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Essayist Discusses Thoughts on the Five Years Since 9/11

September 11, 2006 at 6:50 PM EDT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, Essayist: Five years is not much time. On the other hand, within five years, a child is born, cries, laughs, crawls, learns to walk, then asks why and, again, why, learns numbers and letters. There are children born after the death of a parent on September 11, 2001, who are beginning kindergarten this fall. Horticulturalists say that, for five years, a young tree will need special care to achieve maturity. The Tree Council in Britain advises: Check any trees planted in the last five years in March or April of every year. It takes that long for roots to cling to earth.

A lot can happen to the landscape in five years. Trees and grasses get plowed under, and, suddenly, there are houses staring back at us. Suddenly, people who rented can afford to own. In 1966, ground was broken for the audacious towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.

Just under five years later, by the end of 1970, as the tons of concrete steel began to cohere, the north tower began accepting tenants. Most of the wars America has fought lasted far less than five years. Before the current war on terror — against a shadowy army and with no prospect of an armistice any time soon — the only wars that lasted more than five years were the Revolutionary War and the war in Vietnam; one war, we won; the other, lost.

In five years, the teenager we remembered has evolved into an adult, has gone and graduated from college, or has fought in a foreign war, or has married, or has done all three. Joseph Stalin, the grim dictator, seems to have been obsessed with the promise of the number five. He called his schemes to modernize Russia five-year plans. The world better remembers the way heroes spent their youth over several summers.

It took Lewis and Clark less than five years to map their way west. Charles Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle to the warm Pacific lasted just under five years. Over five years, families are formed.

Today's present-tomorrow's history

There can be tragedies -- illness, seasons of unemployment. Roots defy tragedy. A single season of rain will bring grass to a grave. The grasses in Pennsylvania burned when the Boeing 757 crashed to earth on September 11. Nature was reclaiming the earth by the spring following. It took less than five years for the broken Pentagon to be restored to its even geometry.

On the other hand, in five years, the builders and the politicians have been unable to fill ground zero. Many died on that September morning: a secretary, a stockbroker, a messenger. Five years later, it is hard for friends to remember the sound of the laughter or even the face missing.

Five years, we say, is a very long time. America is a country distinct in the world for being more focused on the future than on the past. Our memory has never been as vivid as our ambition for change. Normally, five years would be longer than the life of the appliances and the gadgets, even the automobiles that we buy and discard. We say to the widow who weeps before her remarriage that five years is long enough to mourn; it is time to start a new life. But September 11 has connected us to ancient tribes who remember battles lost in centuries past, undying grievance passing from generation to generation.

Soon, we will need to explain to a new generation of American children why, why, every September, just as the leaves change their shading, we adults speak the childish language of numbers, 9-1-1. Five years seems no time at all. And we are a nation of widows. I'm Richard Rodriguez.