Like most people of a certain age I remember it as if it were yesterday. Back then I was working in the travel industry, as a call-center reservations agent for Princess Cruises. I was on the 10am-7pm shift and usually only woke in time to quickly get ready and walk to the bus stop; not enough time to turn on the TV or radio.
It’s funny how the little things stick with you. A friend once told me in high school that, if you’re studying for a big test, after you’re done you should do something really memorable like go skydiving because then you’ll remember everything you did surrounding that event. While I was walking up the hill to the bus stop I passed a guy speaking frantically into his cell phone, “Next they’ll be dropping bombs on us!” Since I had no idea of what had just happened I figured he was some sort of mildly crazy person. I’m not sure if most of the passengers had already heard the news and were living in a daze like so many of us did that day or it was just a coincidence, but the bus ride was particularly quiet that day. When I arrived at work it was anything but.
“The Air Force has just shot down a plane in California!”
“It refused to land!”
“What do you mean, it refused to land?! The Air Force doesn’t just shoot down planes because they refuse to land!”
“The FAA has grounded all flights! The Twin Towers are gone!”
“What do you mean, they’re gone?! Buildings don’t just disappear!”
It was still early enough in the day that rumors were running rampant. The plane allegedly shot down in California was, as we all now know, United Flight 93, taken over by a group of brave passengers and crashed into a field near Shanksville, PA, saving untold lives and our nation’s capital from destruction. Thank God for small miracles and thank God for those heroic passengers.
After answering a few frantic calls from cruise passengers who were stranded in Alaska or Florida, kept from reaching their homes and loved ones at a time when they must have most wanted to be with them, I took a break and went over to my supervisor’s desk, determined to get answers. As she explained the facts of the day’s unfolding events the gravity of the situation hit me hard, like those planes had hit the towers. I’d been pretty broken up about the bombing of the USS Cole nearly a year before but this paled in comparison. Seventeen officers and seamen in a foreign and somewhat hostile port who’d sworn to uphold our freedoms knowing full well that commitment might result in death compared to thousands of civilian men, women and children who were flying home to see their families or turning on their computers and pouring their first cups of coffee for the day. Things like this were not supposed to happen. We were supposed to be safe here. Sure, we’d faced Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center bombing of 1993. Those were bad enough but still somewhat bearable. Planes crashing into buildings that then collapsed to the ground?! People jumping to their deaths, preferring a quick impact to the agony of being burned alive?! This didn’t even happen in the movies. Wasn’t the hero always supposed to stop the tragedy at the last minute? It’s ironic that so many people who recall what they were doing on that day speak of glancing at a TV in a shop window or above a bar and mentioning that they’d “seen this movie before, I think it stars Bruce Willis.” But this wasn’t Die Hard or The Towering Inferno. This was real life.
I returned to my desk but I didn’t stay long. It only took one call from a surly travel agent who remarked that the fact that “we” couldn’t get her passengers to their cruise in time “would be bad for publicity and possibly end in a lawsuit.” I had a few very choice words for her to be sure and then realized I wasn’t in a place, mentally, to be handling any calls of a such a petty nature that day. I wished I was in New York so I could help with the rescue effort. I even considered hopping a Greyhound Bus in the ensuing days but didn’t end up doing so. I still wish I had. It’s hard for me to sit idly by, even if it’s from 3000 miles away, and watch calamity unfold.
So I walked the few miles to my church. One of our members was considerably more distraught. She worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, the company that lost most of its workforce that day. Because of that enormous loss she was promoted to a VP position, everyone else in her department having lost their lives. Something like that isn’t even bittersweet. It’s just bitter.
After the service I walked to a nearby hotel restaurant and ordered a cup of clam chowder. I didn’t hunger for food but for information and knew there’d be a TV there. Newscasters, out of their normal stoic character for once, fought back tears as they described the day’s events while the terrible images of that day played in loops.
After a bit I’d regained my composure enough so that I decided to return to the office. On the way I picked up the Seattle Times’ Extra Edition that I still hold to this day.
When I returned home that day I went to the roof of my apartment building and lowered the flag to half-mast then spent the rest of the evening watching the news and speaking to a few friends and relatives. I remember one conversation with some Canadian friends. I remember how grateful I was to them, to their nation, that they’d allowed many of our passenger jets to land at their airports. It seems like such a small gesture, so easy to accommodate, but on that day even the smallest gestures seemed like the world to us.
And during the next days and weeks the feelings that would grip me most would not be sadness, although that surely came and went throughout that time and sticks with me even today as I write this. No, the feeling I remember and cherish the most is one of joy and pride. The terrorists, as their moniker denotes, tried to terrorize us that day. They wanted us to live in fear. They wanted us to feel their hate. And while, just as with sadness, the emotions of fear and hate did grip many of us and, again, like sadness, may still grip some of us today, the emotions that won out were those of joy, thankfulness, pride, bravery and love. As one poster that made its rounds in the coming months and years and depicted a dust covered New York Firefighter said, “When others ran out, he ran in.” Another one of my favorite commercials showed a typical American scene, a row of houses on a quiet residential street. Words superimposed stated that, “on September 11th, the terrorists tried to change America. They succeeded.” The picture then changed to show every one of those houses flying an American flag. And it wasn’t just on TV. Even here in Seattle, a place that rarely wears its national patriotism on its sleeve, the Stars and Stripes flew from seemingly every awning, rooftop and car, more ubiquitous than even a Starbuck’s Grande Half-Caf Latte. Two and a half weeks later I attended the ballet, the furthest thing one could imagine from unabashed patriotism, at least here in Seattle. But even there, before the curtain came up, the entire hall joined in singing the national anthem and the final piece of the evening was set to Stars and Stripes Forever. And people cared, genuinely. They asked stranger and neighbor alike, “how are you doing” and really meant it. Estranged friends and long forgotten relatives reconnected for the first time in years. For a short period it seemed that even gang members had come to a truce as former foes dropped their pettiness and became friends.
As with all things, I may be remembering some of the zeitgeist of those days through a bit of rose colored patina, but surely we were more civil, caring and united in the months that followed September 11th, 2001 than we are today. And I suppose that’s to be expected but it’s still, nonetheless, disheartening. In time, sadly, many of us will forget and a century from now it may only be but a footnote in the broader history of the 21st century. And that’s why it’s important that we take the time to remember that day and those that followed with a little extra clarity. In the days and even weeks and months to come, while we continue to look forward to what will surely be a brighter future (we must hope for no less), we must take the occasional moment not only to remember where we were when we first heard the news, but the feelings that unfolded from it. Remember the warm embrace of a love one that you held extra close that evening. Remember the genuine smile and authenticity of that “how are you doing” you received from the barista as you picked up your coffee the following mornings. Remember the extra feeling of national pride you got whenever you glimpsed a swatch of red, white and blue or heard the first few bars of our national anthem. And take those memories and try, at least for the next few weeks, to incorporate them back into your character. Smile a little bigger at that person behind the counter, show a little more understanding to that driver who just cut you off, put a little more sincerity behind that “how are you doing” and maybe, just maybe, we can regain a bit of the positive change we all experienced in the days that followed.
And for my part, to those who I’ve sometimes sparred with on this blog or elsewhere, my apologies for the times when it got a bit too heated, a bit too personal. We can disagree about the path to prosperity and peace. We can disagree about whether the Affordable Care Act is the right way to bring health care to those who are currently without. But in those disagreements let’s remember that we are allies in freedom, united in the belief that there can be a better tomorrow, that there can be peace and prosperity and that the only way we can grant victory to our enemy is when we forget that there truly is more that unites us than divides us.
God bless the men and women who gave their lives on 9/11. God bless those who continue to give their lives in the cause for freedom and God bless America!
Cross posted at SoundPolitics.com.