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dona nobis pacem
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

I never watch daytime television. My husband, a news reporter, knows this. That’s why one Tuesday morning, he called me and said, “Turn on the television.”

Then hung up.

I turned it on. I saw a tall building on fire. I heard the mumbles and pontifications from talking heads not comfortable with ad-libbing. No one had an answer. Helicopter cameras from a safe distance never wavered.

A friend of mine in D.C. doesn’t watch television at all. But she has one, so I called her and said, “Turn on the television.”

We watched and listened together. Still a tall building on fire. A lot of confusion and half-answers. Something about a bomb, perhaps. Something about detained planes. A lot of gray, churning smoke, clouding a previously unmarred blue sky. My friend and I spoke occasionally, flipping between separate channels to hear different perspectives.

It was there, on television, that my friend and I saw the second plane hit the second building. Right into the side it went, slicing through glass and steel like a discarded toy thrown by a spoiled giant. The talking heads stopped ad-libbing and started calling for God. Now there were two tall buildings burning, and nothing would ever be the same.

All the words came tumbling out. Flights from Boston that went south, not west. Something in Washington, D.C. had gone horribly wrong. Cutaways to a flight somewhere in Pennsylvania, taped replays of phone calls to secretaries and wives and brothers and even a cell phone operator because she was human.

Help me?
No, there’s no help for me now.
But I love you. Tell them I love them too.

My friend in D.C. said, “I gotta go.”
Love you. Love you, too.

My husband came home late that day. He looked like he did after Oklahoma City, after the U.S.S. Cole, after that one story about that one little girl that one time. The news blinders were off and together we stared at the screen, holding hands and crying. I listened to a slightly more famous news anchor, Peter Jennings, report from his anchor desk from early morning until midnight, attempt to leave only to come back. Trying to provide answers, hoping to comfort.

He cried, too.

I watched television for two straight days until finally, exhausted from the tears and the terrified voices and the questioning and the worrying, I shut it off. I needed to absorb what had happened in our world. I needed to stop seeing those two buildings whenever I looked away from the screen. I needed dreamless sleep.

There were many phone calls. On September 14, I sent an email that included these words:

If each person would remember feelings from this week next week...and the week after that...and the week after that.... perhaps then, we would make a difference and put an end to this terror once and for all...and find peace.

I had to fly three weeks later. Every face on the plane expressed the same thing: is this it? What about tomorrow? Two weeks from now on my return home, if I return? A woman I didn’t know held my hand when we landed. I can’t be certain, but I think she reached out first.

I knew I was lucky. I wasn't in the vicinity of any direct reminders. I didn't have to pass by flowers, candles, pictures. All my friends and loved ones were accounted for. But I still read in the New York Times every profile on everyone who died that day or who probably did. I listened as my Sikh friends expressed their anger and sorrow at being spit at on a street in West Des Moines. My eyes watered every time I saw a flag at half-mast. I wanted to believe what another friend said.

We will heal. We will rebuild.

It’s been four years. My friend was right. There has been some healing. There has been some rebuilding. Nothing feels quite as raw now. I don’t tune in to television coverage on Iraq, but send microwave popcorn, Tootsie Rolls and books to our friend serving there, and read what I can to stay informed. One day rolls into another, bills need to be paid, the boss still expects certain things.

But I still recoil from any image representing that day, as if the picture on the page or screen will spontaneously turn into that same choking ash that covered faces and replaced air. That same ash that lined the delicate petals of flowers and stained limestone. That same ash I’m afraid will go down my throat and smother my heart. The bombings in London struck me with a familiar piercing hesitance: is this it? What about tomorrow? Two weeks from now?

Hollywood thinks we’re ready. Hollywood says because of the Commission’s 600-page report, they have the “grounding to create fact-based drama that is respectful to the victim’s families.” So many heroes to remember, they say. This is a chance for Nicolas Cage and Harvey Keitel to grimace with determination. The little screen will once again feature cockpit and telephone recordings for that, you know, “reality” entertainment factor.

Producers are certain we're ready to examine that day with some perspective. So this September, a docudrama and next spring, a mini-series. Two movies in the wings and God help us all, a movie by Oliver Stone. I can’t help but wonder what kind of advertising side dish one serves up with fact-based drama.

One flight victim’s relative doesn’t mind an entertaining retelling at all. “It’s a beautiful story about people who took a course of action instead of being victims. There are lessons there for all of us.” But after that cell phone went dead, after those still standing decided to roll, we don’t have any idea what happened. What will Hollywood do about that?

Bring them back?

It’s been four years, and we haven’t learned any other lessons, found any other heroes? After that day, this is what we’re reduced to? A vacuous wasteland of humanity without purpose that only remembers that day when it’s recreated on an electronic screen?

Please hear me when I say I will always remember the heroes of that day.
Please realize that the terror experienced that day is still around us.
Please understand why I don’t want to see it again, imagined or otherwise.
Please know there is absolutely nothing I will ever forget.

Dona nobis pacem.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

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daniel givin
8.31.05 @ 1:10a

It’s been four years, and we haven’t learned any other lessons, found any other heroes? After that day, this is what we’re reduced to? A vacuous wasteland of humanity without purpose that only remembers that day when it’s recreated on an electronic screen?

We are just as arrogant, maybe even more so. Sometimes it seems that our only purpose is to watch the electronic screen, succumb to the fear that they are selling, and escape our fear by purchasing useless products. We are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again because of our pride. Who else but human beings would actually think that with technology, large numbers of people can live below sea level in a hurricane prone area. How many wake up calls is it going to take? How many must die before we grow up, look inward and understand that the real problem is us.

robert melos
8.31.05 @ 2:31a

People may object, but I fully expect to see Hollywood depictions of 9/11 just as I grew up watching Pearl Harbor attacked multiple times in films like Tora! Tora! Tora!, From Here To Eternity, and a multitude of others.

What has struck me from that time was that there is no news footage of the Pentagon being struck by the plane. Considering it was somewhat of a tourist attraction, and the media overwhelmed us with the images of the WTC, I've never seen any video of the Pentagon being hit. Only the after effects.

I expect to see a tsunami film within a year. For every one of us who saw these events live, there are people in the world, and future generations who will not experience the confusion, fear, sense of wonder, worry, numbness, without a Hollywood version to elicit their emotions.

Personally, I feel a lot of 9/11 has been overshadowed by politics, the use of 9/11 images and memories to manipulate voters, and by war blurring the lines between who truly was behind the attacks and who was more of a viable target to retaliate against.

It's obvious we have learned nothing in four years, and 50 years and more if we look at the overall history of man.

A very well written piece, BTW.

sandra thompson
8.31.05 @ 9:33a

How many years will it take before we can see the movie of Hurricane Katrina in Nawlins?

I don't think I can watch these things.

The images of those ugly buildings burning and falling down are forever etched upon my brain. I've hated those ugly buildings since the day they went up, but it never occurred to me they could be brought down that way, or that somebody hated them more than I did but for different reasons.

There are no adequate words for these things. At least, if there are, I cannot call them up from the depths of my alleged mind.

jael mchenry
8.31.05 @ 9:44a

I think it's too soon. I won't be watching any of the fictional interpretations. Partly because they're false, and partly because they're just too fricking upsetting.

And partly because they're about making money. A good documentary will do far more to explore the truth and give perspective to those who are searching for it, with a slightly more noble goal than cashola.

russ carr
8.31.05 @ 11:01a

Never is too soon.

Whether it's Pearl Harbor, or the Titanic, or whatever, disasters (deliberate or otherwise) leave emotions raw, sometimes for a lifetime. We are, I suppose, so far removed from 1941 and 1912 that for the majority of people these are merely historic stories. In 60 years, our grandchildren may see 9/11 the same way.

But that's irrelevant a mere four years after the events.

The terrorist attacks have the infamy of being seen – live — by millions. The only comparable event that comes to mind is the Challenger accident. There is no need to fictionalize what happened, because so many people witnessed the actual events first-hand, or at least during the countless hours of replay in the days that followed. The images have been, as Tracey said, seared into our collective vision. We don't need to imagine what we already know.

Some would probably argue that teleplays or films or whatever are being produced as a way of coming to grips with the horrors of that day. Like having a child draw a picture of the thing that scares them most, so they can put a form and a face on the monster in the dark. What works for a small child, though, is not nearly so effective for an adult, especially an adult who is exposed every day to a society which has changed so dramatically in the past four years. Every death in Iraq or Afghanistan, every increase at the gas pump, every mention of the Terror Alert level, every bumper sticker...they all refocus our vision on that day. They are constant reminders.

In preparing for my last column, I read the opinion of a guy who didn't like the new version of Battlestar Galactica because it was so dark, so brutal. Stories on the show drew distinct parallels to terrorism, and exploited post-9/11 fears, and that was enough to cause this gentleman to change the channel. It was too close to reality, he said. If allegorical science fiction is too close to reality, how much worse will "realistic" portrayals bring those horrors back?

Katrina is evidence that there are tragedies enough on television as it is; we don't need more added to our already heavy emotional burden. AND, just as on 9/11 and the days following, there are countless examples of real-life, real-time heroes out there just waiting to be told, with no embellishment, by the heroes themselves.

dave lentell
8.31.05 @ 11:04a

Tracey - I definitely see where you're coming from on this issue, and to an extent I agree with you.

For those who don't know anything about me, I work in a building that's considered a "target of opportunity." I was in this building watching the horror of Oklahoma City and I was in this building watching the horror of 9/11. Granted, we're not a nationally prominent target by any means, but we get threats all the time and maybe, just maybe, someday someone will decide to carry out one of those threats. It's something all of us working here live with every day. And so, like you, I'm not sure that I need to see the televised reminders of 9/11.

Do those of us who feel as you do, need to see the same repeated documentaries, films and "new looks at 9/11" that will roll out every September from now until the end of time - much like the Pearl Harbor documentaries and films do every December 7th? I certainly don't think I do. And I know my wife and my parents don't. They hate the fact I work where I do.

But I do think there are some people who DO need to be reminded. Reminded of what it was like for some people to board a plane one morning, or go to work one morning only to have what seemed to be a routine day suddenly become the stuff of nightmares. And they need to be reminded what some people chose to do in their last moment on that day.

Because I think there are a lot of people who have forgotten. A lot of people who've become complacent and self-centered again. People who instead of heeding the words of your e-mail have gone back to worrying more about having the right car, the right clothes, the right friends. A lot of people who'll say, "Yeah, September 11th sucked, but I can't believe it costs me 60 bucks to fill up the gas tank in my Hummer!"

Do I want to see Nick Cage and Harvey Keitel in a scene chewing Hollywood-ized account of Flight 93? Not anymore than I wanted to see Ben Affleck and company mug their way through Pearl Harbor. The point of both being to make money, as opposed to trying to inform or enlighten.

But I do want to see the Discovery Channel's "The Flight that Fought Back" (http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/flight/flight.html)I want to be reminded that as horrifying as that day was, that a small group of Americans who knew what was being planned for them said "No."

Because while I know you, (and many others) haven't Tracey, I think too many people have already forgotten.

tracey kelley
8.31.05 @ 4:44p

A lot of people who'll say, "Yeah, September 11th sucked, but I can't believe it costs me 60 bucks to fill up the gas tank in my Hummer!"

A very good point, and one I agree with wholeheartedly. But I don't believe people who choose to watch these movies or tv "fact-based dramas" will walk away with any sense of reverance or purpose.

Daniel, I wonder how much of the problem is "us" in the sense of do we feel we're capable of change in any way and is that the sense of hopelessness?

Robert, I think you're right - I think there is supposed to be a tsunami movie.

Historical reference has a place. My understanding is that some documentaries made on the events of 9/11 thus far have been very well-presented and informative. But what a viewer expects from a documentary and what someone gets with "fact-based drama" are two TOTALLY different things. Kind of like watching a Michael Moore movie.

We're talking about Hollywood, and the fact that someone thought it was a smart idea to remake "The Posiedon Adventure" fercryin'outloud.

robert melos
8.31.05 @ 5:02p

A short time after 9/11 CBS aired a documentary on NYC fire fighters that happened to be filming on 9/11. It was a very moving piece.

I've had many older people who can tell me where they were on Dec. 7th during Pearl Harbor, but for me it would have no real meaning if I hadn't seen movies about it while growing up. My father used to tell me about being in World War II, but I grew up in a world so different from what he described that I needed a visual like a film to give me the point of reference. Without it, Egypt was a place with pyramids and Germany was a place with a city divided by a wall. I think, as much as it may bother those who witnessed 9/11, we've become a society that really has a need for dramatizations of events because those born after 9/11 who grow up hearing stories need a frame of reference aside from a parent or grandparent who could tell them what happened.

Truthfully we don't need the film. What future generations need is actual news broadcasts unedited, just as we saw them, hearing the shock in Dan Rather's voice, hearing the producers cursing in the background in horror. Show the people on the streets in shock. Maybe those images can sink in to the next generation that war and hate create these events.

tracey kelley
9.1.05 @ 1:28p

That is a great idea - the actual broadcasts. I'm thinking there's enough fact-based drama there.

I got an email from someone asking me what role I thought media should play in these events. I guess it goes back to the historical marker element most have already mentioned. A 10-year or 20-year anniversary documentary is one thing - a retrospective, maybe, or an update on the families or something would be another.

But to just "dramatize" the events? No.

mike julianelle
9.2.05 @ 9:03a

I'm in the minority here, and I know the wounds are still fresh for a lot of people, and doing it just to make money is crass and a bit offensive, sure, but in general I don't have a problem with dramatizing it. Most of the product will suck, but there will probably be one or two results that stand up, and those might have a positive effect. I don't want to see it exploited but neither do I want to see it ignored.

tracey kelley
9.2.05 @ 9:24a

I think that's the point Dave was trying to make, too - some documentaries will be worth watching.

But, honestly? Do you want to see Nick Cage portray a trapped Port Authority guard? Or Harvey Keitel as the anti-terror expert who died in the South Tower?

And ('cause I'm curious) what effect do you hope will these dramas have on people when the event itself has done nothing? Look at the problems in New Orleans, for cryin' out loud. Both circumstances are just = what did someone (Juli?) say yesterday - lizard brain reactions. How can we overcome that?

mike julianelle
9.2.05 @ 9:41a

We can't, but neither should we look to movies and entertainment to do that for us.

jael mchenry
9.2.05 @ 9:51a

I wouldn't say "the event itself has done nothing." I think the event did a lot -- scared people into supporting a certain President, brought the problem of America's worldwide image to the forefront -- but the memories, let's say, are fading. Because it's easier to forget than remember.

But I still don't think Nic Cage is the way to remind people. That said, feature films reach a lot more people than docs -- except in a few choice cases, like the Penguins and Fahrenheit, people don't go to see documentaries, either because they don't want to or because the distributors don't put them out there widely.

tracey kelley
9.2.05 @ 9:52a


Then why is it so important to drag it out as "entertainment?" Andy Griffith booked the good news meter for a few days? Would it be so hard to generate some other type of compelling drama or, heaven forbid, a really good comedy?

tracey kelley
9.2.05 @ 9:53a

I was exactly-ing Mike's comment, but 2nd Jael's, too.

mike julianelle
9.2.05 @ 10:16a

If you've been paying attention to Hollywood lately, yes, it IS hard for them to generate other compelling dramas or good comedies.

The fact is, a well-handled 9/11 movie will probably SELL. And just because it sells doesn't mean it's exploiting the tragedy. No, the main reason for making it shouldn't be to make money, and while I am not a fan of Nic Cage, I don't think Oliver Stone, no matter how bizarre his take could prove to be, is doing it primarily to make a profit. He's not that kind of director. He's got stuff to say, regardless of how poorly he says it, or how off-base it often is.

A lot of critics got upset at Spielberg's apparent use of 9/11 imagery in War of the Worlds. Obvio WotW is not a retelling of 9/11, but it is clearly informed by it, and I didn't find it offensive or exploitative. Cynical, maybe it is a bit, to use something so real and horrifying to underscore a movie about an alien invasion, but I think Spielberg prolly had a bit more on his mind than making a mint by scaring people by stirring up those memories. That's what artists do, they use their art as prisms.

One movie I think is brilliant and a lot of people despise is Gus van sant's Elephant, which tackled another national tragedy (Columbine) as head-on as one can get without being accused of exploiting it. I found it supremely affecting and a valid way to explore the emotions that Columbine provoked, and as an intelligent way to tackle the issue of "why" in a philosophical, almost existential way. There is no why.

I will not be at all surprised if Oliver Stone has a "why" and hammers us over the head with it. But I don't see a problem with that, even tho the movie will prolly suck.

tracey kelley
9.2.05 @ 12:30p

Oh, we'll "why" it ad nauseum. No doubt about it.

But what change comes from that "why?" Pontification only goes so far.

mike julianelle
9.2.05 @ 12:41p

This is a different topic altogether, but maybe if we weren't forcefed bullshit answers like "they hate freedom" and actually got some honest consideration of the policies that brought it on, pontification might go quite far indeed.

But I think there is a need to dissect events like this. It hurts, yeah, but the more perspectives we get on it, the more insight might be garnered. That's not to say that an action movie is going to do anything, but who knows, maybe seeing Bruce Willis save the day will make some people feel better for 2 hours.

To get back to the heart of the column, I don't think people have forgotten or will forget 9/11. If they do, maybe the movies will remind them. Maybe some people are remembering the wrong stuff, and a good movie will put some things in perspective. But I don't necessarily think dramatizing the tragedy is a bad thing, in concept. I may feel differently about the results.

robert melos
9.2.05 @ 5:12p

Nick Cage isn't the way to go. Travolta as Giuliani is my choice.

Seriously, the why doesn't matter as much as the who. Of course the who we know is Osama Bin-Laden, and vilifying a member of the Saudi royal family, no matter how removed he is from the royal family, won't set well with George W. Bush.

Really I'm more disgusted with the proposed Sept. 11th events scheduled for this year including the Bush driven factor attempting to reconnect Iraq in the minds of Americans with 9/11. I've actually heard people say we are in Iraq because Saddam Hussein attacked us on 9/11. People have already forgotten.

anya werner
9.2.05 @ 7:42p

Okay, I'm with you. I don't need to be reminded -- I haven't forgotten. But, maybe some people do need it to remind them. Unfortunately, I think some people use the reminders to fuel the wrong things. Like wars in places where there weren't really any weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, from a pure media perspective... better a movie about 9/11 than a movie about Amy Fisher or OJ Simpson or...

tracey kelley
9.2.05 @ 9:19p

Where have you been, anyway, woman? :)

No - no fictionalized, trumped up versions of "the truth." Not on this. We have enough "reality" television as it is. Hell, just look at Bravo and MTV/VH1: Bobby Brown talking about pulling poo out of Whitney Houston. Kathy Griffin pretending to be 1) important and 2) funny. Tommy Lee. Britney Spears. All "reality" in this world.

No. No more.

robert melos
9.3.05 @ 1:58a

Sadly Britney Spears, Tommy Lee and Bobby Brown pass for reality. However, what is their reality is so far removed from my reality and the reality of most of the people in the world, that a movie of 9/11 might bring some of these people back in touch with the true real world.

Honestly, television producers missed a real opportunity at reality television by not getting the family or a few families of victims of 9/11 signed up to a series showing how they honestly dealt with loss and going on with their lives. That would've been the highest rated series in television history and might've spared us Bobby Brown and Britney Spears.

tim lockwood
9.4.05 @ 1:44a

I'm with Mike on this one. Let every sleazeball second-rate producer turn this into their own personal cash cow - and much good may it do this crappy economy. The dreck will sink to the bottom and the cream will rise to the top, as it always does, no matter what the subject of the movie.

But more importantly, maybe we should go back to the ages-old tradition of handing down our human history to our kids. Everyone who was alive then knows where they were and what they were doing when they heard about V-J day, when Kennedy was shot, or other such historical events. Wouldn't it be better in the long run, while it is still relatively fresh in your mind, to write down all the little mundane events that occurred in your own life when you heard about 9/11? How you were running late to work and heard about it on your car radio listening to Howard Stern while you were trapped on the interstate because there was a wreck, or you played hookey from work and went shopping in a department store that Tuesday morning and saw Katie Couric of the Today show talking on the display TVs in the electronics department about a plane having possibly crashed into the World Trade Center? That, to me, would be a MUCH more important historical account that will mean a lot more to your kids and grandkids than something they can go rent at Blockbuster off the 5-day rental shelf.

dan gonzalez
9.5.05 @ 2:45a

I don't see it accomplishing anything valuable. We've had countless films on Vietnam, which was 40 years ago, 10 times as long ago as 9/11, and none of them have been instructive enough for us to accurately come to grips with it as a society, or even to intelligently agree on why we went there in the first place, much less whether or not it had any merit.

What Hollywood produces is spur-of-the-moment drivel for the most part. Shakespeare wrote his tragedies and histories from a detached, far distance and correlated them to current affairs with a philosophical relevance. And so his works are all very instructive on many levels.

But we're flat out of Shakespeares now, and even if there was one, he or she couldn't look at this subject with a properly objective point-of-view.

mike julianelle
9.5.05 @ 1:08p

Regardless of what benefit it may or may not have either immediately on in the long run, it's not gonna end the world either. I don't think it's offensive or detrimental to us psychologically. I don't think we need to be all up in arms at the prospect of Hollywood making a) bad movies b) money c) money off of bad movies.

What's the big deal?

tracey kelley
9.5.05 @ 2:01p

When they baste the efforts with words like "reverence" and "respect" but really, a-b-and-c apply.

That's the big deal.

People are profiteers in many respects. And you're right - people like me won't watch if we don't feel like it, so where's the harm, right?

But unlike the true art and literature that came to be after the event, a re-enactment is a default on the event. That's what Hollywood will do to it. No matter how altruistic any producer/director's efforts will be
(such as with Schindler's List or Hotel Rwanda, for example)it's still just one intrepretation of the event set up as "fact-based drama."

But because I didn't go through the Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda, it matters to me how the "entertainment" is presented. The story of 9/11 wasn't buried or ignored like the Holocaust or Rwanda - it was, scene by scene, moment by moment, played out in extreme detail during and after the event.

What more can be said about the event itself? What the media needs to say now is, precisely, what do we do now? These media vehicles will not do that.

robert melos
9.5.05 @ 8:29p

I did and do expect to see films depicting 9/11, however I honestly didn't expect to see them start croping up for about another 10 years.

The WWII films I remember the most were made in the late 50s early 60s, and mostly starred John Wayne. Nic Cage isn't John Wayne. And fictionalizing the event to tell a story of star-crossed lovers would seem distasteful, but will undoubtedly be done.

I have a friend who is a playwright and attempted screenwriter. I read a very moving screenplay he wrote on the Texas City disaster that occurred before I was born. It was a fictionalized account of an even that happened more than 50 years ago. His timing was off. Had he written it 30 years ago he might've gotten it sold. If he were a true schlock writer he would revamp it, and turn it into a 9/11 piece. It was really that good.

Sadly, Hollywood will probably turn the events into "star" vehicles. I personally don't think we have a caliber of actor/actress good enough to pull off such a story in a way as to be accepted by the public and not come across as insensitive.

tim lockwood
9.6.05 @ 3:04a

But we're flat out of Shakespeares now, and even if there was one, he or she couldn't look at this subject with a properly objective point-of-view.

My experience says that the phrase "objective point-of-view" in this context simply means that someone has fully captured the moment the way I remember it. There will never be an objective way of remaking this event in any way whatsoever.

The most we can hope for is that the producer of any such film will at least take the time to get those facts which he or she considers important laid out in the correct order with the right players involved. There were thousands upon thousands of people directly involved in 9/11, from Mohammad Atta to Rudolph Giuliani to the Starbucks clerk who charged $130 for three cases of bottled water for the rescue workers who desperately needed it for people suffering from shock. Each person represents a unique story that surely needs and/or deserves to be told at some point or another. And unless someone exercises some personal editorial discretion, how does one decide whose story gets told?


robert melos
9.7.05 @ 1:50a

While channel surfing I came across a made for television film from 2003 titled DC 9/11: Time Of Crisis. I hadn't been aware of this rather tacky version of events. So far the highlight has been Timothy Bottom as George W. Bush. I loved him in films like The Last Picture Show and The Paper Chase. Sadly this is where his career has led.

I do remember seeing a film called "The Guys", about a fire fighter who had to writer eulogies for his fellow fire fighters who lost their lives. While it didn't dwell on the before or the actual event, it drove home the point of what happens afterward. The pain.

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