Happy Holidays from the 9:57 Project! In this newsletter, co-founder John Hamilton reflects on our Veterans Day trip to the National Flight 93 Memorial, working on Mr. David Beamer's "homework," and the gift of father-son relationships.

In last month’s newsletter, we told you about resuming in-person educational visits to the Flight 93 National Memorial on Veterans Day. We were honored to spend time at the Memorial with David and Peggy Beamer, parents of Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer. Just before the passengers and crew of United 93 successfully thwarted another attack on our nation, operator Lisa Jefferson heard Todd say “Let’s Roll.”

We also shared the three “homework” assignments Mr. Beamer gave our students: to always thank those in uniform (military and all first responders); to always let the words “Let’s Roll” be a reminder to do the right thing, especially when it’s difficult; and to, EVERY SINGLE DAY, hug the ones you love, and tell them just how much you love them.

For our Christmas newsletter, I want to point to a sterling example of what a completed assignment three looks like, but first, let’s go back to the first years of the 9:57 Project.

One fall, my 9:57 Project fellow co-founder Peter Findler was discussing the upcoming 9/11 anniversary with his high school history students. All of these young people were too young to remember the tragic day, except for one: Isaiah Hawkins. September 11, 2001, was his fifth birthday. Since 2002, Isaiah had not celebrated his birth on the day he was born, despite his father’s efforts to mark the occasion the year before. Their native home of Washington, DC had experienced a new kind of warfare firsthand, and chaos had changed their plans. For years, he didn’t even go to school on 9/11, avoiding the reminder of so many hard things. There were millions of wrongs of that day, but the theft of a child’s happy birthday memory and in its place disappointment and unanswerable questions - these things would linger into Isaiah’s young adult years.

Eventually, the veterans of the 9:57 Project and David Beamer himself conspired to undo this wrong. The next year, David told Isaiah at the Flight 93 Memorial that some bad things happened on 9/11, but some “good things happened too,” including his birthday. On the next September 11th, several of the 9:57 Project veterans phoned Isaiah to wish him a Happy Birthday, the last call coming from 9:57 Project veteran Cayton Johnson, during a break at his place of duty as a watch officer at the Pentagon. After that, Isaiah went for a tour there thanks to Cayton.

We invited Isaiah back last month as a special guest as the 9:57 Project conducted its first Veterans Day trip to the Flight 93 Memorial. This was no ordinary venture as the group was smaller than normal, consisting of a select number of students who gave of their personal time to perfect a new 9:57 Project curriculum guide (which you can find on our website). The Beamers were invited back, and thanks to Southern Airways Express, the group flew from Dulles Airport to Johnstown, Pennsylvania for the first-ever airborne 9:57 Project expedition. Isaiah has always meant a lot to those of us who took a special interest in his birthday “reclamation,” so he was a natural choice to join us. In many ways, his personal story embodies the spirit of the 9:57 Project. We take a day meant for bad and we turn it to good, honoring and remembering the best in humanity on the worst of days. Service to others is hopeful, and so are…birthdays. What is more promising than a brand new life?

On the morning of the trip, Isaiah’s Dad, Mr. Hawkins, drove him to my hotel to catch a ride out to Dulles. I’d not seen Isaiah in several years; he’s 25 now. It’s astonishing to think that some of our 9:57 Project student alumni are now in their mid-20s. Isaiah, the last one with personal memories of 9/11 is now an electrician apprentice, and also helps his father with their barbecue business, “Smoken Lo BBQ.” I had spoken with his father on the phone before, but this early morning drop-off was my first introduction to Mr. Hawkins in person.

Mr. Hawkins firmly shook my hand, and I was glad to meet him. He’s one of those people who instantly makes you feel comfortable, there is an air of respect and authority about him, but also a presence of kindness and warmth, abundant on the freckled face of this bear of a man. That’s how I felt anyway. Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think so. As we left, he and Isaiah embraced each other, with a bear hug equal to the kind of welcome I would expect returning home from a deployment, with Mr. Hawkins saying, “I love you son.”

We headed west to Dulles, enjoying a crystal clear Virginia sky slowly reflecting the emerging orange sun behind us. Isaiah was happy to be with us as the conversation flowed smoothly and easily, bridging the gap of the last several years. He has now celebrated his birthday on the appropriate day for quite some time. We talked about normal things - barbecue, his Dad, life. We got to Dulles, and just as Isaiah exercised courage by boarding a bus to Shanksville years ago to face memories of 9/11, he boarded a small charter plane for the first time and headed there again. He, and everyone for that matter, seemed to really enjoy the flight on the relatively small Cessna Caravans flown by the capable pilots of Southern Airways Express.

What Isaiah didn’t know was that earlier that morning when I noticed how he and his father bid their farewells, I couldn’t help but think of my Dad. Every time he said bye to me, he would hug me and give me a small kiss on the cheek. My Dad died one fall Friday night in his sleep, mercifully while I was spending the night at a friend’s house. I was in the fourth grade. Earlier that year, I had become self-conscious about how my Dad did his goodbyes, I mean, I was growing up and not a little kid anymore. If only I had known.

Decades later, I learned that Dad had changed a lot in the years just after I was born. He was 45 when I came into the world, and those who knew him then said he had mellowed in some ways from when he was in his twenties and thirties. Rayford E. Hamilton was a member of the greatest generation, a Combat Infantryman of the Tenth Mountain Division, wounded in April 1945, in Italy. That was the same month, in the same country, and in the same Division that the late Senator Bob Dole received his World War II wounds. Maybe something in my father’s experience and the later acceptance of it allowed him to be gentle and outwardly show his heart when appropriate. Several years ago I met Senator Dole at the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, and I noticed a similar affection. I knelt beside him in his wheelchair and shook his hand and spoke to him about my Dad and the Division they both served in. We chatted for a while, and he held my left hand for the longest time. (His war injuries rendered his right hand unusable). It was all a surreal experience, not because Bob Dole, the former giant of the Senate and almost President wouldn’t let go of my hand, but because I had always wanted to meet someone who had served with my Dad, and I knew this would be the closest I would ever come to that.

Isaiah and our group flew to Pennsylvania and made our way to the Flight 93 Memorial. Later that day, when David Beamer addressed our group, discussing his family, Todd, and our country, I was standing behind him, and couldn’t help but look at Isaiah and wink as Mr. Beamer talked about the last time he saw Todd at a family gathering days before 9/11, and then went on to describe the same sort of farewell I’d seen the Hawkins men share that morning. I think Isaiah knew instantly what I was thinking. On the way home that evening, Isaiah and I discussed Mr. Beamer’s words and the third assignment, to hug the ones you love and tell them that you love them every single day. This allowed me to discover that Isaiah once had similar thoughts about what a “grown-up” goodbye should look like, but had decided to just go with what his Dad had to offer. An A+ send-off every day. What a gift; what a Dad.

On September 11th, 2001, almost three thousand people set forth on a day that would take them from us. I’m thinking few, if any of them, seriously considered that that morning would be their last. What a gift it would be for any of their loved ones to have them back just for a day, or a Christmas Eve or Christmas morning for that matter. Maybe the greatest gift we can give to ourselves this holiday season is a reminder that our loved ones in our life are the greatest gifts we can ever know. Hug them like Mr. Hawkins would.