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Contrails in the sky

By MARTIN TREES

Special to the News

As I sit in my White Salmon home, it is the unlikely chore of preparing my tax return that forces me to think once more of that fateful late-summer day last year. According to the forms in front of me, the IRS wants to know if I was affected by the events of Sept. 11

I saw the same television images people all around the world witnessed, I shared the fear, the horror, the numbness. How could I not be affected? Surely there isn't a person in our community who wasn't affected by what took place on the other side of the country, no matter the distance.

While I have no personal connection to New York City, the editor of a magazine for which I write was in Manhattan that day and walked the smoke-filled streets. A bond broker I know had colleagues in the World Trade Center. And my flight attendant friend was grounded far from home due to the events of that day. But those things didn't touch me directly and I guess the IRS wants to know if I was affected in some more tangible way.

No, I didn't lose any property, all that I own is here in the Gorge. I didn't lose any income -- unless you count the stories I will not be selling due to the economic downturn that's hit the publishing world. The biggest thing I lost was a sense of security, as did many others, whether in New York, Hood River or The Dalles. But IRS forms don't have a worksheet for calculating those losses.

In the days following Sept. 11, as that gray dust cloud loomed ominously over Manhattan, the sky above our Gorge homes remained blue, unmoving and serene. How could things here appear so normal when the world was at that time far from being normal? But as I looked more closely at the clear skies I realized that they were too clear, too blue. The sky was anything but normal, but it took me a while to realize why. And then it hit me. Those linear white clouds created high above by Portland-bound jet planes were missing. There were no contrails.

Since all airplanes had been grounded, those regimented clouds that usually crisscross the skies above Mount Hood and Mount Adams were nowhere to be seen. Left behind when the distant thunder of high-altitude jet engines had passed, these miraculous manmade creations were simply gone. In more normal times these contrails represent man's great ingenuity and amazing inventiveness. Today we are all too aware that it was man's darker, colder inventiveness which turned our flying machines against us.

These days airports seem as busy as ever and the contrails are back: familiar white cotton lacing the skies, glowing orange and purple as the sun sets beyond Cascade Locks. Once again they drift on strong westerly winds high above, submitting to the airflow and taking on new shapes. They adapt to their new state just as we must adapt. And just before one cloud dissipates, to be lost forever, another Seattle-bound plane flies overhead, bringing more signs of our enduring resilience.

Was I affected by the events of Sept. 11? I look again at the IRS form, and even though I know it to be a lie, I check the box marked No.

Martin Trees is a writer who lives in White Salmon.

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