SIDE BY SIDE, WE RETURN TO NORMALA SYMBOLIC HOCKEY ACT UNDERSCORES OUR STRENGTH

There were tears at a funeral, and cheers at a hockey game. There were stocks that fell, and stocks that rose. There were workers sifting through rubble at one site and builders hammering at new homes someplace else. At night, the TV news spoke of an “upcoming war” but was followed later by sitcoms and baseball games and “Late Show with David Letterman.”

It was, in other words, a day in the life of America.

Here in Detroit, as the sun set over a river between two countries, professional hockey players inside Joe Louis Arena, Americans and Canadians — along with Russians, Czechs and Swedes — lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in a line of solidarity for the national anthem. It is not the normal way hockey games begin, where six players take the ice on opposite sides, facing each other. But then, this was not a normal night.

“I’ve never done that before,” admitted Detroit’s Brendan Shanahan, who stood between two New York Rangers as the anthem was sung Monday night. “Someone just suggested it in our locker room and we got out there and it just sort of happened.

“I think it shows people have more in common, here in America, than anyone in the world realized.”

This was a red letter day, a day this nation returned to work and play. The full schedule of U.S. life was in effect for the first time since we lost normal last Tuesday in the worst terrorist attack in history. By midnight Monday, six days after those hijacked planes crashed into our eternal memories, we closed our eyes to sleep, having come through the day relatively normal.

Yes, the stock market dived, but did not sink. The airplanes flew not as often, but they flew. Offices were opened, the mail was delivered, the entertainment that makes us smile was green-lighted and back in action.

And that, of course, meant sports.

Baseball returns

Around the country, nightly baseball, which carries summer into fall, was revved up again after six days in limbo. “God Bless America” was sung with a particular poignancy. The New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates took the field with a sad and unusual bond, both teams representing areas that were still smoky with the wreckage of hijacked and crashed jetliners. Certain players already had risen to bring sports to a higher level, such as Arizona pitcher Curt Schilling, who asked in a letter that all major-leaguers donate a day’s pay to the victims and rebuilding effort.

Here in Detroit, there was no baseball (the Tigers were off, and play in Minnesota today) but there was hockey (this is, after all, Hockeytown), and inside Joe Louis, the exhibition opener between the Red Wings and Rangers began with a call for silence from announcer Budd Lynch, who asked that we
“remember the victims” of last Tuesday.

The players held the moment with their heads bowed, and there was a long quiet, then the national anthem was sung, and as usual, after the words, “our flag was still there,” the cheering began, anticipatory cheering, can’t-wait cheering, “let’s-play-some-hockey”-cheering. Moments later, the players were streaking up and down the ice, to the undulating roars of approximately 12,000 in attendance.

“What we do,” the Rangers’ Theo Fluery would later say, “is play hockey.”

And what fans do is cheer. So if one expected a somber tone to the audience, there was none. If one expected fans would somehow not leap to their feet when the first on-ice fight broke out, they were wrong. Fans applauded the swinging and the punching. Players took fighting penalties.

The night was ordinary in every way, with the few police officers I saw lounging easily by the entrances, no sense of heightened alert. The arena doors were open in the second period, with easy access from the steps that overlook the Detroit River.

Perhaps this rubs people the wrong way. Perhaps some feel that every doorway must now be guarded, every security officer armed and at the ready, and every hockey fan suddenly turned into the most ardent pacifist.

It won’t happen.

And I’m not sure it should.

American way of life

I need to say something here. There has been, it seems, a lot of finger-wagging in recent days, a suggestion that somehow America, by not strip-searching every airline passenger, was fat and lax and lazy. That by not guarding our borders like alligator moats, that by not previously allowing wiretapping hither and yon, that by trusting people to be generally honest, we were being stupid and careless, ignorant of how the real world — i.e., the terrorized world — really works.

Excuse me. I beg to differ. What we were being was what the rest of the world wishes it could be. Free.

And that is the world in which I still hope to live.

I have no desire to call “normal” a world in which passengers arrive four hours early for a one-hour plane trip, or families going to a baseball game must have their bags and purses rustled and dumped. That may be the way we need to live for a while, as we attempt to rid the world of terrorists, but our goal should not be to continue in such shackles forever.

Rather, we should dream of a society that we knew not so long ago, where it is safe to travel without pat-downs, and normal to go to concerts without looking over our shoulders.

In the meantime, we take the decidedly non-normal world we have inherited and do things to tilt it back — like lining hockey players shoulder-to-shoulder during a national anthem.

“You know, it meant a lot to wear the red, white and blue Rangers uniform out there,” said Fleury, who was walking with teammates in midtown Manhattan last Tuesday when the World Trade Center was attacked. “We saw the smoke and the debris. Later, when we were walking through Times Square, it was so strange, no traffic, no cars, just a rescue vehicle. It was like being on the moon.

“But people don’t understand this about New Yorkers. They have this reputation, but you see how when they’re down they really pull together.”

This, from a man born in Oxbow, Saskatchewan.

We have a job to do. We have our children to protect. But we did not start this war, we did not do anything wrong, and we are not the ones who need to change our way of life. The terrorists are.

So today will be a more normal version of yesterday, and tomorrow, a more normal version of today. Tears were shed in one place Monday, but high-fives were exchanged someplace else. Prayers were chanted inside one building, but jokes were told inside another. Somber newscasters spoke with gravity, but nightly comedians dug for the humor that is a necessary part of a human life.

And as Arab Americans in this country were comforted by a president, Jews welcomed in the first night of their new year.

A day in the life of America, God bless it, land that we love.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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