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From the chapter “The Birdman Drops In,” about skateboarder Tony Hawk:

“Hawk, a neatnik, keeps his Lexus immaculate. The only bit of clutter is a stash of DVD games and a PlayStation, which Riley, his nine-year-old son from a previous marriage, uses to occupy himself on long trips. “Those games are awesome,” Hawk says. “He never gets bored. He flew with me to South Africa recently, and he was engrossed the whole way. That’s, like, a 20-hour flight.”

One of Riley’s favorite games, naturally, is “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.” At the outset, players can scroll down a roster of real-life professional skaters and choose to “be” any one of them—Rodney Mullen, or Chad Musak, or whoever. Each one looks strikingly like the real person and has a special arsenal of skating tricks. Riley likes to be his dad.

Riley, as it happens, is our next errand. It’s nearly three o’clock, and Hawk has to pick him up at elementary school. But not in this tiny roadster. So we dash by the house and exchange the SC430 for the pickin’-up-the-kids Lexus, this one a roomy sedan. In a few minutes we’re idling in the train of waiting moms, some of whom turn away from their cell phones to throw Hawk a smile of recognition. Oh, yeah, there’s the millionaire skateboard dad.

Soon the bell rings, and the building exhales a stream of laughing kids carrying backpacks. The traffic is bad—“Cars come through here way too fast,” Hawk says—but once there’s a gap, Riley crosses over and hops in, a good-looking third grader with blond hair.

"Hey, buddy," Hawk says, smiling in the rearview mirror.

“Hey, Dad,” Riley replies. Then, under his breath: “Who’s this?"

Once Hawk introduces me, Riley seems satisfied, if thoroughly bored. He’s understandably suspicious of the stream of people vying for his father’s time. I make matters worse by telling him that I have a nine-year-old boy who’s into skateboarding, too.

"Oh," he says, trying to be polite.

There can be little doubt that Riley Hawk will grow up with one of the most discerning bullshit detectors on the planet. As Hawk informs me later: "Riley’s gotten good at telling who really wants to be his friend, and who just wants to come over and skate with his dad. He can weed ‘em out real fast."

From the chapter “Points of Impact,” about survivors of the World Trade Center attacks:

Around 8:45 Ronnie Clifford walked into the lobby of the World Trade Center Marriott, which was connected to the north tower by a revolving door. He checked his yellow silk tie in a mirror and took a deep breath, preparing himself to take the elevator up. Then he felt a massive explosion, followed several seconds later by a kind of reverberation, a strange warping effect that Ronnie describes as “the harmonic tolerances of a building that’s shaking like a tuning fork." Baffled, Ronnie peered through the revolving door into the lobby of the north tower. He could see it was filling with black haze. People were scurrying to escape what had become an “incredible hurricane of flying debris.”

Yet Ronnie remained untouched. It was as though the revolving door were a glass portal to another realm, a world of chaos and soot just inches away. The Marriott lobby was calm, the marble surfaces polished and antiseptic. For a few seconds, the two adjacent worlds did not meet.

Then the revolving door turned with a suctioning sound followed by a sudden burst of hot wind, and out came a mannequin of the future. A woman, naked, dazed, her arms outstretched, her hands swollen and blistered beyond recognition. She was so badly burned Ronnie had no idea what race she was or how old she might be. She clawed the air with long warped fingernails turned porcelain white. Her skin was black and glistening red. The zipper of what was once a sweater had melted into her chest, as though it were the zipper to her own body. The woman’s hair was singed to a crisp steel wool, and her barrette was pressed into the back of her head. Her blackened eyes were welded shut. With her, in the warm gust of the revolving door, came a pungent odor, the smell of kerosene or paraffin, Ronnie thought.

Then the mannequin became a person, moaning in agony, crying for help. Ronnie had little idea what had happened to her, or where exactly she had come from, but he knew that whoever she was, she was his responsibility now. He had no emergency medical training and scarcely knew what to do. He sat her down on the marble floor, then dashed into the bathroom and poured cool water into a clean black polyethylene garbage bag that he found. He ran back outside and gently dribbled the contents over her body.

He sat down on the puddled floor and tried to comfort her. Despite her condition, she was lucid. He took out a pen and notepad from his leather bag and jotted down the information as she talked. Her name was Jennieann Maffeo. She was an Italian-American woman from Brooklyn, unmarried, 40 years old. She worked for PaineWebber. She was an asthmatic, she said, and had an extreme intolerance to latex. She could not adequately describe what had happened to her. She was standing next to a man she knew outside the north tower, waiting for a bus, when she heard an explosion above. In a dubious effort to protect them from falling debris, a security guard herded everyone inside the north tower lobby. Suddenly, Jennieann told Ronnie, something bright and intensely hot enveloped her, a vapor. She thought it had dropped down the elevator shaft. She was worried about the man next to her. Surely he was dead, she feared.

Periodically, Ronnie yelled for a medic, but no one came. He and Jennieann were lost in a surging crowd. People were streaming through the revolving doors now and scattering everywhere in panic. Ronnie didn’t know what to say. His new suit was soaking wet, and wisps of dead skin clung to it. He sat close to Jennieann, but didn’t think he should hold her, for he feared that the germs on his hands would cause an infection that could be fatal.

Jennieann turned to Ronnie. "Sacred heart of Jesus, pray for me," she said.

Ronnie, who’d grown up Catholic in Ireland, knew a few prayers. “Yes, let’s do,” he said, “just to pass the time.”

Sitting in a pool of water, alone in the swirling stampede, he whispered the Lord’s Prayer in her ear.

From the chapter “Unembedded,” about the author’s time in Kuwait during the Iraq war:

I began to have real doubts about going through with my mission to “embed” as a journalist with the United States Marines when a reporter raised the unexpected question, “What do I do if I barf inside my gas mask?”

The question was perfectly serious—nausea can be one of the first symptoms of a chemical attack—but the young lieutenant who was leading the seminar, on a tennis court at the Hilton Kuwait Resort, had obviously never been forced to consider this situational fine point. “That would be a problem,” the lieutenant said. “If you vomit liquid, you’ll just want to clear it by pushing this and blowing hard through that.” He grasped his gas mask and fingered the outlet valve for all of us to see. “But if you’ve got spew chunks, they could clog the valve and you’d...well, you’d be a goner.”

As I followed this conversation, I was wearing my own gas mask, breathing in its stale rubbery essence and trying to imagine how I would react in the Iraqi desert when the first chemical alarm sounded. There were approximately 50 journalists on the tennis court, hunched in little seminars of ten under the smiting Arabian sun. Through the salt haze to the east, we could see an aircraft carrier heaving in the blue-gray waters of the Persian Gulf. We were here to receive our “NBC training” (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical), and we had only moments ago been issued our masks, medicines, and charcoal-lined chemsuits in brown plastic garbage bags. The lieutenant insisted that we practice donning our masks until we could perform the procedure, eyes shut, in nine seconds or less. It should become part of our "muscle memory," he said. Out in the desert, an alarm would sound and we would hear, "Gas! Gas! Gas!"—the cry always going out in threes. “Your first instinct when you hear the alarm will be to get one last little breath," our instructor said, inhaling sharply. “But if we’re in a cloud of nerve agent that’s just what it’ll be—your last breath.”

If, after successfully securing the mask, we began to experience any of the telltale signs of nerve-agent poisoning—such as profuse drooling, a sudden intense headache, or a general confusion "about who you are"—we were immediately to medicate ourselves with the “autoinjectors” provided in our kits. I opened my bag and studied one of the little plastic syringes. It was filled with an antidote called atropine and equipped with a tightly coiled interior spring that was strong enough to plunge the needle through several layers of clothing and into the deep tissue of the thigh. In an emergency, we were supposed to hold the autoinjector firmly against our flanks for a good ten seconds, as the atropine slowly drained into our bloodstream.

For the rest of the seminar, as we practiced other unmentionables, I sat there on the tennis court, breathing thinly in my mask, wondering how our sad, tense world had come to this.



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