Comfort amid misery: 'They all just want to help'

Michael Olesker

DEEP INTO the evening of its catastrophe, the American quilt spread itself comfortingly across Red Cross headquarters at 4700 Mount Hope Drive in the Seton Business Park section of Northwest Baltimore, and it warmed the whole place.

I went there to find my wife and youngest child, who'd gone to give blood and found themselves in a throng of hundreds of people who'd heard the terrible news and wanted to do something about it, and rushed off to do their bit.

"They all just want to help," said Amy Thompson, the Red Cross spokeswoman.

She swept a hand across a couple of big rooms where people waited for hours for their names to be called and sprawled across chairs and benches, squatted on the floor, dozed intermittently, chatted with brand-new friends, clumped together to watch the unspooling story of terrorism on television sets and finally lay back with needles in their arms to offer blood to strangers in trouble.

And they were a great quilt of people whose family roots were in Europe, and in Africa and Asia, and Latin America - and the Middle East - and late in the evening, all that mattered was that they were Americans now, and their home had been attacked.

"It's been a horrible, horrible tragedy - and this is the strength of America," Thompson said. "People have been coming since this morning, old people and high school kids and every kind of person, sitting there patiently, kind, supportive, understanding the extraordinary needs that we have for blood."

It was enormously moving, and it could not fail to give a sense of perspective. In other places - Israel comes immediately to mind - they live with the threat of such destruction every day, while diplomats in safe places coolly suggest "moderation."

And it offered this sense of perspective: Only the day before, in a different America, we worried about tickets to the latest Madonna concert. We elevated the trivial to the important. We fretted over stocks that dropped a few points. We turned the meaningless into mountains. We let our kids make us nuts over fashions for the return to school. We worried about the Orioles' inability to hit and the Ravens' running game. We sniped at each other on radio programs over sheer nonsense. If somebody cut us off in traffic, we imagined it a hanging offense. We cultivated the smallness in our souls.

On Tuesday, we found a greater world than the sanctity of our own egos.

At the Red Cross headquarters on Mount Hope Drive, so many people gathered to give blood that the waiting took five hours, and still people hung around.

"They started coming this morning," said Red Cross field manager Lisa Macaluso, glancing toward rows of people with their arms extended and the blood draining from their arms. "They walk in and say, 'I want to give.' And I think there's something else. They want to be with people instead of sitting alone in a room watching TV. And so they've been sitting here and sitting here, and they're not going home."

We rise to the moments that count. My generation grew up on stories of Pearl Harbor. My father, shooting a little eight-ball in a Times Square pool hall when he heard the news over the radio, raced off with a pal the next morning to sign up for the war. His father, too old to serve, instead went off to give blood. My father-in-law, playing football in Druid Hill Park, heard the news over some guy's car radio. The next day, he and a half-dozen neighborhood buddies went off together to enlist.

In this generation's Pearl Harbor, no one lines up at the recruiting centers because it's a different kind of fight. We're still trying to pin down the exact enemy. But I have a niece on a Navy aircraft carrier with 5,000 other sailors on board, and Tuesday morning, in the last moments before they rushed out of port, she called my brother and said, "Every gun that we have is pointed at the sky."

When all of this is done, we should remember more than the catastrophe. Those dreadful scenes will stay with us forever. But we should also grant ourselves a legacy: that, in an unimaginably awful time, we pulled together as the American mosaic against people who imagine only one way of looking at the world; that we kept our composure through our fears; and that, in the tiniest ways we could, we sought to give aid and comfort at places like the Red Cross.

"We heard them say they needed blood," Raymond Mullar said Tuesday night. He stood there in the crowd at the Red Cross with his wife, Sharon, and they'd driven in all the way from Finksburg in Carroll County. "They said this was the closest place, so we got in the car and drove."

They both have a rare blood type. There were hundreds of people at the Red Cross on Mount Hope Drive, and hundreds and hundreds more at other hospitals and Red Cross centers. So the blood type was rare, but the sentiment behind it was not. People waited. They kept their composure with the pictures of devastation in front of them. They did their little bit to help out.

At such times, the American quilt is a wondrously comforting thing.
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