By Melissa Tyler, Bolles Psychology Teacher
We were in Pompeii, gathering on the motor coach to return to Rome for a wedding. A member of our group emerged from the concession with tears streaking his face. He had just seen on Sky News the first attack. Our tour guide translated the radio reports playing on the bus radio. Nuns on board put away their knitting and began to pray. At each rest stop on the way back to Rome, Sky News was broadcasting every new event of the attacks until we arrived back our hotel. Just as our compatriots at home must have been thinking: Is there an end to this slaughter?
The hotel owner appropriated a room for all the American tourists so that we could be together to collectively grieve and watch updates on Sky News. We didn't have a flag, but I led the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer. Every day. The hotel dispatched bar and food service to "our special room." The mayor of Rome had hand-signed letters of compassion and support delivered to each of our rooms. We were grateful.
We all experienced the surreal feelings of not having our feet on American soil. It was a strange form of survivor's guilt. The wedding was glorious, but many family members of the wedding party never made it to Rome because of airline shutdowns. The bride and groom's courage to press forward with their plans sustained all of us. Never has Ave Maria sounded more beautiful and comforting.
And we were scared. There were times when our grief for our country's loss was subsumed by anxiety over the possibility of attacks on Americans in Rome. Did we "look" American? Could we do anything to make ourselves appear "less American" in order to be safe? Should we avoid typical tourist sites where a density of American tourists might be vulnerable to attack?
And then there was getting home. Most of us--but not everyone-- made our original flights out of Rome before the airports shut down. The airport was a chaotic mess of makeshift security attempts. Every suitcase, both checked and carry-on, was opened and tossed. The planes took off and landed safely in our beloved USA--Memphis was the layover for most of us. The concourses were dark. The monitors blank. We were tired and scared. It was eerie--like Stephen King eerie. Our party comprised the only people other than staff in the entire facility--a darkened, tomb-like setting.
We snagged the last available, shabby and dank, rooms in the airport hotel. One more flight to go. Would it be blown out of the air?
The next morning, it was time for our luggage to tossed again before we boarded our flights to our home cities. We were in a slipstream of exhaustion and fear. We landed safely. I kissed the ground. At last we were home in our beloved but heartbroken country--the USA. Home to a country that would never be the same again.