We scattered his ashes into the moonlight at the spot in Central Park that FDNY Captain Paddy Brown had marked on a map in the event something happened to him.
Granules of the great man stuck to our hands as we walked over to a silver maple tree his surviving comrades had planted in his memory.
Nobody wanted to take the last of the ashes, so Brown’s brother, Mike, poured out the remainder of the remains at the sapling’s base. The widow of another fallen FDNY captain began to sing the Marine Corps hymn.
Brown had served with the Marines in Vietnam and the horror of that war had been followed by the hurt of being called a baby killer when he returned home. He had gone on to join the FDNY and become a baby saver like none other. He was leading Ladder 3 up into direst danger when the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11.
“There’s numerous civilians at all stairwells, numerous burn injuries are coming down. I’m trying to send them down first. Apparently, it’s above the 75th floor. I don’t know if they got there yet. OK, Three Truck and we are still heading up. OK?” he was heard saying on the radio in his last moments.
He then thought to say two final words that surprised no one who knew this brave and gallant Marine and fire captain.
His funeral was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on what would have been his 49th birthday. The following day was, as always, the Marine Corps’ birthday and the one after that was, as always, Veterans Day.
That three-day succession has been repeated annually during the 16 years of what has become our longest war. The silver maple tree has grown surprisingly tall, having long since ceased to be a sapling, now with big roots reaching out into the surrounding grass.
To stand there this past Thursday on what would have been his 65th birthday and remember the feel of his most literal grit between your fingertips was to think not just of Brown and of the others who died on 9/11, but also of every American who has gone to war.
Nobody is welcoming our newest veterans home with cries of “Baby killer!” But too often they receive no notice at all. Those in special forces are deployed again and again and again, suffering wounds and injuries and psychic stresses few others can understand.
Brown had trouble enough after his 13 months in Vietnam with the Marines. He would wonder how it is that the son of a firefighter buddy who died on 9/11 has been repeatedly deployed for 15 years as an Army Green Beret to Afghanistan and Iraq and most recently Africa. The Green Beret insists he is fine, though he has become increasingly worried about one comrade’s emotional wellbeing.
“He’s been in nine serious ambushes,” the Green Beret noted.
On the Halloween just past, the war itself came home in the person of an internet inspired jihadi driving a truck rented for $19.95 for Home Depot. He sped down the bicycle path leading towards where the Freedom Tower has risen in the place of the World Trade Center. Eight more innocents were killed.
The following day, FDNY Engine 10 from the firehouse once in the shadow of the South Tower rolled slowly down what had become a mile-long crime scene. A police helicopter hovered above as a firefighter walked ahead with a hose, directing the nozzle at bits of wreckage of no evidentiary value and traces of the carnage.
“We call it a wash-down,” FDNY spokesman Jim Long later said.
Afterward, the path was reopened and terrorism suffered a small, yet telling defeat as people began using it as before. But perseverance would soon turn to forgetfulness.
Up by the silver maple in Central Park, people seemed to have remembered nothing that needed forgetting as they strolled and ran and biked where Brown had often jogged. He would sometimes stop at the top of the Great Lawn and look across the grassy expanse to the spires of Manhattan. He once took his favorite priest there to show him where he wanted his ashes scattered, but the priest was himself killed on 9/11.
Fortunately, Brown also marked the spot on the map he left in his firehouse along with a letter to his brother. The maple nearby has become a place of pilgrimage for those of us who loved him.
The surprise of the tree’s present height triggers a sudden accounting of how impossibly long it has been since we lost Paddy Brown, the one and only, first in and last out. It sometimes seems as if the growth over minutes and days and months and years was from the rich soil of remembrance itself.
But as the three days in November proceed from Brown’s birthday to the Marine Corps’ birthday, the mind goes to all those for whom Semper Fi has sacred meaning.
And as we come to Veterans Day—which unlike Memorial Day is not only for those who gave their lives—our thoughts should embrace all those who served.
We owe them all the same two final words that Brown spoke over the radio from the North Tower just before it came down.