A Suburban seems like a pretty big car. It has three rows of seats — about as wide as they come. It probably weighs over two tons, and it has a 40-gallon gas tank. The Suburban is the official car of six-member families — two parents, four kids. Or three kids, and a dog. It is certainly a “utility vehicle,” though for what “sport” it would qualify, I’m not sure. Ours was not particularly luxurious, but not particularly not-luxurious either. Anyway, the Surburban seems like a pretty big car until you’re in it with your whole family, driving down I-95 from Boston to Atlanta to see the 1996 Olympic Games.
The trip was sold to my family — by my father — as an historic opportunity. Three little boy birds, lined up in the backseat, gulping down regurgitated Olympic history: the Greeks and the marathon to the town of Marathon, 1896 and the unity of nations, the Russians, Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Flo-Jo, The Miracle on Ice, the women of East Germany, and what the Olympics meant when we struggled against the Commies for the fate of the world. But the kids only remembered the 1992 Dream Team from our cereal boxes.
So there we were, five in a Chevy Suburban, learning how big Virginia and the Carolinas really are. A unique thing about family is that you don’t have to “get to know” them. You just know them — not through any conscious choice of your own. I knew exactly what my middle brother would have to say about baseball, and that he was sensitive to being teased about his sci-fi interests. I knew my youngest brother would cry if I stole his Lambchops doll. And when you’re a 12-year-old child, it can be exceptionally difficult to refrain from using these facts as the ammo and justification for your thirst for power and entertainment. A 12-year-old stuck in a car for 30 hours with his parents can make a Suburban feel pretty small.
We arrived in Atlanta in a pretty foul mood — so many little fights picked and scabbed over and picked again. We were staying at a family friend’s house, my dad’s buddy from grad school, packed into two rooms. A total of three beds and an air mattress on the floor. More close quarters.
The events on our schedule were as follows: Crew, Beach Volleyball, Track & Field. Beach Volleyball was meant to be our highlight. It is what we had talked about before we got in the car. My father was a fan of the sport, and told us about Karch Kiraly and Huntington Beach and Side Out. Gabrielle Reece was on MTV back then. But the fighting hung over us like a cloud, insults and snubs building on each other all too easily when the combatants are so mutually familiar, so that on the day of the big event, we could barely eat breakfast together.
“The weather is supposed to be nice today.”
“…Shut up. I hate you.”
I remember getting to the venue being particularly difficult — an annoying game of parking and queuing and bus-riding and queuing again. In retrospect, it was probably just my attitude. At this point, my mom and dad were still speaking to each other, though a little tense, and my brothers and I only fought. I don’t recall volleyball much, but I know the ride home was in silence.
That night, a bomb went off in downtown Atlanta. We awoke to full-coverage on the news. Over one hundred injured, at least 2 dead. One of those hurt was a neighbor of my father’s friends at whose house we were staying. Now we were silent because we were glued to the TV. At midnight, I felt the horror. I also felt profoundly stupid. Because, as I felt then and fully realize now, what “the horror” really is, is the thought that it could have been you. Of course, we don’t want to see people die, but if we’re honest, we must admit that the horizon of our deepest compassion — the compassion that can result in “horror” — does not and cannot extend that far. We are horrified by this look at the human heart, sure, but that is just a reminder, not a reconsideration. The reconsideration comes from how we treat our loved ones in a world where they can be gone in an instant. And at the age of 12, this surprised the hell out of me. I felt ashamed. For the worst reasons — boredom, selfish and at the time inscrutable desires — I had wasted a family trip the likes of which at least one family would never have again.
We had to decide whether to go to Track & Field that day, but when the question came to mind, we knew it was already decided. We went. I remember Jackie Joyner Kersee dropping out of the Heptathalon. But mostly I remember cheering and feeling relaxed, happy, and at home. The clouds were gone. We had a common cause. On the trip back, the Suburban felt just the right size.
I learned a lesson at 1996 Olympics, a lesson that is still with me today. I learned that a familiarity whose safety in our weaker moments is so easy to resent is in the end the only thing we have to cling to when life reminds us that that safety is ultimately an illusion. I learned the value of the things closest to me — my family, my country — is the comfort of knowing that someone will always be there for me against the horror. And I learned the true spirit of the Olympics, which remind us to appreciate the far and the closefor exactly what they are — our fellow humans, our countrymen, our cohorts, and then our family.