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It’s somehow both crystal clear, and vague. I remember, and then I doubt myself. So I have to double-back. I was too stunned to write as it was happening. I regret that I didn’t do that.
We all remember that it was a beautiful day. The kind of blue sky that makes you squint looking at it. As close to a perfect early fall day as there ever was. Colors everywhere. The end of a long hot summer.
Even now a deep blue sky reminds me of 9/11. That seems perverse.
As it turned out, it’s an awful juxtaposition. It gave them a glorious stage for their rage.
At the time I was working in a small office in Clarks Summit for a company based in Kentucky. We were riding on the fumes of the Y2K hysteria, and were able to resist their calls that we needed to actually move to Louisville. There were 3 of us in the office, then there were 2. And then once the company downsizing got vicious….well……I had the little suite all to myself. Me and the mice that infested the place. Every few days I’d complain to the landlord, and he’d show up and put another set of traps down, and the next morning the bodies were piled up again. The poor little buggers.
It was a pretty bizarre time. But if the company wanted to pay rent to have a guy and his dog sit alone in a large office, that was fine with me. I tried to make the best of it. I brought a boom box into the office for music. Brought the dog bed. The suite next door was a doctor’s office, and I’d see the girl at the front desk coming in and out sometimes. We’d exchange good mornings and such. She was a good neighbor.
It was my sister who called me that morning. She was home and had her TV on. I think this was after the first plane hit. She tried to describe what was happening. I assumed it was a small plane. Some sort of pilot error. It surely wasn’t normal, but I don’t recall being concerned enough to stop working. I did take a minute to check the CNN website but I couldn’t load it. That wasn’t terribly unusual. The internet connectivity in the office wasn’t much faster than dial-up in them days.
My mother was getting her hair done that morning, and while she was sitting in the chair the second plane hit. I can’t remember if she called me, or if my sister relayed the message. I still couldn’t pull up the CNN website, or any other. Everything was overloaded. I went to the doctor’s office next door to see if maybe they had a TV in there. They didn’t, but the girl had the radio on. She told me what she knew. It was 2 planes. It wasn’t any accident. We were under attack. Something about the Pentagon. And another plane, unaccounted for. In Pennsylvania. Still, the words didn’t really register. There were no images to go with them. It was only later they would come. The ones that are still with us whenever we close our eyes and think of that day.
I went back to my office…..and it dawned on me that I had a boom box the entire time. I flicked the dial to NPR. There was some sort of commotion. I don’t remember the exact words, but the reporter was telling us that the south tower just collapsed. I heard the words but I assumed it was hyperbole. “Collapsed”? What does that mean? And then he told me that they were both gone. He was there, and watched it happen. Both towers were gone. This was lunacy. It was like a 21st century War of the Worlds. I kept waiting for the ghost of Orson Welles to break into the broadcast and tell me this was some sort of benign radio play.
But still. It was just words. I didn’t have the capacity to turn them into images. We didn't have a Pearl Harbor. We'd known no war.
It was a terror attack. The name Osama Bin Laden meant nothing to me at the time. I’d never heard it before. Even on that day I noticed that nobody was clear how to pronounce, or indeed even spell, his name. His transformation into the boogeyman would come later.
And then I got home. Went to the TV. And there it was. Over and over. First one. Then the other. Slicing into the buildings at devastating angles…..like scythes. People hanging from windows. Fires glowing. Smoke billowing. And then recoiling in horror when you realized they had no options. They were jumping. At first you weren’t sure what you were seeing. Debris? Birds? No. They were human beings. And this was their best option.
Cut to other images. The Pentagon. Washington DC in a panic. (My sister worked for the FBI. Where was she?) The President reading to school kids, until somebody leaned in and whispered something into his ear. He seemed suddenly paralyzed…as if all the air had left the room.
And then I saw it for the first time. The image. Like a demolition. First one tower. And then the next. Straight down on themselves. Like they were trying to be dainty. How many were in there? We had no idea. Whatever the number was would be unendurable. It still is. All these years later.
I stood in front of the TV in our bedroom. For hours. Didn’t sit down. Sleep came eventually….after I hugged my daughter about 17 times. Checking on her. Over and over. She was 3 at the time. In the morning, things would be different. The world would be forever changed. It would be a forever war….a war of ideologies more than men.
We all came together. And that sense of brother and sisterhood held. For a while anyway. And I don’t mean the goofy Toby Keith “boot up your ass it’s the American way” nationalistic bullshit. I mean watching the most diverse city in the world close ranks, wipe each other’s tears, and say “whatever you need me to do…”
Nothing mattered except a shared humanity.
I kept thinking of what JFK said…
“For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.”
Finally, those words had found a place to rest.
But we’ve got short memories.
That resting place is long gone now. Some 3000 Americans deserved better than this. Once-a-year Facebook memes and flag and firefighter pics and remembrances like this aren't gonna cure what ails us.
The world of January 6, 2021 seems inhabited by a different species.
Right now we're not honoring anybody's memory.
And that’s another tragedy.
In a bit..