Twenty-eight years ago, Michael Ward survived one of the most searing events in Philadelphia's history: the siege of the heavily armed MOVE compound at 6221 Osage Avenue, which ended when police dropped two bombs from a helicopter, obliterating three city blocks and killing 11 people. Ward, then named Birdie Africa, ran naked from the house, a malnourished, unloved, illiterate, horribly burned 13-year-old boy. A subsequent report excoriated Philadelphia, which became known as “the city that bombed itself.” Ward, who rarely discussed the misery of his early years, slowly recovered, graduated from high school, served in the army, became a long-haul trucker, married and had two children. He drowned last week in a hot tub on a Caribbean cruise ship named "Dream”. He was 41. “In a way, I’m glad it happened,” he once said of the bombing. “The only regret I have is about me being hurt and my mom dying and the other kids. I feel bad for the people who died, but I don’t have any anger toward anybody. See, I got out.”
When I first read that, I was stunned by the contrast between the drama of the event and the banality of the words to describe it. “The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” George Orwell wrote. But we also use language to blunt our memory of tragedy and to survive in the face of true horror. Each time I read Ward’s words, the more articulate they become. Rest in peace, Birdie Africa.