Letters from Home

A familiar fear for an American in London

Published in The Kansas City Star, July 9, 2005

By ELIZABETH G. HOWARD Special to The Star

LONDON — For the first few hours after the four explosions Thursday, it felt creepy, awful and horribly familiar. The BBC tore a page directly from an American news channel textbook: repeating the images of the decapitated double-decker bus in Russell Square. Doctors in fluorescent jackets strapped on supply-stuffed backpacks and dived into the mouth of the Underground. Emergency sirens wailed; spook-eyed witnesses spilled garbled firsthand accounts into looming microphones.

Below the images, red graphic banners gaped “London Terror” while a slow crawl of facts dragged by: “Explosions confirmed in four locations,” “Underground and bus services suspended,” “Home Secretary asks Londoners to avoid unnecessary travel.” I fixed my eyes on the screen and felt the dread sinking in. Again.

Like most Kansas Citians, I was a safe 1,200 miles from the World Trade Center when it fell. I watched it on television. I listened to news reports and felt it climb inside my bones: the fear of the incident, and of what would happen next. And, over the last 4½ years, I have lived through the fallout: in my neighborhood in Kansas City, in my country and now, as an American expatriate, in the world.

Edgware Road at Praed Street, where five people died underground Thursday, is part of my neighborhood now, as much as Westport Road and Southwest Trafficway were last year. From my flat in Maida Vale, I can walk there in 15 minutes. Or I can take the Tube. It is just three stops on the Bakerloo Line.

In Greater London, where 7.2 million people speak more than 250 languages, the one thing they have in common is public transport. If Midwestern life is symbolized by the freedom to own big 4x4s or flashy sports cars, then life in a city like London is framed by the knowledge that someone else is driving. Buy the newspaper and leave a little early. Don’t worry about road rage or traffic.

At the corner pub that night, packed full of locals longing for human contact and escape from the BBC, I met a man. He wore a sweatshirt with “FDNY” emblazoned large in red. My gut twisted, and I looked up into his eyes.

“I appreciate that,” I said to him. I felt tears burning, though I didn’t understand why. He swallowed, gave me a nod. “I am sure you do.” He was English. We recognized each other’s accents. We said more, although there was nothing else to say. I was tired of feeling, and of trying not to.

The next morning I awoke to the usual sounds: the boiler clicking, cars crunching their mufflers on the speed bumps, a cat meowing to be let in. And then I heard the sound I most wanted to hear: a low, soft rumble, like distant thunder. The Tube grumbled as it passed below our building.

I rolled out of bed, clicked on the BBC. The anchors, poised and calm, perched on their couch. They interviewed an expert, showed live reports of commuters back at King’s Cross station. But no more repeated images. No bloodied faces. Services returning to normal, they said.

I felt the page from the American news channel textbook flutter in the dustbin.

2 thoughts on “A familiar fear for an American in London

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