Last update: August 10, 2005 at 11:46 PM
Katherine Kersten: One man and a big truck take on the duty of patriotism
Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune
August 11, 2005 KERSTEN0811
On Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 Americans died a fiery death in Al-Qaida's coordinated attacks in New York and Washington and a plane crash in rural Pennsylvania. On the first anniversary of the attacks, Americans everywhere stopped as our nation honored the dead in a moving ceremony at Ground Zero.
But few memorial events are planned for the attack's fourth anniversary, which is just around the corner. Our collective memory of the horrific atrocity seems to be fading.
One Minnesotan -- John Holmgren, a truck driver from Shafer, a town of 360 in Chisago County -- is working to ensure that we remember. Two years ago he turned his 18-wheeler into a rolling memorial to the Americans who died that day.
I caught up with Holmgren this week on his cell phone at a rest stop near Boston, as he hauled a load from the Blueberry Festival in Wilton, Maine, to Marshall, Minn., where his truck is on display today at the Lyon County Fair.
"I was one of the last people to find out about the planes slamming into the Twin Towers," he said. Alone in his cab that day, he hadn't switched on the news until 6 p.m., after finding the workers at a warehouse in shock, glued to a television set.
Over the next few weeks, Holmgren was moved by the sight of flags everywhere, and thought he detected a new civility among his fellow citizens.
But the spirit of solidarity diminished quickly. Holmgren wanted to keep pride in America alive, and do what he could to ensure that a similar attack never happens again.
One day in 2003, he and a buddy were listening to the radio when country singer Darryl Worley's song about 9/11, "Have You Forgotten?" came on. An idea flashed into Holmgren's head: "Wouldn't it be cool to do a 9/11 truck?" He and a couple of friends -- one a mural artist from Fargo, N.D. -- experimented with computer-generated designs that would pay tribute to the victims and capture the themes of Sept. 11: heroism and self-sacrifice. They got the victims' names off the Internet, and began to cover the truck with imprinted vinyl sheets.
The project cost Holmgren close to $40,000. "I'm a blue-collar guy," he says. "I live from paycheck to paycheck in a trailer park." He financed the project by selling T-shirts, toy models of the truck and other merchandise, but is still in debt.
Today he displays the truck all over the country, hauling freight whenever he can. Everywhere he goes, people surround him. Some drive by, craning their necks and holding their cameras out the window. "I stop so they can get a good shot," he says with a chuckle.
"Troopers pull me over just to get a picture with the truck. Once I even got out of a ticket. The guy said, 'I can't give this to you, knowing what you're doing.'"
Holmgren has fans around the world, and has received e-mails from more than 20 countries. There are about 37 websites devoted to the truck, he says. (His own site, www.therollingmemorial.com, includes a calendar of appearances.)
What does Holmgren want us to remember, beyond the tragic loss of life and heroism of Sept. 11? That on that day, we suffered the most devastating attack on our soil since Pearl Harbor. That if we return to national slumber, we will become more vulnerable to freedom's enemies. And that there are young men and women serving freedom's cause -- members of our armed services -- who are dodging bullets every day to protect democracy and our way of life.
Holmgren touches a special chord in the hearts of America's servicemen and women. He's been interviewed by Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military's daily newspaper, and gets e-mail from the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of them use a picture of his truck as a screen-saver.
What has meant most to Holmgren is the chance to meet the families of victims of the Twin Towers attack. He's talked with mothers and fathers, wives and siblings, and shared tears, hugs and stories.
"I do whatever I can so they can touch the name of their loved one," he says. Recently he met the mother of Amy Jarrett, a flight attendant on United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into the World Trade Center's south tower. "We talked in the rain for two hours. I parked a pickup at the back of the truck and stacked a picnic table on it. Then Amy's mom could run her fingers over her daughter's name."
In coming weeks, Holmgren will be in Detroit, Huron, S.D., and Chicago to display the Rolling Memorial. Then it's on to Kellogg, Minn., a town of 440 near Wabasha, Sept. 9-11 for the Watermelon Festival.
"In my travels, I've seen that Middle America -- small-town people -- remember September 11 best. It's an honor to be in Kellogg for the fourth anniversary," says Holmgren. "We must never forget."
Katherine Kersten is at