Major General Robert Van Antwerp, from the U.S. Army, had the crowd chuckling as he began his speech at this year’s Madison High School graduation.
He said he spoke to his young niece, who was doing a report on Julius Caesar, before the speech. She told him she had four points she was including in the report.
"The first point, she said, was that he lived a long time ago," Van Antwerp said. "The second was that he was a general, like me. The third was that he gave long speeches. And the fourth point was that they killed him. So, I’ll keep it short."
Van Antwerp, who has four grown children, said that the parents in the audience are probably happy to be getting rid of their children. But in reality, he said, they keep coming back, asking to use the washer and dryer and to borrow old furniture from the basement.
And although the general had the crowd laughing at the outset of the speech, they quieted down when he began recounting his experience on Sept. 11. He said it was one of the two events, the other being the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, during which he remembers exactly what he was doing.
The general, who works at the Pentagon, was out of the office on the morning of Sept. 11, at a business meeting in Crystal City. At around 9 a.m., just after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, Van Antwerp and his co-workers huddled around a television. They thought it was an accident, until the second plane struck. Later, when a third plane hit the Pentagon, the nose went within 10 feet of Van Antwerp’s office.
"There were two ladies in my office, watching television during the trade center coverage, and they are no more," Van Antwerp said.
ANOTHER CO-WORKER was burned over 60 percent of his body, and crawled on the floor of Pentagon, gasping for a four inch pocket of air in the smoke-filled room. When he got to the fire door, it was closed, and wouldn’t open.
"He gave up," Van Antwerp said. "He was saying, ‘Jesus, I’m coming to you.’ But then a voice called his name, and pulled him to safety. Now he is back at work."
Nine months after the tragedy, posters from across the country still fill the halls of the Pentagon. Van Antwerp said the most memorable poster came from Columbine High School.
"A girl wrote, ‘We’re praying for you because we know what it’s like,’" Van Antwerp said.
He concluded his speech by pointing out the small dash that separates a person’s birth date and his or her death date.
"No matter how long you live, make that dash that was your life count," Van Antwerp said.
AFTER RECEIVING their diplomas, the graduates gathered outside of Fairfax High School, where their ceremony was held. Madison graduate Na Yung Lee, who was taking pictures with family and friends after the ceremony, said she was excited to have finished high school. She will be attending the College of William and Mary next year, but she wasn’t thinking about college on graduation night.
"I’m going to the all-night graduation party," she said.
Brandon Lay, who will be attending Virginia Commonwealth University, said he is glad to be out of Madison High School.
"It feels good now that I’m done," he said.
School government president Jim Howland will be going to the University of Indiana.
"It still hasn’t hit me yet," Howland said, regarding his graduate status. "But I’m ready to go."