Blood & Country

With the horrific terrorist attacks and chaos of 9/11 it became imperative I do something, no matter the insignificance nor how long it might take

By William Campbell

Here at the Holiday Inn parking lot in Woodland Hills, Calif., on this Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 11, 2001, I am surrounded by all sorts of people: fat, thin, black, white, men, women, young, old. Tattoos stand next to button downs who stand next to piercings who stand next to T-shirts who stand next to neckties. Cell phones ring incessantly as wingtips line up behind sneakers, behind sandals, behind work boots, behind flip-flops. The gathered are a cross section of our culture. They are America.

These people are here for the same reason as I am: to do something, to help. Yet in their overwhelming desire to be a part of a resolution, they have deluged the American Red Cross mobile blood donation facility that has been set up here and the result is a long, long wait. An hour, two. More perhaps. Through it they mingle, they mill, they talk, they laugh, they fidget, they cry, they stare, they hug, they play. Some leave. Most stay.

They stay because all the way across the nation this morning unimaginable death and destruction occurred as two hijacked passenger jets crashed mere minutes apart into each of New York City’s 110-story World Trade Center towers and brought them crashing and burning out of the Manhattan skyline. Another commandeered plane plowed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Still another crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. The causes and persons behind these unspeakable attacks are, for the moment, secondary to comprehending the reality they have wrought. The loss of life from this terrorism is considered to be in the thousands, but such a vague number seems woefully conservative. One can only imagine that the race to deliver the casualty figures to a public hungry for them will undoubtedly be slow in coming — no doubt chased by the thunderous anger that will build in its wake.

Never mind that it is the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States — it is the worst in all of civilization. It changes everything. It changes America. It changes the world. Life as we know it is over, replaced by a fear at which the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 only hinted. The horrific bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, OK, may have instilled that fear a little deeper in our nation’s psyche, but even the reality of that nightmare dimmed as it ventured deeper into our collective past.

Now that fear will be indelible. Or will it? Perhaps it is as American as apple pie to allow wounds to nestle deep into the healing trance of time, but can time heal the pain of such an apocalypse? I think not. I hope not.

Momentarily I get lost in the rewind and replay of an endless mental loop of the images I’ve seen broadcasted: the plane slamming at full throttle into the south tower from so many angles it seemed to be a multi-camera shoot of a scene from an action movie; the numbed and dust-covered survivors; the huge cloud of smoke and ash; the dancing Palestinians; the shocked President; the haunting visage of Osama Bin Laden; the appalling slip of the twin towers to earth. Then some color catches my eye and I snap out of the daze to find myself focused on an American flag posted in the near distance. It barely moves in the gentle breeze as if it is exhausted by the effort. But still it stands and there is comfort and pride to be found in its stars and bars. There is hope there, not so much that the impact of this terrible day will diminish, but that America will remain strong and that its people will come together to grow even more so.

Closer to me, a clock radio tuned to an AM station blares into my right ear. From it a woman’s voice makes a call for the public to refrain from senseless retribution and remain calm in the wake of this catastrophe. Then a man’s voice comes on the air to alert listeners that the day’s scheduled Major League Baseball games have been canceled. Still another advises that all air traffic has been halted. How strange it is to realize that for the first time in commercial aviation history, these are no longer the friendly skies. The silence is eerie.

But what a sky it is. On this beautiful and mild late-summer day high clouds drift across a brilliant backdrop of a baby blue a few hours before sunset. Such bright beauty, however, stands in stark counterpoint to the moods that permeate the proceedings. There is grief and shock and angst and fear and frustration and maybe a little pride and grit amidst the pain.

There is something else: Suspicion. While all are here doing our civic and patriotic duty, we look from the corners of eyes at each other and our guard is up now that one can never know who are the enemies anymore or from which direction and with what means they will strike.

Upon arrival, after visiting the American Red Cross facilities in Burbank (not set up to accept donations) and Van Nuys (only taking appointment cards), I got into a ragtag line to listen to a Red Cross representative advise me that I could either put my name on a sheet of paper and wait and wait and wait, or I could fill out an appointment card to have someone call me and schedule a future visit. I fill out my name and blood type on the form at the bottom of a sheet of paper that reads Page #8.

“What page are you calling names from right now?” I ask.

“Number three,” I’m told.

I do some rudimentary math (let’s say 25 names per page, times eight, minus 60 or so names already called equals 140 people ahead of me) and grab a seat that I will not leave until they call my name. I’m in it for the long haul. It is a must for me to be here to combat the feeling of stunned powerlessness that has filled me since this morning.

So I sit here and type on my laptop and occasionally wipe away tears and watch the ragtag line grow, the same Red Cross representative, a red-haired young lady in a red blouse with a powerful voice and a friendly demeanor calls out with methodical regularity the names of those next on the list.

“Brett Fox.” No answer. She repeats his name several times. Next she calls for Laura Springman. Again the Red Cross rep calls her name out several times. Nothing.

“Am I loud enough?” she asks the gathering. “Yes,” comes the reply from several. A man calls out, “You’re doing great!”

“Todd Garrett,” she yells, and Todd gets up from his chair and walks to her across the blacktop. There is a smattering of applause as if he has won something. And in a way, he has. The woman gives him the necessary blood donation forms and information to complete and read and he retires to his seat with a black ballpoint pin to get down to business.

More names: Julie Margoman. Patience Cleveland. Robert Maxim. Gale Fox. Glen. Becky. David. Joanne. Susan. Hector. Steve. Leanne. The names go on and on and I cheer a silent praise as those present stand and approach. They are my heroes in a day when I am desperate for some, and I ready myself to hear my name called and then step into the white Red Cross bus parked a few feet away, roll up my sleeve, lay down and give something of myself to help heal… what? My pain? My planet?

I hear my name and I stand and receive the documentation I must complete. I do so as President Bush speaks on the radio about the steel of America’s resolve and of fearing no evil though we are in the valley of the shadow of death. Though I was hoping for our wounded nation’s leader to come up with a more visceral and dramatic address befitting the defining stature of the moment, I choke up in spite of my politics and submit the form.

Red Cross Mobile Blood Donation StationThis first procedure is itself merely a stepping stone. I’m pointed toward the donor mobile and told to take the form with me and turn it in “down there.” So instructed, I move down the blacktop to a second waiting area by what is really just a converted school bus. Perhaps the longest wait is yet to come. A person in scrubs and a white smock comes out and tells someone that it’s a three-hour wait and I wonder if that includes the 90 minutes I’ve been here already.

No matter. My resolve drives me to be here as long as it takes. Besides, I pick up a conversation next to me that centers on footage being shown of people who have fallen or jumped from the burning towers, and the last thing I want to do is go home and watch tiny bodies plummeting to their end.

So instead I concentrate on the live theater taking place with the good people in my vicinity. Looking around at my fellow would-be donors, I see the jovial and jocular members of the CSUN women’s basketball team. Some wear shirts that read “Divided we stand, together we ball!” They joke and laugh at a tall blonde teammate who exits the donor vehicle with a huge bandage on her arm that looks almost like a cast. Evidently it holds an ice pack needed to stop her bleeding. A gorgeous woman I recognize as a TV spokesperson and model for a famous lingerie company’s catalog [Leann Tweeden] is awaiting her turn by serving as a volunteer and hands the blonde an “I gave blood today” sticker.

The ball players don’t laugh when another of their team exits looking disappointed. She’s waited since 1 p.m. to find out at 5:30 that the iron level of her blood is too low, making her ineligible to give. Someone asks if the Red Cross has any “I really, really tried to give blood today” stickers.

There’s also an olive-skinned boy in overalls. His head is topped with a mop of shaggy brownish-blonde hair falling over his bright and smiling eyes. Maybe he’s 8 years old. He runs around in his socks eating the available cookies (which have red and blue sprinkles topping white frosting) and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and I envy him his innocence. Playing on the grass nearby with some other kids his age, he has no idea of the tragedy that has happened today or why he’s waiting for whomever he’s waiting. Nor should he.

Next, a pretty Asian-American woman bounces out of the mobile donation unit with a cheery “I’m done!” Slapping on an “I gave blood today” sticker and sporting a bandage wrapped around her left forearm, she steps past me to the table that holds the snacks and juices.

And I sit and continue my vigil as the sun sets and the night slowly advances in the form of lengthening shadows which seem to consume the light. Other people arrive and some people go, but I give myself no option. I have to wait because there are people in New York who can’t. They need me to stay put and stick it out.

The irony is, of course, the blood has no speedy way to get to New York. With all planes grounded by order of the Federal Aviation Authority for the next several days at least, the quickest route to the Big Apple will be by long-haul truck, and that will probably take at least two days. So if I made an appointment to come and give blood in two days, by then the airlines would probably be back in service and the blood would arrive there in the same amount of time – if not faster. Not that I’m so naïve to believe that my blood will be going nonstop to New York anyway. Mine may wind up in Long Beach or Pasadena or Idaho or Bakersfield or wherever it is needed. But the satisfaction comes in knowing my pint will flow into the supply and may perhaps prevent critical reserves from being diverted from New York to serve elsewhere.

That my blood may not flow into the veins of an injured New York firefighter, policeman or citizen does not matter to me. After all, the importance of blood is in the giving, not in the knowing who has provided it or who is receiving it. That it will just be there imbued with my spirit and love for humanity is enough for me.

My focus turns to those less patient than I who pile around the door of the donor vehicle and question the kind-hearted but essentially clueless volunteers recruited from the crowd that queries them as to how much longer it will be.

“What’s your name,” asks a pretty young woman whose volunteer name tag reads Chaya. With long black hair to match a long black skirt she smiles sweetly at each expectant inquisitor while holding the thick pile of donor forms that she dives into with each new question. My form is somewhere deep among them. I don’t want to know how far.

“It could be anywhere from an hour to three hours,” Chaya tells each one as the lingerie model passes out the occasional sticker to the donors exiting and the next donor candidates enter to take their places. Some of those waiting decide to go get something to eat, or go home and feed the dogs. Maybe they’ll be back. Maybe they won’t.

I’ll be here. Food can wait. If for nothing other than the most basic of reasons: sheer stubbornness and sense of purpose, I will wait here until they stick a needle into my arm and will not budge nor let them leave until it is done. There is a ceaseless need for me to do something not tomorrow, not next week, but on this day of insanity and disintegrated faith and safety.

Time marches, the temperature drops and the breeze stiffens, which is not necessarily a bad thing as it helps dissipate the diesel exhaust that the never-ceasing engine of the donation vehicle spits forth.

The nurses and other personnel staffing the converted bus are working as fast as they can but are drawing perhaps only four pints an hour — maybe five. At 9 p.m., five hours after I arrived, a new volunteer, a tall young woman with sandy blonde short curly hair and beautiful wide-open eyes, takes over for Chaya whose time has come to donate. The new volunteer calls out a few more names. Hoping mine is among them, it is not and I feel the pinch of an impatient devil sitting on my shoulder, counseling me to forget about it. “Come back another day,” I hear it tell me. “You gave it your best. It’s cold. You’re tired. You’re hungry. Go home.”

Instead I vow to go until 10 in the hope that I’ll be a part of the next batch of names called. If it’s much longer than that, I offer up an internal “we’ll see” to my devil and I imagine I hear it laugh victoriously. To keep busy, I volunteer to hand out the “I donated blood today” stickers in the interim. I congratulate the several donors who exit and urge them to get their obligatory snack and juice from the canteen cart before leaving.

Forty-five minutes later, the next group of names rings out and mine is among them. The devil vanishes, I rejoice, and I take a seat in the line of people waiting to hear the magic word: “Next!”

Things move surprisingly quick and in a few more minutes I’m called inside the vehicle, which is a remarkable feat of space engineering and efficiency. By the entrance are three interview “offices,” barely large enough to fit two people. When I complete that part of the process I’m shown to a bench seat that makes up the waiting area where I sit with two elderly men who came before me and are awaiting for the next of four donation stations to open up. We make small talk about the wait we’ve endured and the relief that it is coming to an end.

One of the nurses, Jessica, gets set to do her next interview. Before she takes a seat, I ask her how long she’s been going today.

“Since 7:30 this morning,” she tells me.

I tell her, “Well, I’ve been here since four and every time I’ve seen you you’ve always had a smile on your face and I think that’s wonderful considering how long you’ve been here and how hard you’ve worked.”

She looks at me kindly and smiles, of course. She tells me how phenomenally moving it is for her to see such an outpouring of support from the community.

“Such patriotism is overwhelming.” Myself and the two other men agree.

They soon get called to vacant stations, and then so do I. The nurse I’m assigned to is a friendly, slightly crazed (but in a good way) woman named Renee and she says she recognizes me from a previous donation, but can’t pinpoint where. I tell her I’ve given blood most recently at the Burbank Red Cross center, before that at the annual blood drive at the Los Angeles Zoo, and at the Pasadena Red Cross before that. I tell her I try to give three or four times a year.

She nods appreciatively and has me verify my birth date and social security number, then goes to work finding a suitable vein in my right arm. In a few minutes, there comes the cold pinch of the needle through the skin and my blood flows through plastic tubing into the bag hanging below the reclined chair in which I am seated. As the bag fills with my blood, I squeeze my right hand every few seconds and look out the window into the parking lot. A full-sized pick-up truck drives by heading east on Ventura Boulevard. Waving proudly behind it is a large American flag and chills course through me as I recognize I am on the frontline of the battle to heal this country’s wounds. I am a foot soldier of hope and of goodness and of belief that evil shall not conquer.

A few more minutes and I’m sporting a bandage that I’ll wear proudly far longer than the five hours that Renee requests. It is a symbol of my heart and soul and conscience. As I exit the bus, yet another new volunteer smiles proudly at me and places an “I gave blood today” sticker over my heart. I puff my chest out and stand tall as if I’ve just been awarded a medal of honor.

I visit the canteen and suck down an orange juice and munch on some chocolate chip cookies, lingering. Not wanting to go. At 10:20 p.m., there are still at least a baker’s dozen worth of people waiting in the chilly evening.

It is time for me to leave.

“My work here is done,” I exclaim to them, feeling every inch the superhero as the weariness of the six-hour wait lifts from my shoulders. I’m offered congratulations and thanks and drive carefullys as I take my leave knowing that but a half a day from when the incomprehensible terror began thousands of miles away at ground zero in New York City, there couldn’t be a more fulfilling — more American thing I could do.