In the weeks after 9/11 I wrote several essays about my own experiences, my perceptions, and where I felt this country was going. In the days before this blog I would email the writing to friends and family. With the anniversary on the horizon I looked for copies of the work but came up empty. What follows is as close as I can come to re-creating what I felt back then.
If you want to know what I remember most about 9/11, it's the night before.
On that warm September evening I went to see the Cardinals play at Miller Park. For a change I went just to be around family and friends. The game on the field was nothing more than background noise, even when Mark McGwire hit a monster home run to center.
Afterwards a friend and I took a leisurely walk through the neighboring VA grounds, then returned home to (of all things) help my pregnant wife bake a new cupcake recipe.
My last thoughts as I lay down to sleep that night where blissful, and I remember thanking God for such a wonderful life.
I woke up to 13 answering messages imploring me to turn on the TV.
By then both towers were in flames and any idea that it could be an accident had long since vanished. Within a minute my wife was in tears, but my reaction was less gallant. I could sympathize immediately with those on the planes but for a moment, still in shock and grasping for a way to explain this lunacy, I could muster little emotion for those in the towers.
This was short-lived. Once my mind surrendered to the fact that I couldn’t rationalize anything that was happening and I put myself in the place of those trapped 100 floors above the ground, it was nearly too much to bear.
(One thing I have never understood was Al Queda’s obsession with the WTC. If it hadn’t been for the ’93 bombing I might never have known of the towers’ existence. Most of my family and friends, many of whom have college under their belts, felt the same. In retrospect the attack certainly shook the nation to its core, but at the time why not target something more recognizable to people outside the coast, such as the Empire State Building?)
When word came of the hit on the Pentagon I was dumbstruck. This was more than terrorism; this was a declaration of war. This was our Pearl Harbor.
And then the first tower fell.
To those born after the fact – my children for example – it will be hard to fathom the surreal nature of what I saw. They’ll be barraged by the images and stories in the classroom and on TV until it seems . . . commonplace, something that was almost predestined.
It was not. It was a mockery of the way the world should be.
A skyscraper was collapsing in on itself on TV. If I’d written that in a story I’d have deleted it as far-fetched. Hell, I couldn’t imagine a way a construction company could disassemble such a monument. But there it was, a hundred-story building reduced to a rolling cloud of dust that chased New Yorkers down the street like a cheap sci-fi movie monster.
I don’t even remember the second tower falling anymore. I saw it happen, I just don’t think I was over the shock of the first by that time.
Sometime in the afternoon I stopped to pick up my paycheck from work. Payday was Monday, but in the days before kids I could sometimes afford to let it sit a bit.
I remember one of my bosses stopping to ask me some inane question about work while the rest of the staff was glued to the TV.
"We’re at war, " I said. "I don’t really feeling like talking about this now."
She was pissed at me, you could tell, and on that day I lost the last bit of respect for her.
I stopped at a gas station on the way home to buy a newspaper, a special edition about the attacks. I used to collect them, keeping copies from JFK’s assassination, the 2000 election, the Gulf War – but a few weeks later I threw this paper out. I didn’t want a reminder around.
Later I went out again to fill up on gas. Rumors were already flying about gas rationing and price gouging. It never panned out, but my God the fear on the street . . .
The rest of the day is bits and pieces. Watching Guiliani report the number of missing emergency workers (My God). The FBI towing a car from Logan airport, my wife’s fear for her mother, who worked at the Federal Building downtown, the firstpictures from the crash of United 93, missing person posters, my cousin calling to say that we were bombing Afghanistan (it was tribal warfare), a triage center near Ground Zero lying empty as they waited in vain for survivors.
And endless, endless pictures of the tragedy.
I can tell you what work was like. For days we had no customers. We just sat and watched TV. We watched thousands die over and over again and it was enough to drive you mad. Weeks later I spoke to some pilots who came in, men who knew people that had died in the towers and in the air.
Remember how I said it was surreal? I pray we never live through another week like that. Airline travel non-existent and people stranded across the nation. Fears of gas shortages, every TV and radio station preempted by news (is there anything more disturbing than a local hip-hop station playing CNN non-stop for days?), flags on every car, in every window, tears of pain and cries for revenge. Antharax in the mail. It was chaos and fear on a national scale, and it was terrifying.
I lived in an eight family apartment building at the time. My wife and I were the only non-Arab, non-Muslims in the building. For days my neighbors would not step foot outside their doors, fearful of retaliation. In the end we knocked and offered to buy them groceries. My wife embraced one of the women and told them not to be afraid, that we didn’t hold them responsible.
Still, I remember one frightening comment a friend made. We were at a gas station across from the Islamic Center when he angrily spoke of burning it down. He didn’t, of course, and neither did anyone else.
Then and now, I’m proud of our collective restraint in those dark days.
But I think we as a nation walked a thin line for a moment.
In my daughter's scrapbook (she was born in October of that year) I wrote the following:
What awful events, especially when we were bringing a baby into this world! Would we be safe, and more importanty would you? We pray for you everyday.
By the time you can read and understand this, the war will (hopefully) be over, and you'll know how it turned out. I hope you love your country just as much as we do, and I'm sorry you had to be born in such a troubled time.
Five years down the road, 9/11 has changed us all. And yet, our day in/day out lives remain so similar to what they were before; the same TV, work, school, shopping, movies, political infighting . . . at times, that’s almost as unnerving as the memories of that day.
But nothing will ever bring back the peace of that warm September night.