Hundreds of American flags — maybe a thousand — line Martin’s Way. Their starred-and-striped fabric is wind-whipped and brittle, and their frail wooden poles appear stained, as if by the ash of Ground Zero. Even as their number dwindles from year to year, the survivors of Hamilton’s original 3,000 flags — about one flag for each life claimed in the 9/11 attacks — continue to stand as red, white and blue memorials to the tragedy.
It is nine in the morning. A small group of students kneels on the red brick path, setting flags in the moist soil, while most of the campus still sleeps. Some are Hamilton College Democrats, some Republicans; others claim no allegiance. But party affiliation is neither important nor apparent among the gathering. Today all huddle side by side and carry out a duty to remember the victims.
Imagine the memories uprooted as they plant each flag. For many, Sept. 11, 2001, was a school day muddled by rumor, by children leaving school in the middle of class, by a Catholic school principal calling for a group prayer over the P.A. system. It was something that “didn’t register” right away for Alley Fall ’12 — at least not until the footage of the second plane’s “intentional impact” proved, as it also did to Will Eagan ’11 and the rest of the world, that it was no accident.
After the students finish the memorial path that extends from Beinecke Student Activities Village to Commons Dining Hall, two figures in firefighter uniforms remain. For the first time in this nine-year tradition, an unexhausted 343 flags will be meticulously shaped into the letters “FDNY” on the lawn in front of Commons. Peter Maher ’13 and Tim Gray ’12, members of the Meriden, N.H., and Lower Merion, Pa., fire departments, respectively, perform the honors. After finishing, they erect a sign stating: “Each flag represents a New York City firefighter who climbed the stairs of the World Trade Center on 09/11/01 and never came down.” Neither will those 343 flags come down with the others the next morning. For a few more days, 9/11 will remain rooted in Hamilton’s hearts.