation of that gallery:

Although the gallery contains a number of photos that date from before the one of Mark and Chris, it is almost entirely different from the one in the earlier picture. But there's one picture visible in both photos.

It's one I took of my future wife, early in our relationship, standing on the porch of a Taco Bell in her hometown of Pacifica, a structure that had been an A&W in her youth. Although it can't be seen in this picture, there's a bruise on her right arm that can be discerned in other photos from the sequence. Without those pictures, without this one I remember so well, I would surely have forgotten that mark by now. The documentary impulse guards against a future when we might not remember what we need to keep in mind. That's why we take pictures. That's why we keep journals. That's why we blog.

My friend Chris turned me onto Live Journal. He's been using it since August, 2001. A couple years ago I asked his permission to reprint his journal entries from September of that year, because the way they handled Mark's passing struck me as worth thinking about. In closing this long entry, I'll direct you to the piece that resulted from my request, as well as the memorial web page he set up in honor of Mark. They make for interesting reading, especially on this day when we try to remember what we'd otherwise rather forget.

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  • Liminal, Libidinal

  • Redefining Need

    "Can a society which is incapable of protecting individual privacy even within one's four walls rightfully claim that it respects the individual and…

  • Mind Out of Joint

    These are strange and stressful times for all of us. But I feel simultaneously more prepared and less able to deal with this state of emergency.…