In early July of this summer, 2006, nearly three dozen soldiers
injured in Afghanistan and Iraq -- amputees, most of them--- came to Rockaway Beach
for an adaptive sports weekend. What that means is, they came to learn to water
ski, scuba dive, or sail. There was also time for fishing, barbecues, and a
dinner cruise past the Statue of Liberty. The soldiers, some of whom came with spouses
and small children, stayed in the homes of Rockaway residents.
While learning to do the water sports and developing a sense of
"if I can do this, I can do anything" were the stated and lofty objectives
of the visit, something underneath, the subtext, made the weekend all the more profound.
You see, the soldiers and the community felt an immediate, undeniable
bond. The soldiers were, in effect, missing those limbs because of what happened
in New York on September 11, 2001. They had been sent to far off places, to be in
harm's way because three thousand innocent Americans were killed on a beautiful late
summer day. †And, surely, any place in New York wouldíve been a good place for the
soldiers to connect.† But Rockaway had its own particular resonance.
For those who donít know, Rockaway is a spit of land, a barrier island
eleven miles long, just off Brooklyn and Queens. Itís part of New York City but with the
ocean breezes comes the air and atmosphere of a small town. †Itís part of New York but can
seem a million miles away sometimes. †Sometimes.
It so happens that Rockaway is home to an inordinate number of firefighters
and cops, though plenty of locals choose finance over fire and head to Wall Street. Such
a mix made September 11th particularly devastating for this usually insulated
community.† Counting those who rented summer places out here, some ninety people from
Rockaway were killed the day the towers fell.
The constant sound of bagpipes and Amazing Grace eventually faded as
life, sure enough, moved on. †Although memorials were built, and streets renamed in
honor of those who died, and American flags still fly, Rockaway is a place of the stiff
upper lip.† You grieve and then move on as best you can.† And thatís probably a good thing.
But sometimes weíre forced to pause, to contemplate.† Sometimes the
reminders are stark and weíre reminded how terribly real September 11th was.†
This time, the stark reminders came in the form of young severely injured soldiers.
We saw the soldiers come and meet families who'd lost fathers, mothers,
sons and daughters. And we watched the soldiers salute the cops and firefighters who
lost so many of their brethren. And we could see the instant admiration on the
soldiers' faces when they met some of New York's Bravest. We saw the firefighters
wave off the praise. We heard one guy say -- We just picked up the baton but you
guys ran with it.
From Rockaway, the soldiers could see the Manhattan skyline.† The altered
skyline.† The Twin Towers and the Empire State building once gave a hammock effect to
the lower half of Manhattan. †Back then, the skyscrapers were like bookends for all the
smaller buildings in between. †Not anymore.
Unspoken mostly, but acknowledged by a few, was a painful but hopeful
comparison. The soldiers had lost limbs and the city had lost its towers. †But now
each were drawing strength from the other.† So although itís human nature to want to
move on, to get on with life, itís a damn good thing to pause. To remember.† To never
© 2006 Kevin Boyle, All Rights Reserved.
kind of neighborhood produces heroes? Rockaway does. Kevin Boyle takes us
inside the lives, the homes and the culture of a wonderful slice of
America. These are the people the media ignores--until we need them. A
captivation book. - David Brooks, The New York Times
Braving the Waves is like shaking hands with the people that
form the heart, soul and spine of the kind of place you've always wanted
to call home. - Mike Barnicle, The New York Daily News
is the story of a tough town that has suffered twice. Rockaway is home to
heroes. After reading Braving the Waves, it's easy to
understand why. - Brian Williams, NBC News