November 9, 2008

After Election Day

A thought for Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama.

Note that is in alphabetical order, the way my second grade teacher, Miss Shaw, had us. I was next to Terry Field who died in a car crash with all his family that year, the first time I had known someone who died. I have often thought what would have become of Terry. He was a good kid who had the best handwriting in the class.

Later that same year, my grandfather died. I began to understand that life brought death and with it sadness. And in those days after the deaths and loss, it was a comfort to have family and friends close. So it must be for Mr. McCain and for those who wanted to see him president.

So this thought for both Mr. McCain and and for Mr. Obama as well as for all who voted for each of them, rooted for either of them, as we move ahead.
It comes from Bikeman Canto 37, A Soft Peace:

We are one now,
we must look out for each other,
care for each other. We are one now,
fellow citizens in a city
crushed by anguish and agony.
We are one now, kin in the chaos
as we silently scuff along.

October 8, 2008


I have been invited to be a guest speaker at the New York State English Teachers conference to be held on Thursday October 23 in Albany, New York. I look forward to this for many reasons.

The first is: I adore English teachers. At every opportunity, I tell those who gather that Bikeman would never have been written without my having taken Francis X. Nash's English class. We called him FN or simply, Frank. More on Frank in a bit.

The second is: I grew up in Albany, New York. It is an interesting side note that Frank taught me and my schoolmates at the Albany Academy, not far from the Desmond Hotel where this conference is to be held. And I do plan to go over to the school at some point.

And perhaps the most important is this: I will get to talk to the very people who will take Bikeman to one important audience I have long hoped to reach--the young reader. The high school student.

It is no coincidence that we hoped Jim Dale would read the audio book of Bikeman. He read all the parts of all the Harry Potter audio books. The young people know his voice and it was very much part of the plan to get this book to those readers. Jim did, of course, read Bikeman and it is special, I can tell you.

I received a note from an old friend of mine who is a an English teacher. In fact, Dennis Paoli teaches creative writing at Hunter College in New York. He too agrees that this is a book for high school students. I shall read his note at the conference, but here is what he wrote:

"Your book would be good for high schoolers, too, because, though it's grueling at times, it's written lucidly about a watershed historical event in their lifetimes. And it can be taught academically at any level--one can follow the separate skeins of imagery--the references to classical epics, especially the Dante, but also the domestic, almost rural Americana imagery of rag dolls and straw and boxcars and blackberry patches and animals that reaches out from the urban/New York audience to make it a national poem. And it has classic epic structure--the seeking out of adventure, the descent into darkness, and the revival at the river."

If I may, Dennis notes, " their lifetimes..." This story is their story. If they are over the age of 10, they lived it in some way, most likely through television. So it's not some ancient tale that takes place in some foreign land with odd character names. This is a relatable story that will take them to a place they know in a language they use, but different, a hightened language. They will learn through this accessible story. Perhaps some one of them, or some few of them, will go on to be writers or English teachers (or both, as Dennis is).

Back to Frank. I give him credit (I sometimes joke that I blame him) for becoming a writer. He had us read Moby Dick which you will note, I am sure, in Bikeman. More than that, I learned about an American epic poem in his class. He had us read John Brown's Body, by Stephen Vincent Benet, written about a hundred years ago.

And here is the real oddity. Many consider that the last epic poem published by an American before Bikeman. We both went to that same school in Albany New York: The Albany Academy.

I would like to have met his English teacher too.

September 17, 2008

So what happened to the Bike in Bikeman?

Over the past week, I've done a number of interviews and many of the interviewers have a question...they say, "I have to ask you, what happened to the bike?"

In fact, Larry McShane, who did a terrific feature in the New York Daily News on September 7th, asked that first, before anything else. Ron Kuby, during the interview I did on 9-11 on his lively Air America broadcast, also wondered what happened to that bike. Many folks at the readings I've done also ask about it.

For those of you who may not know, the bike in Bikeman is a central icon. It was also the thing that I would not let go of even as the South Tower collapsed on us. The medics I was with called me "Bikeman" because of the bike, of course. None of them knew my name. And I believe to this day that holding onto the bike did get me out alive. I can't explain why. But it is what I believed when I was nearly trapped on 9-11 and I believe it still to this day.

The bike was a green Trek that I had bought at a Metro bicycle shop on 6th Avenue not far from my home. I used it to ride to work at CBS on 57th Street when I was in town. It is the best way to get around in this city. Bicycling is cheaper than any other form of transit, far more healthful and it is a pleasure especially when compared to being stuck in a traffic jam in a taxi or bus or worse, stuck in a sweltering subway station.

I'm guessing but I'd bet that bike was maybe two or three years old at the time I rode to the World Trade Towers on 9-11. It was a good bike, sturdy and reliable. Nothing fancy and it wasn't hugely expensive.

After getting out alive, I rode to the broadcast center on the bike which more or less confirmed what I had believed. The thing would get me out. Everyone who was near the towers when they collapsed was covered with ash and dust. So was everything. That included my bike. I parked it in the CBS garage across from the studios and headed in to work where I appeared on air with Dan Rather to describe my eyewitness account of the morning. (You can view that on this website.)

It wasn't until after leaving the studios some 12 hours later and retrieving the bike that I noticed how much dust covered it. Infused it, really. The gears looked like a small furry animal so covered were they. The chain looked like clothesline. Every working part was ash-packed. But it still worked. I rode home in the dark (it was midnight or so) and pedaled through a nearly deserted city. It was eerily quiet. That's another thing about riding a bike. It produces no noise. So if you are on a peaceful country ride or in a deserted city, you will hear the quiet.

It took some time to get through the military checkpoints set up on 14th Street but I finally got home. I locked the bike up for the night and headed for a shower and bed. The next morning I worked to clean up the worst of the ash and dust and rode back to work. That bike served me well through the winter and into the spring of 2002. It never broke down, never gave me any trouble.

What happened? I was near my home and needed to grab something at a local deli. I locked the bike at a parking meter and went in to the deli. After I paid, I came out of the store and headed to the spot where I had left the bike.

It was gone. All that was left was the clipped lock scattered at the base of the parking meter. I looked around but it was gone.

I am sorry about that. I did need a new bike. That one did have lasting damage from 9-11. But I liked it and it did work well enough. David Mehegen, who wrote a special piece on Bikeman in the September 8th Boston Globe, asked if it wasn't a bit sad that I didn't have the bike any more. I hadn't thought about it until David asked in that way.

The answer is: I do wish I still had it, though not to ride any more. I feel about that bike the same way I feel about the dogs who have been a part of my life and are gone. They were friends I could count on. They were good companions and true. And I cared for them. I wish they were all still here.

September 15, 2008


The Rev. William Tully, rector of St. Bart's Church on Park Avenue, holds a noon service each year on the anniversary of 9-11. This year it was on Thursday. At this past Sunday's Rector's Forum, at which I was Bill's guest, he told the congregation that he struggles with the question of what to do each year, how much to make of the anniversary or how to begin to minimize the remembrance. He wonders if his congregants, including the firefighters of the nearby 8th Batallion, are ready to move on, taking less and less note of the day.

"This year," he told us Sunday, "we had the largest turn out ever."

What does that tell you?

I think that rather than getting past the remembrance (a painful remembrance at that), Americans are just beginning to open up to the events of 9-11. I have thought for some time now that the feelings inside us have been locked away. Somehow we have moved too quickly past the morning of 9-11 into a 9-12 world. Individually, we've gotten back to work, back to raising the family, gotten back to life. As a nation, we zoomed into a new geo-political world and took on the added burden of changing our way of life for new security.

What we really did though, was avoid the effect that 9-11 had on us. I see it coming out now. I hear it from those who read "Bikeman" and who want to talk about the feelings they have, many expressing those feelings for the first time.

I think that's what The Rev. Tully was seeing when his church was filling up more than ever for his service on the anniversary of 9-11. I suspect it will continue to grow for some years to come.

September 10, 2008

A Sky of Memories

The other morning dawned with a blue sky the color of that September morning seven years ago. It is a soft blue born of a humidless sky that is left from a great storm. It is like a corn flower blue or a robin's egg blue but not that soft. It brought back the memories and more.

The other evening I met many people at the English Speaking Union where Jim Dale read excerpts from Bikeman. He is a powerful reader which you can hear on the audio book. Afterwards, I spoke to many people most of whom talked about that day from a personal perspective. One woman worked at the Seaman's Institute not far from the site of the attack. She said she too recalls that it was "Less than night and less than day" as I recounted from my journey just a few blocks away after the tower fell.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a woman in Chatham, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. Her brother was one of those killed in the attack. "We never found any of him to bury," she told me, "not even a finger nail."

But she recalled the goodness from the horrible days that followed. He had left behind a wife and family. What the pain must have been for them. In Bikeman, I speak of "Goodness that flourishes too." The sister whom I spoke to said that to this day, the goodness from then was greater than the pain. It came from neighbors and from the country at large. Some women in Georgia made a quilt for the surviving family and delivered it to them. How wonderful a memory is that. How great a gift.

So many people tell me stories that I want to stitch them all together for you to read.
There was the staff photographer for the Boston Globe who, in his Boston home, heard his wife scream while watching television on that morning. The first plane had just hit. This journalist's thought, like mine and so many others, was, "I have to get there to tell the story." But first, he thought, "I'm going to take a shower. I might not have another chance for a while." He drove to New York City but it was closed. It took him another day before he worked his way to ground zero which is remarkable.. The city was an armed camp those early days and no one could get in. He did. And the Globe's readers were able to see the devastation because of his and other's efforts.

After the event at the English Speaking Union the other night, my wife and I came home to our apartment in Greenwich Village. That morning which had started with the same blue sky of September 11th, now closed with the lights. For the first time this year, twin shafts of lights rose into the dark sky from Ground Zero where the towers once stood. The sky is filled with memories for me.

August 2, 2008

Summer morning

I am out riding my bicycle on this summery morning on Cape Cod. It is going to be a hot one. So I am away early to beat the heat. Life is humming early here too as I pass the ponds and lakes along the bike trail. What I see is tradition holding and it is a rosy future.

At Fisherman's Landing, I stop to watch the gathering of families at the quiet lake. There are no motorized boats or watercraft, so the sounds I hear are the pure sounds of summer. The crows and mourning doves sing in concert. The cardinals and jays join in. But the real sounds of summer, that override even nature, are the splashing and squealing of the children at the shallow water's edge; the outright howl of a little one tossed by his father high into the air and free-falling with a crash into the deep cool lake.

Along the trail on my way to this stop, I had noticed a pine tree, scarred in the past year or two. Now the bark was closing over the wound. I think of this tree as my eyes roam over the forest surrounding the lake. It is in full deep August green, darkening and shadowing the woodsy floor beneath. Here is a forest of trees gathering up the life-giving sunshine and the evening showers and the morning fogs to grow and heal and leap ahead and upwards. They are mostly scrub pines and oaks now gathering their strength and healing their wounds, getting healthy and strong before the winter's freeze and spring's moths and cicadas who will come to feed on them.
This lakeside scene could be 1908 as easily as 2008. The grandmother, for that is what I take her to be, is seated on a beach chair in a dress, a baby at her side. The young married adults are busy. The father is in the lake tossing the little boy. The mother is laying out towels on the sandy beach, puling toys from a bag: a yellow shovel, a red pail, a blue rake. She glances over to her baby in the carrier next to the grandmother. At the water edge, an unoccupied inner tube awaits a playmate. Lolling, perhaps asleep, is a young girl on an inflated raft. Two young boys leap, all legs and arms, shouting, from a wood raft, landing one-two into the lake. A forest green canoe glides by, the elderly paddler is accompanied by a duck swimming alongside.
I think of the tree with its scab covering the hurt as I watch the little ones exuberant in the lake. They are without fears, without care. It is play, pure and simple. These young ones are the first generation born after 9-11. Perhaps they, for all of us---like that tree--are covering our wounds. Perhaps they will grow healed, without the memories or the fears of that morning we cannot forget.

I hear their squeals of delight. I hear the squeals of hope this summer morning.

July 25, 2008


Welcome to the Bikeman Blog.  Please comment on anything you'd like.  And if you have a story from your experience during the morning of 9-11, please click on the story tab and tell me about it. 
Best wishes, Tom Flynn