It’s been 14 years. Everybody who was alive has their memory of the event. And yet everybody also shares a collective memory; the images from the news burned into our brains and the unifying emotions of horror, confusion, grief, & shock.
On September 11, 2001 I was a senior in high school. My school was miles away from Patuxent River Naval Base, most known for being the base used as a backdrop in The Hunt for Red October, located just 70 or so miles from Washington, D.C. As a plane flew into tower one I was sitting in Spanish 4 learning who-knows-what. The school year was still early and that class was particularity good at wasting time. When the bell rang I walked down a hallway to get to my next class, AP English 12. As I did so a student came running down the hallway yelling, as he jumped up and down, “The towers were hit, the towers were hit!” There are two things to note, that kind of happening was not odd for our high school and the phrase, “the tower was hit” had no meaning. Before September 11, 2001 it was not conceivable that America would get attacked, let alone that someone would plan to fly a plane into the World Trade Center in New York City. It had been nearly sixty years since December 7, 1941. And before that? The Mexican-American War fought between 1846-1848. Before that, it was the war of 1812 [fought 1812-1814]. No one attacked America on American soil. I shook off the antics of one person running down the hallway as just that; the antics of one person running down the hallway. As the class wondered into AP English 12, each student a mix of grogginess and stress as this class, unlike Spanish, had started with a bang and felt like we had been going 100 mph even though the school year was still fresh. At some point, very early in the period, it became not just one student’s antics, but a swirl of rumors that an actual plane had hit the actual World Trade Centers. Our class begged our teacher to scrap the lesson, turn on the TV, and find out the truth. She relented and demanded we barrel on. There was work to be done. Lessons to be learned. Test to prepare for. I do not recall what we learned, but for years I remembered how mad I was that we had to wait for answers. It would not be until years later that I would realize there was no right call. How could our teacher have known the truth. How could she had fathomed that September 11, 2001 would turn out to be…September 11, 2001. All she knew was of the looming test, the lessons that needed to be taught, and the knowledge that even at full speed we would never finish in time for the mandated test.
I would skip lunch that day. I sat in my AP US Government class staring at the news. I was in shock. The media did not know what was going on at this time. I remember a rumor that was being circulated in our hallways was that the plane had missed NYC and landed in New Jersey. I remember the panic. It was a flash, but that momentary feeling left an impact on me. It seared into my soul an empathy that has never left. My maternal grandparents lived in the tallest building in Union City, NJ. Right across from downtown NYC. If a plane was heading for a building and missed NYC it would find it’s target in that tall building. Maybe. No one knew. No one had answers. My mind just raced, WHERE IN JERSEY! I quickly find out the truth; no plane had missed. If I could feel that panicked for just that brief moment, then I could not imagine that harrowing pain that the mothers, fathers, children, siblings, lovers, and friends felt who had people in the Towers, Pentagon, or on flight 93.
I sat watching the news. These two beautiful buildings on fire. The smoke. Then…what is that? What is dropping from the towers? Wait..those are people. Holy shit. People are jumping from the Towers. I hope they can get these fires under control. And then. It just fell. The South Tower just fell. It feel in such a way that the mind looses track on reality. Every understanding one has of the laws of nature are called into question, as the brain searches in desperation to find the schema that explains what the eyes are seeing.
My mother worked in those buildings. Our family was in NYC at then end of August for labor day. We walked around mid-town NYC, going to see the Empire State Building. My mother had wanted to take me to the Twin Towers for years. It was in the plans to do so that day. After walking around and spending hours in a summer day in mid-town NYC our family decided that the Towers would be here forever. Where could they go? We would simply take the rest of the day to relax and come to Manhattan again later. There was no rush.
When I saw the North Tower fall I wondered how my mother was doing. These Towers where a symbol of her youth. They meant so much to her. September 11, 2001 was a time before most people carried around a cell phone. Only a few kids had them. I remember I found my way to a pay phone to call my mom. Did you hear? Are you all right? Yeah, I am ok. Have you heard from Mama [her mother in Union City]?
I could hear she had been crying. I didn’t press the issues. I hung up the phone and the only other real memory of that day I have is sitting in Calculus. Our teacher didn’t even try teaching. We just sat around. Some of us on desk, others in chairs, some on the floor, a few on tables in the back. We talked. We shared. We asked questions. We were confused together. By this point we knew another plane had crashed and another had hit the Pentagon. Because of our proximity to the Naval Base and a Nuclear Power plant we were sent home early. The following days are a blur. A lot of news and a lot of questions. A lot of flags where flown, money donated, blood give, and grief. In our area there were families that lost loved ones in the Pentagon.
Over time the feelings would fade into the background. It was our senior year. We had homecomings, parties, college applications, proms, goodbyes, and graduations to get ready for.
September 11, 2002. I was in college. Wide eyed and taking in the world. Penn State would play Nebraska that week. Nebraska. The team that jumped ahead of PSU in the 1994 polls to ruin our National Championship bid. If I saw one Nuck Febraska sign I saw a hundred. The campus was buzzing, after a rough 2001 Penn State had high hopes for this season. And yet two days before this game the campus stopped and reflected. The news for 24 hours played nothing but wall to wall coverage. All our classes took the day to talk about 9/11. It was intellectual, it was reflective, it was powerful.
Every year since there was a reflection. The news cycle spent less time on 9/11 stories. 2003 it was half a day. 2004 it was a few hours. 2005 it was the entire evening news. 2006 it was a long segment during the evening news. Every year it has been shorter and shorter. Less post. Less comments.
Oddly enough, and I have said this for years, the most ever lasting change of September 11, 2001 has been airports. I remember for years picking up my grandparents at the airport and the wonder and joy of walking though an airport terminal. You could walk right up to the window, press your tiny child hands and face on the window and just stare and these magnificent machines defy gravity and escape the Earth’s grasp. It was like witnessing tiny miracles. I remember the powerful emotion of watching lovers and families reunited as someone would walk out of the boarding bridge and be greeted to grand hugs and meaningful kisses.
It’s a small thing. But there will be generations that will never experience those moments.
As the 9/11’s have come and gone I try to do something every year to reflect and think about the moment. One year I listened to the FAA audio tapes from the day. Let me say, that was haunting as these professionals kept so calm during what is clearly a horrific event. And to hear the numerous attempts to contact the plane. The calm yet pleading tone. And then the command that if the fighters make it on time to fire on the planes. As we know, the fighters did not make it on time.
This year I wanted to reflect on were we are since 2001. Here is the front page of the Washington Post and the New York Times:
9/11 is no longer the main story of 9/11. Maybe the time has come that our never forgetting can transition into more of a what can we do? How can we honor these men and women? How can we live our lives and create an America that reflects the sacrifices made by those that tragically lost their life, the unintended heroes, the first responders, and the men and women of the military that have fought for our freedom since?
Think about it. And what ever that answer is for you, live that life.
God bless us all.
until tomrrow, goonight.