Special Report—United We Stand

Literature Lessons: "Playing for the Fighting Sixty-Ninth"

Thinking About the Selection
Writing Activity
Research and Technology
Speaking and Listening
Connecting to Literature

William Harvey is a freshman at The Juilliard School in New York City. He originally wrote this firsthand account in an e-mail to his family in Indianapolis, Indiana, after the attack.

"Playing for the Fighting Sixty-Ninth"
William Harvey

On September 16, 2001, I had probably the most incredible and moving experience of my life. Juilliard organized a quartet to go play at the Armory. The Armory is a huge military building where families of people missing from Tuesday's disaster go to wait for news of their loved ones. Entering the building was very difficult emotionally, because the entire building (the size of a city block) was covered with missing posters. Thousands of posters, spread out up to eight feet above the ground, each featuring a different, smiling, face. I made my way into the huge central room and found my Juilliard buddies.

For two hours we sight-read quartets (with only three people!), and I don't think I will soon forget the grief counselor from the Connecticut State Police who listened the entire time, or the woman who listened only to "Memory" from Cats, crying the whole time. At 7:00 P.M., the other two players had to leave; they had been playing at the Armory since 1:00 P.M. and simply couldn't play any more. I volunteered to stay and play solo, since I had just got there.

I soon realized that the evening had just begun for me: a man in fatigues who introduced himself as Sergeant Major asked me if I'd mind playing for his soldiers as they came back from digging through the rubble at Ground Zero. Masseuses had volunteered to give his men massages, he said, and he didn't think anything would be more soothing than getting a massage and listening to violin music at the same time. So at 9:00 P.M., I headed up to the second floor as the first men were arriving.

From then until 11:30 P.M., I played everything I could do from memory: Bach B Minor Partita, Tchaikovsky Concerto, Dvorak Concerto, Paganini Caprices 1 and 17, Vivaldi Winter and Spring, "Theme from Schindler's List," Tchaikovsky Melodie, "Meditation" from Thais, "Amazing Grace," "My Country 'Tis of Thee," "Turkey in the Straw," "Bile Them Cabbages Down." Never have I played for a more grateful audience. Somehow it didn't matter that by the end, my intonation was shot and I had no bow control. I would have lost any competition I was playing in, but it didn't matter. The men would come up the stairs in full gear, remove their helmets, look at me, and smile.

At 11:20 P.M., I was introduced to Colonel Slack, head of the regiment. After thanking me, he said to his friends, "Boy, today was the toughest day yet. I made the mistake of going back into the pit, and I'll never do that again."

Eager to hear a firsthand account, I asked, "What did you see?"

He stopped, swallowed hard, and said, "What you'd expect to see."

The Colonel stood there as I played a lengthy rendition of "Amazing Grace" which he claimed was the best he'd ever heard. By this time it was 11:30 P.M., and I didn't think I could play anymore. I asked Sergeant Major if it would be appropriate if I played the National Anthem. He shouted above the chaos of the milling soldiers to call them to attention, and I played the National Anthem as the 300 men of the 69th Regiment saluted an invisible flag.

After shaking a few hands and packing up, I was prepared to leave when one of the privates accosted me and told me the Colonel wanted to see me again. He took me down to the War Room, but we couldn't find the Colonel, so he gave me a tour of the War Room. It turns out that the division I played for is the Famous Fighting Sixty-Ninth, the most decorated regiment in the U.S. Army. He pointed out a letter from Abraham Lincoln offering his condolences after the Battle of Antietam … the 69th suffered the most casualties of any regiment at that historic battle.

Finally, we located the Colonel. After thanking me again, he presented me with the coin of the regiment. "We only give these to someone who's done something special for the 69th," he informed me. He called over the division's historian to tell me the significance of all the symbols on the coin.

As I rode the taxi back to Juilliard—free, of course, since taxi service is free in New York right now—I was numb. Not only was this evening the proudest I've ever felt to be an American, it was my most meaningful as a musician and a person as well.

At Juilliard, kids can be critical of each other and competitive. Teachers expect, and in many cases get, technical perfection. But this wasn't about that. The soldiers didn't care that I had so many memory slips I lost count. They didn't care that when I forgot how the second movement of the Tchaikovsky went, I had to come up with my own insipid improvisation until I somehow (and I still don't know how) got to a cadence. I've never seen a more appreciative audience, and I've never understood so fully what it means to communicate music to other people.

And how did it change me as a person? Let's just say that, next time I want to get into a petty argument about whether Richter or Horowitz was better, I'll remember that when I asked the Colonel to describe the pit formed by the tumbling of the Towers, he couldn't. Words only go so far, and even music can only go a little further from there.

Thinking About the Selection

  1. Why did William Harvey go to the Armory?
  2. What unexpected award did he receive?
  3. Which people will he "never forget"? Why?
  4. How do you think he felt about his experience?
  5. What enduring lesson does he say he will remember because of his experience?
  6. The attack on the World Trade Center killed thousands of people. As a firsthand account, what does this essay offer you that news reports, speeches, or other articles do not? Explain.

Writing Activity
Literary Analysis: Is this account "literature"?

When William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, he used his acceptance speech to implore writers to address subjects that are important. He said that literature should reflect the human spirit. Specifically, Faulkner asked writers to address—even relearn—universal themes and truths. Faulkner said,

Until he [the writer] does, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and worst of all, without pity of compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. …

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man.

Based on these ideas, decide whether this selection should be considered "literature." Using the account presented here, or one of your own choosing, evaluate it using Faulkner's criteria. Use these questions to guide your writing:

  • Does the writer provide more hope than fear? Why or why not?
  • What message does the writer convey about the human spirit?

Use evidence from the selection to support your opinion. Share your writing with classmates.

Research and Technology

Using the United States Responds links, visit other sites on the Internet to find other firsthand accounts or photographs of the events of September 11, 2001. Consider these questions as you read each one:

  • Where was the person during the event?
  • Which emotion does the writer or photographer convey most strongly: fear, sorrow, hope, anger, or something else? Why?
  • What lesson or message does the selection convey?

Choose one account or photograph that you find especially powerful and share it with classmates in a group discussion.

Speaking and Listening

Invite a member of your community to speak to your class about recent events. You may want to interview a city or town government official, a local rescue worker, a psychologist, or a reporter, so that he or she can share experiences and ideas with the class. Prepare a list of questions and use them as a starting point for a class discussion.

Connecting to Literature

"The United States Responds" feature suggests specific selections to read in Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes. Read one of these selections. Then, in a brief essay or class discussion, explain what connections you can find between the selection and the events of September 11, 2001.