Words and stories


Since the afternoon of the Marathon bombings, words and stories have filled the air, along with tears, sudden and surprising and started sometimes by a song, sometimes by a police officer’s determination, sometimes by a tortured mother’s inconsolable grief. I don’t have in mind the millions of words, gradually emptied through their repetition of power and meaning by the TV anchors trying to fill time as the terrible event played on through days and nights. I have in mind what the civilians tell us, even those far from Boylston Street and Watertown but nevertheless intimate in their terrible minute-by-minute fascination.

“Words…,” the playwright Tom Stoppard explained, “They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more…. I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.”

Last week in this space I invited readers to tell a story that meant something to them in the aftermath of the bombings. The results were poems, stories of their day at the Marathon, Comment posts praising law enforcement officers — notably those from the Vineyard who went to Boston to help — and expressions of profound sympathy for the victims of the attacks. Some of them will be found in the Letters to the Editor columns across the way. Here are some samples.

“Just a week we will never forget. Just live on Boston and Martha’s Vineyard. We are all one. We are one community that cares. This week, I was so hurt. But all things must pass. We are Boston and Martha’s Vineyard strong.” The writer is Michael J. Flynn of West Tisbury.

Gisely Fish of Edgartown called The Times to describe her sighting of a bald eagle sweeping overhead as she drove along the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. She wanted us to know, and I suggested she write a letter telling her story. The letter appears across the way. It turned out that the event meant something more than bird watching. She wrote, “At a time when terrorists are trying to take away our freedom through fear, it was awe-inspiring and uplifting to see a symbol of freedom, an impressive bald eagle, flying over Edgartown.”

The Times reported on the Vineyard’s Tactical Response Team, which was called to Boston to help in the enormous law enforcement effort to catch the two young bomber brothers. In fact, the team was called twice and answered the call each time. Commenters at mvtimes.com appreciated the team’s efforts.

Laura Muckerheide posted, “Thank you MVTAC!”

Cindy Flanders posted “Thank you to our TRT who helped the amazing law enforcement folks do their job. Well done. Grateful to have you in our community and glad you are home.”

SatansAdvocate, apparently not as satanic as he professes, posted, “Thank you all for your service both in the TRT as well as your local PDs, and those that I know have served in the armed forces.”

For mvmom, there was some mild and indirect scolding directed at the churlish and benighted among the commenters. Mvmom posted, “They went up Wednesday to help give the officers up there a break. Then returned to their families, until they were called back up this morning as a result of what happened Thursday night. And for those with family on the Tactical Team, who are worried for their safety, a little support would be nice.”

Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury selectmen made clear their support, and Edgartown police Chief Tony Bettencourt described the team’s mission.

“They spent the entire day in Watertown, searching buildings,” Chief Bettencourt said. “Attics, cars, basements, they did a great job. The residents there asked where they were from, and they were happy and appreciative when we told them we were from Martha’s Vineyard. The Island is lucky to have them.”

Selectmen agreed to write a letter of commendation for all the Tactical Response Team members.

Elaine Pace of West Tisbury, whose letter appears today, was the principal of the West Tisbury School on September 11, 2001. I reproduced last week in this space a letter she wrote to parents the day the towers fell. When the Marathon bombers made their ghastly mark, Elaine was in Boston to root for her son who was running for the 20th time. Like most of us, Elaine and her family were not harmed by the bombs, but the event and the lurking fear that held so many in its grip as they waited for word from a friend or loved one who was at the finish line or in the race took its toll.

“Our plan,” she writes, “was to cheer in Wellesley then to return to the Vineyard and await the call to say that Ryan had completed the race in his usual time of about three hours. He was right on target when he passed us in Wellesley.… We did errands, our car radio silent. Nor did we carry an IPad or smartphone. Not until we arrived on the 3:45 boat did a friend knock on our car window to tell us the awful news.

“We drove home in silence. What was there to say? The time of the attack was clear, but where was our family then? Was Ryan in his running club’s recovery place getting a post-race massage and tending to sore muscles? Or were they still at the finish line cheering for their other friends?

“A family member called us two hours later to say that she had received a text from Ryan. He was safe. At 7:30 he called to describe the ordeal himself.”

That was Monday evening, but the ordeal for runners, rooters, police, sympathizers, the dead and damaged and their families continues. Elaine has a plan for the long aftermath, and it includes a sentiment altogether in keeping with her former life as a school principal.

“We believe,” she writes, “in the power of prayer, so we will do what my Irish mother-in-law would advise today: ‘Storm heaven!’ We pray for the victims, their families and friends, for all who are touched by such senseless tragedy. I pray, too, that those who work in schools and colleges and in mental health careers will learn better to recognize and to intervene when a young man such as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev becomes so incredibly misdirected.”