Thursday, September 06, 2007

In Front Yard, a Memorial to Sept. 11

Our Towns
The New York Times
September 6, 2007


They appear out of the inky dark on Chestnut Ridge Road like a recovered memory — twin towers outlined in blue rope lighting, broadcast mast with white lighting and red warning beacon on top, a red heart linking them. You’re driving on this lonely two-lane road, no lights, houses on large lots set back from the street, and there they are, homemade ghosts of 9/11 in the suburban night.

Exactly what led Peter Paulnak to build 16-foot-tall wooden edifices evoking the towers (the one representing the south tower is an inch shorter than the north, for the six-foot difference between the two) on the ample front lawn of his rambling ranch house is not entirely clear.

He didn’t lose anyone there, he was never inside, he didn’t feel moved to create his private monument until more than four years after the towers fell. He considers himself a liberal Democrat; he has no political ax to grind. But there they are, one man’s depiction of the images we cannot forget, but do not quite know how to remember.

At ground zero and at local monuments, how to memorialize what happened six years ago Tuesday can still be a source of dispute. Mr. Paulnak decided on his own to remember in the most literal way he could.

Mr. Paulnak, a 58-year-old plumbing and heating contractor, was on a job at a customer’s house in Wilton the day of the attacks. He could hear television accounts of some kind of accident at the World Trade Center, and as the reality sunk in, everyone watched in stunned silence, then work broke off and he went home.

Like nearly all of us, his 9/11 now is a collection of images that linger, one part the millions of bits of paper floating from the sky to the pavement, another the doomed rescue workers, and another the empty cars left in train station parking lots by commuters who never came home. As the nightmare of the day began to recede, as life returned to normal, the idea of building his own memorial took hold.

“People were beginning to forget, and I didn’t want to forget,” Mr. Paulnak said. “I wanted to honor the people who worked there, and the firemen, the policemen, the rescue workers. I just felt they knocked them down, I’ll put them back on my own terms.”

His first thought was to create something like a flat theatrical backdrop, but that seemed insufficiently realistic. Then the outlines of 20-foot towers, built of deck lumber, but the physics of lumber that large was too daunting. So the size was reduced to 16 feet.

He began work on a 6-foot-by-6-foot base, its footings buried four feet deep, around Christmas 2005. He spent about $800, and 200 hours, by the time he completed the project the following June. By day, in moss green, it looks less like the towers than like a piece of boxy modern art, flags planted on the ground at each of the four corners. At night, the lighted outline is unmistakable.

Every now and then he gets some feedback, an appreciative letter, a book of poems in his mailbox. But mostly the memorial that sits on his lawn is a source of vague comfort to him, an unexpected prod to memory, welcome or not, for the drivers passing by.

Why him? It’s partly because he can — the neat rows of tools and the well-used desk vises in his garage attest to that. It’s partly a taste for recreated reality. He and his wife are taking their annual September vacation to Disney World, staying this time at the Boardwalk at Epcot. It’s their 12th visit. Does it get old? “Never,” he said. “We’re Disney people.”

Inside his home, off a corridor with campy posters from old film musicals — “Carolina Cannonball,” “Tropical Heat Wave” — is Mr. Paulnak’s real masterpiece, a staggeringly precise model train tableau, filling an entire room, that is meant to evoke the New Haven Railroad and South Norwalk in the 1950s.

IT seems almost the reverse of the 9/11 monument, one huge and tragic, the other a marvel of miniaturized nostalgia.

There are two gorgeous train stations, the vintage diner, billboards for Plymouths, Nash Ramblers and Baby Ruths. The Rialto Theater, via microchip, is always playing “Miracle on 34th Street.”

But then, even there, in his own private Epcot, the miniature world long before 9/11 is not an entirely different one from the world after.

So built into a hillside above the tracks is a hidden compartment. It opens to a buried missile silo. And every time it opens, amid the halcyon scene from long ago, a digitized audio clip counts down “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, zero,” followed by a blast and the sound of a missile hurtling skyward.



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