Two nights before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, my 8-year-old son came downstairs crying and shaking. "I'm scared," he whimpered. I took him into my arms.
He had just returned from a day trip to False River with his best friend and bunch of little girls who had joined his friend's sister for a birthday outing. On the two-hour trip home, the girls took turns telling scary stories -- the usual urban legends about bogeymen who kill unsuspecting children. The image of someone stalking him in his own home was too horrifying and too vivid for him to bear now that night had fallen. He was shaking.
I had been watching the premier installment of Band of Brothers. Having studied history at UNO, I had a keen interest in the series. Dr. Stephen Ambrose, who wrote the book by the same title, was more than one of my teachers; he has become one of my heroes.
I held my shivering son and told him not to pay any attention to the stories he had heard. "When I was a little boy, I heard the same story," I said. "It scared me, too, but then I realized it was all a lie. There never was a bad man breaking into houses and killing little children. They just told you that to scare you."
He sniffed, wiping tears from each eye.
"I'm still scared."
I looked at the television screen, at the images of American paratroopers who had jumped behind German lines in the pre-dawn hours of D-Day and who now were trying to take out four large Nazi cannons that were shelling the Americans on Utah and Omaha beaches.
"Look at those brave men there," I told my son, pointing to the screen. "This is a true story. Those soldiers were scared, too, but they still went to France to fight a terrible war. They did it to make sure that you and I could be safe here at home."
He looked at the screen, but I could tell it wasn't making much difference.
"This is a true story," I said again. "It happened more than 50 years ago, to guys who are now Peepaw's age. They and their friends had to fight this war. They were only 19 or 20 years old back then -- the same age as your brother Brandin today. They were scared, too. But they learned to be brave."
He stared blankly at the screen.
"Let's just watch these brave men for a little while, and then we'll go to bed, OK? Maybe we can learn to be brave, too."
"Will you stay with me?" he asked. "I'm still scared."
When the movie ended, we went upstairs and shared Brandin's large bed. In our prayers we asked God to make us brave and to protect us from our fears.
Two nights later, my wife and I watched other images of horror and death on television. These were much closer to home. Will watched some of it with us, and then it was time to put him to bed.
"Daddy, I'm scared again," he said.
"Are you scared because of what you saw on TV?"
"No, I'm scared about ... you know, that story."
This time, I had no other images to comfort him. What was on TV was much scarier, much more real.
I couldn't tell him that, of course. So we spent another night in Brandin's room. We prayed for the people hurt or killed in New York and Washington, and we asked God to keep us safe. And to help us be brave.
As I closed me eyes, I realized that I had lied to him two nights earlier. Not intentionally, but I know now that there are bogeymen who will stalk and kill innocent, unsuspecting people.
"If you get scared, just snuggle up to Daddy," I said. "I'll make sure you're OK." I put my arm around him and kissed his forehead. He bravely closed his eyes.
I could hear voices on the television in my bedroom evoking Pearl Harbor, another day of infamy. I thought of FDR telling Americans years earlier that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
None of us likes to admit it, but for at least a moment or two, the events of last Tuesday left us all feeling a little like children in face of fear. As adults, as Americans, we soon get over it and get on with our lives.
We'll pull through somehow, I thought. We always do. Just as imaginary terror changed us as children, last Tuesday's real terror will change us now. We'll never be the same, but ultimately we'll be stronger. We'll face our fear and conquer it.
It's all we can do.