9/11, ten years later: part 1 of 2
This is the first of two posts on the ten-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks. This post, part one, is my thoughts on the anniversary. Part two is a guest post by my dad, sharing his perspective.
The one memory of that day that I’m confident I share with everyone else who experienced it is the weather. Every account I see from every survivor, family member, emergency worker, government official, makes mention of how beautifully that morning started out – unseasonably warm with perfect blue skies. And I remember that. I remember looking up to try to imagine two towers silhouetted against that Georgia sky. I think there was a lot of looking up that day.
I couldn’t have known the year I was fourteen would become my seminal year, the navigational point I would look back to as an adult and consistently say, “This was where it started to change.” Given the choice, I’d've maybe picked year 18 or 20, waited until I had a little more experience under my belt, was a little savvier and could make better sense out of what was going on. But we don’t choose the times; the times are given to us, and the year I turned fourteen became the year I lost my grandmother, and then the year my country lost – what? A way of life? Illusions of safety? The reality of safety? I heard a lot of people say we’d lost our innocence. Even at 14, I felt like that was maybe a generous evaluation, maybe a little reductive, but I got the gist of it. It was the year that something soft and gentle about us was wounded and then hardened, and we all spent the aftermath trying to weave the soft and the hard back together in a way that made sense.
The more I read as an adult, the more I realize how little of a clue I had about what was going on in September of 2001. For years I pretended that I had known beforehand what, exactly, the World Trade Center was, but honestly I had only ever heard it listed among names of tourist attractions in New York City, a place I’d never been or even envisioned myself in. I was able to fake it on the quickly-gathered knowledge that apparently some people’s offices had been in that building, or something. And it was a big deal among buildings because it was tall, maybe? And in New York? And while I knew that planes generally did not lose their courses and just go careening into skyscrapers, I had never considered the extensive precautions in place to make sure that didn’t happen, and didn’t realize, during those moments before we were sure it was intentional, what a huge breach of normalcy it was for a commercial jet to crash into a building. The Pentagon was some sort of government building, I knew, but I didn’t know who was in there or what they were up to, and it was a surprise to see that the thing actually had five sides. I thought “Pentagon” was just some Very Official-Sounding Name.
One thing I had heard of was terrorism. I remembered the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, the long hours my dad worked at the airport screening UPS packages afterward, and the news reports I pored over, trying to translate speculations about the bombing and security into something that made sense to my third-grade mind. (I still remember the name Richard Jewell, and think of him from time to time.) I had seen the news about attacks on American military ships earlier that year. I had classmates from Bosnia and had painstakingly learned to spell the names of ever-shifting Balkan nations during the Clinton administration. Terrorism happened in the world I was aware of, sure. But that world, then, was a world of adults. September 11th was the beginning of it becoming MY world.
Everybody asks, “Where were you when you found out?” and I got, I get, tired of recounting my answer, but if the building hasn’t been condemned for asbestos yet, I could stand up right now and walk you to the exact desk I was sitting at in my freshman health classroom when the coach down the hall strode in and whispered to our substitute teacher to turn off the video we were watching (something about how if we didn’t take drivers’ ed, we’d all wrap our cars around trees before graduation) and turn on the news. At least, that’s what I assume he said – I just saw the TV screen flip from an image of a crushed sedan to one of a building with a plume of smoke rising from it.
Trying to make sense of the anchor’s words, and inured by the previous half-hour to scenes of destruction, at first I thought the TV station was playing some insane practical joke. “That’s not funny, guys,” I remember thinking. “It’s not even April Fools’ Day.” But the second plane hit, the camera panned out, the tone got more panicked, the end-of-class bell rang and we filed out of the gym annex in shock, mingling with our classmates who hadn’t heard the news yet. Half the kids in the courtyard were laughing, trash-talking, flirting, high-fiving, sharing headphones and rapping their way toward their lockers. The other half were staring straight ahead, whispering to each other, huddling over cell phones concealed in their hair or under their hoodies, getting the scoop from parents or older friends.
The sky was as blue as it’s ever been.
We spent the rest of the day fielding PA system warnings from the principal (“No one is to turn on the television!” “The school is on lockdown!” “Students, your parents may NOT come to check you out unless you have an appointment!”), begging our substitute teachers (where were all our regular teachers that day?) to turn on the TV (and often succeeding on the grounds that this was history, that we needed to know what was coming, and that the teachers themselves couldn’t stand being kept in the dark), and passing notes between periods to fill in our less well-informed classmates on what was transpiring. Theories were flying – not on what had already happened, but on what might be coming next. Were we at war? Would there be a draft? The attacks had been moving down the east coast; was Atlanta somewhere down the line? The world of what we could reasonably expect for our future had had the rug pulled out from under it. Which faces would be missing when our five- and ten-year class reunions rolled around?
I was at a loss once I was home. I know I had to have talked extensively with my parents, but I don’t remember the conversations. Surely my mom explained what was going on to my eleven-year-old sister, but I don’t remember that, either. All of my most vivid memories are tied to places, and three places around my parents’ house stick in my mind under “post-9/11 memories.”
The only conversation I remember having with my mom took place on the front porch in front of the living room window, as I sat on a white wicker loveseat stomping my feet on the flaking green boards of the porch floor and railing about the unfairness of being too young to donate blood. I was practically an adult, I wailed, and already five feet eight and within the weight requirement. I was bigger than she was, and she could donate. I had good blood. What was I supposed to do, if the stupid Red Cross wouldn’t let me give stupid blood? I don’t remember what she told me, but I remember her being more sympathetic than she had to be with my dramatics. I think she understood how ineffectual I was feeling; she felt it too, blood or no blood.
Another place where a memory waits for me is in my bedroom, in the corner between my bookshelf and the door to the top porch. We lived, my parents still live, in one of those suburban houses where the front upstairs bedrooms have their own doors onto a second-story porch directly over the front entryway. It had been the “dream house” of our young family, in part because that porch was such a perfect play place for my sister and me. We never needed a treehouse. The porch was our space, and so was the area of each of our bedrooms closest to the porch door – it just felt personal. Next to my door, I had a six-foot bookcase made of wood laminate that I was allowed to tape things to (not on the walls!), and over the fall of 2001, the door side of the bookcase became 9/11 Central. I cut and taped newspaper clippings – cartoons, columns, entries from The Vent (does the AJC even do that anymore?), anything I could find to express how I was feeling. A lot of it was angry and militaristic; a lot of it reached a level of patriotic rhetoric I’m not as comfortable with today. But the clipping I remember most was from a comic I followed called The Norm; it featured everyman Norm and his longtime office crush and recently wedded wife Reine (sort of like Jim and Pam from The Office, but Norm was a little meeker and Reine more openly feisty). In the clipping, Norm and Reine were, after a series of holiday mishaps, eating Thanksgiving dinner in a New York diner with Reine’s parents when Norm caught sight of a 9/11 relief donation box on the counter. He was moved almost to tears by his gratitude that they were all there together, in this city they loved, in this country full of heroic people. The narrative is as old as storytelling, but I tear up remembering how I felt when I read it.
The other place-lodged memory I have is brief. I don’t know where I got the materials or the idea, but every night for at least a month after the attacks, I would go out on the porch in front of my room as dusk and light a row of white tealights on the railing in memory of the victims. I don’t remember how many I had, although there was something significant about the number – maybe eleven, or thirteen. I guess my mom must have given me the candles. I was into ritual. I still am. It’s like its own language, connecting people at a level deeper than words and conversation. Every night I lit the candles as soon as it got dark, and blew them out before I went to bed. While I lit them I thought of all the names of victims I could remember. I was especially fascinated with the passengers of Flight 93, the only victims whose last thoughts and conversations we were privy to. I remember that I hated to blow out the candles every night. I hoped everyone knew that it didn’t mean we were forgetting them.
I remember driving all over town with my parents trying to find a store that wasn’t sold out of American flags. I remember continuing to worry that my friends would be drafted. I remember that during the anthrax scare, I was on high-powered antibiotics for a persistent sinus infection, the same antibiotics being prescribed to anthrax victims, and one of my teachers said, “I bet your parents make YOU get the mail at home, huh?” I remember thinking she was silly; we weren’t Tom Brokaw; nobody was mailing us any spores. I remember the shoe bomber, and wondering who the heck puts a bomb in their shoe. I still think that was a stupid idea. I remember taking a trip to New York City the next fall with my Girl Scout troop, and going to Ground Zero, and it still looking pretty much as empty and bleak as it had on TV, and the construction tape around the site, and how I tried to focus and reflect and muster up appropriate emotion, but it was cold out, and I turned away. I couldn’t get the measure of the place. We left and had Thanksgiving dinner at a murder mystery dinner theater place. I had a “Never Forget” flag sticker on my truck as I was learning to drive. The war in Iraq started on the night of my sixteenth birthday.
So what do I know about it now? I know I didn’t really get it then, and I’m trying to get it now as if it had happened when I was 24, not 14. The ideas of my workplace being unsafe, or having to worry about my spouse when he’s traveling, are more chilling now that I have a workplace and spouse to try this story on for size. I can imagine, sort of, at least a little better now, the shock of seeing a thing happen that you can’t prepare for, never thought you had to worry about, and thinking, that could have been me. When I was 14, the script I had for these events – get up, go to work, something unexpected happens – came from other people’s accounts. Now that script is mine, and the difficulty of trying to superimpose these events on it gives me some idea of their scope.
I couldn’t tear myself away from the Time Magazine interactive feature with interviews with people touched by the attacks. But I also couldn’t bring myself to watch the video of Lyzbeth Glick Best, whose husband called her from Flight 93 just before joining his fellow passengers to tackle the hijackers and bring down their plane before it reached its intended target. I could barely bring myself to read the text version. Her father, she said, stayed on the line with his son-in-law, hearing the screams of the passengers’ rush on the terrorists, then the screams of the crash, and then silence. I purposely distance myself from these accounts now, though I revered the heroes and could not read enough about them ten years ago. Ten years ago I imagined myself heroic and sacrificial. Now I am married to someone who, in the same situation, would have done exactly what Jeremy Glick did, and I would have to say, as his wife did, “Yes, I think you have to attack the hijackers,” and we live in a world where we know it could happen again, and I am neither heroic nor sacrificial about it.
I am selfish. I don’t want my loved ones out saving the world. I want them right here with me. Maybe I will get that opportunity; maybe not. My parents grew up with the reasonable assumption that they would get to keep their loved ones close. I came of age less sure of that. I still have, as I had then, a back-of-the-mind sense that it could be just around the corner that things get interesting – like in that old curse, “May you live in interesting times.”
Interesting or no, they are different times than they were, and I continue to sort out what was and what is – what I would have known as normal had I been born five or ten years earlier, what I see as normal that people five years younger than me have never known. I often have the sense of being on the edge of some generational divide – just barely old enough to be working on a consciousness of world affairs on 9/11, just barely old enough to have started college before the recession changed our ideas of the world we would graduate into, one of the first college grads to enter a job market characterized more by uncertainty than by a fruition of having played by the rules. One of the first teenagers to grow up thinking of blogging before journaling, and one of the last to remember a time before the internet, when research required digging up dusty encyclopedias from the basement. 9/11 is not the internet. But both mark my generation and color our perceptions differently than those who came before us.
It’s a narrow window especially for those of us who are old enough to have vivid memories of the attacks but still too young to have totally grasped their significance. I don’t know what it says about us, or me, or what I will do and why. On this anniversary, I am grasping at the pieces I have and trying to put them together into some kind of map that will show me where I’m headed.