14 Cows for America
I cried when I was reading this book to my Bluebonnet Book Discussion group. They’re 2nd and 3rd graders. They looked at me strangely, wondering why I was crying. Then it hit me – they couldn’t understand why I was crying because they hadn’t lived through it.
They hadn’t seen the planes crash into the towers. They hadn’t seen desperate people leaping from skyscraper windows or seen the unbelievable spectacle of the towers crumbling, as they imploded in a huge cloud of dust. They hadn’t been among the entire mourning nation that witnessed 9/11. They weren’t even born then. No wonder they weren’t touched by this story, “14 cows for America.”
The world I grew up in had a specter hanging over it. It was the specter of the mushroom cloud that my generation lived with. The practice air raid drills in school terrified me at night, during the 50s. We practiced hiding under our desks when we heard the air-raid siren – what a futile exercise that was! At night when an airplane flew over, I would listen tensely for the whoosh of the bomb. I thought I would be able to hear it and have time to scramble under my bed where I would be safe when it hit. We were living near Richland, Washington then, and the Hanford atomic plant was an obvious target for whatever foreign threat might want to hit it.
Growing up in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon, I was part of the generation the media called the “apathetic generation.” We had grown used to the mushroom cloud specter by then, and life seemed secure and predictable -- safe.
I was in a classroom at the University of Oregon on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Our world shook. As I listened to the University bell tolling all afternoon, I wondered, “How could this happen in America?” And then assassinations became a fact of life in America. The Vietnam War, the protest movements, the race riots, the burning 60s --, of all those cataclysms, none frightened me in the way that 9/11 did.
On September 11, terrorism reached into our daily lives. Nothing was safe – not the airlines or railroads, not the mail system, not even our jobs and financial systems, as the uncertainties of becoming a target for terrorists began to hit home. Today we know we’re not safe. Maybe we never were, but there was the illusion of safety, as I grew up. These children, these 2nd and 3rd graders, still have that illusion of safety, but not for long, because their world is such an uncertain place, more uncertain than mine ever was.
Here is why this book touched me. It is the story of a small Masaai village in Africa. One of the sons of the village comes home from his studies as a medical student in America. He tells his people about 9/11, about the planes crashing into the towers and the people dying. The people in this small village want to do something to let America know they care about the tragedy. In their village, cows are wealth. They will give 14 cows to America!
In a world where America seems to be a target marked for extinction by terrorists, there is a kernel of hope. In a world gone mad with suicide bombers and acts of terrorism in the name of religion, the kernel of hope is that people do reach out their hands to others. We see it all over the world, as people reach out to help others, the victims of tsunamis in India, mudslides in Peru, and earthquakes in Haiti. “14 cows for America” is symbolic of the good that remains in the face of all that is wrong with humanity.