Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 11, War, and Remembrance

I've been thinking about this anniversary for awhile.  Seeing that day - September 11, 2001 - is just like seeing a page in a diary - lined with faint blue lines, the date in the upper right-hand corner, and all the images tumbling down the page and spilling over onto all the pages remaining in my life.  Opening the diary to September 11, 2001 brings back every moment  in high resolution...where I was, what I heard, what I saw and how it clear, even ten years later.
Photo by Lia Chang.

The primary memory of that day is the way we all instantly became a Pack of Americans. Not any one party or race, or other classifying factors - just Americans.  Incredulous, angry, and ready to do whatever it took to right this huge wrong that had been done.  For the first time since World War II, the American Pack became bigger than the individual American.  A very odd feeling - my generation had never experienced that.  Within a couple of hours, we were no longer the Center of Our Universe anymore.  We became acutely aware that we were just single threads in an enormous fabric - one which wrapped around our lives and draped the landscape of a very different future than the one we had envisioned on the evening of September 10, 2001.

I'm a Baby Boomer - I grew up in a household that had the shadow of WWII hanging over it.  My brothers and I knew our Dad had been in the war, and that it was better not to ask him anything about it.   We had a pictorial history of WWII in four Leather Bound Navy Blue books that my Mother bought shortly after the war ended, and we kids pored over those books until the pages got dog-earred. For children, they were mind-boggling:  faded black and white photos of people being hung, close-ups of people being shot, men covered in snow with rifles sticking out, and piles of skeleton-looking people in open ditches...along with dozens of pictures of bombed-out buildings, and families trundling their whole households away on wagons and wheelbarrows.  We had a million questions.  We needed to know how our lives were connected to those pictures, but when Dad pulled up in the driveway, Phhhtt!  The Books went back on the shelf.

Years later, on D-Day, I point blank asked my Dad to tell me about landing on Omaha Beach.  That I needed to know what happened to him over there.  He swallowed, looked at the floor, out the door, and then started in fits and spurts to tell me.  The fits and spurts became a flow, and then a torrent.  Hours later, with maps of Europe spread out on the dining room table,  I knew why he had never talked about it before...

War isn't human.  Not what we were intended for.  Our skin is too easily punctured by metal, and once that happens, life pours out, and ends.  Dad's life hadn't ended, which meant he had to continue on, even with all he'd seen and experienced.  He had to get up every day and continue life with the hand he'd been dealt.

After that War talk, Dad and I were in a new, easy place together.  I finally knew where that Dark side of him came from, and I think he found a certain comfort in knowing that I knew.  Talking about his most intimate emotions during the War and how he reacted to them had somehow loosened the knot.  Funny thing, Remembrance and talking about what you thought was your own private horror can do that.

We were in Florida on September 10, 2001, winding up a trip to help my Mother-in-Law Vera finish the sale of my Father-in-Law's condo.  He had died of throat cancer in April, and once the cleaning and renovation of his little homestead was finished, an offer to buy came pretty quickly.  The real estate closing had already taken place, and it was time to turn the keys over.  We walked out, brushed our hands over the resident Orange Tree one more time, and turned away.

That night, we toyed with the idea of flying home on an earlier flight the next day, September 11.  There wasn't really a reason to stay until the afternoon flight, our job of support and the tug to say goodbye to the little condo was over, and it was time to go home.  But for some reason, at the last minute before we went to bed, we decided to stick to our original flight time.  We slept good that night, and awoke early.

As usual, we were up before Vera, and since she had fixed up the coffee pot the night before, we only had to turn it on.  We were surprised when she got up a few minutes later, moving into the kitchen to wait for the coffee, unfold the newspaper that had been retrieved from outside her condo door, and turn on the TV.  That was her routine...but she was hard of hearing, and the volume was always much too loud for us at that early hour.  I remember my husband grousing at his Mom about the TV being on so early, and so loud...reaching over and flipping the volume down.  I moved into the living room so that I could have my coffee out of earshot.

Suddenly Husband called out from the kitchen..."Linda, come look!  C'mere!  The World Trade Center's on fire!"  I heard the volume coming back up, and Vera's soft murmur that "...that's why I keep the news on in the morning - so I don't miss anything". 

When I stepped into the kitchen nook, I could see the CNN banner on the screen of the little TV, and the World Trade Center, with dense black smoke billowing out of it.  My husband said, "They say a plane hit it...a small plane...?"  I moved toward the screen, with a faint memory jiggling around in my mind.  Couldn't pinpoint it yet, but there was something struggling forward in my mind.

I remember saying, "But there's no flight pattern that would take a plane NEAR those buildings...what would a plane be doing there??"  And still, the jiggling memory that wouldn't take shape.  I traced my finger across the screen, across the hole in the building.  "That isn't a small plane, that's a real plane, not a small plane!  Look at that wing span!"  Husband and Vera were silent, lost in the struggle to figure out what was really going on.

And then, remembering the restaurant, Windows On The World, and the observation platform on top of the building, Husband and I started talking over each other: "They'll have to take them off the roof, right?  Yeah, they'll have to take them off the roof."

We had visited the WTC a couple years before, and I remember looking DOWN on a helicopter from the observation platform.  Not natural, not at all good.  I remember not liking where I was, that I couldn't enjoy the view;  just wanted to get back on the ground.  Standing there, looking at the burning building, I was re-tracing the way down; remembering how you had to switch elevator banks somewhere around the 75th floor, and how long that had taken.  Just a handful of people, and it had taken forever, which underscored the unnatural height we were at.

The announcers on CNN sounded bewildered.  They were debating on what size plane it had been, why it was in the area of the WTC.  They talked about sight-seeing planes, just grasping at straws.  It was obvious that no one knew what was going on.  Yet.

There was a larger TV in the living room, and I moved out of the breakfast nook to turn that one on so I could see what the other news channels were saying.  I was sitting on Vera's big white ottoman, coffee cup clutched in one hand, working the remote with the other, when I heard my husband shout, "Look, Look, Look!  Linda, come Look!"

I raced to the kitchen...and saw an enormous black cloud rolling up from the OTHER Tower.  In a flash, the jiggling memory sharpened into focus.  Instantly.  I remember saying half out loud, "He did it.  He did what he said he would do".  They half turned to me, faces still to the TV,  but they weren't really listening.  Over and over, the plane punched into the building.

What I was thinking of was the man behind the 1993 bombing of the WTC, and how he'd said they would be back to finish the job.  Right then, watching that oily black smoke boiling out of the South Tower, I believed he was the man behind what was unfolding on the TV screen.  I had no clue the turn all our lives was about to take;  I was just heartsick about the people in the buildings and on the planes.  No clue how broad the loss would get.

Habit gets you through the surreal times in life.  Habit guided us to prepare toast, boil some eggs.  No one ate.  Husband headed to the shower, right on schedule.  While he was in the shower, I was glued to the TV in the living room, flipping back and forth between stations.  Suddenly, what looked like another explosion went off around street level of the South Tower.  Thick, dirty white clouds spewed out of the street level doors, and then in slow motion, the building melted and crumbled straight down.  It took forever.

The newscasters spoke in jerky sentences..."What was that?  Was that another explosion?  I think... Another explosion?"  Then stunned silence.  While I was still trying to grasp what I had just seen, the man said, "I can't see the building.  I think it's gone."

Our airspace was shut down...all the planes had to land, immediately.  For the first time in our lives, no planes would be in the sky!  Which led to wondering how we were going to get back to Atlanta.  I thought about calling for a rental car, but just couldn't do anything that mundane at that moment...the Pentagon had been hit, there were rumors of hijacked planes heading to Chicago, Los Angeles...and then news came of the plane down in Shanksville.  

When the North Tower fell we had to get outside.  We took off walking around Vera's complex of buildings, on a sidewalk that marked where water met land.  It was so quiet.  The only sound we could hear was a car radio, echoing underneath one of the buildings in the parking garage; it sounded like a news feed or talk show host.  That was the only sound we heard. The only sound, except for our own footfalls on the cement.

Walking in clumsy silence, trying to identify our Selves in this new world, we occasionally asked each other questions:  What happens now?  How are we going to get home?  Will the boys go to War?  The youngest was still in college and had already called us, looking for the answer to the question everyone was already asking - "Why?"  We argued about what I was convinced was a bomb that had gone off near street level in the South Tower right before it collapsed, and what that meant about the depth of a conspiracy to attack America within our own borders.  That walk was exhausting, never-ending.

We went to lunch at Piccadilly; what could be more American and comforting than that?  The restaurant was open, but seemed dark and deserted.  Vera seemed to be handling everything better than we were; she wasn't babbling on, or asking questions that couldn't be answered yet.  She didn't have much to say, even when we directed conversation to her.  She looked deeply offended.  

That afternoon, I went down to the deserted pool and let myself in the gate.  It was a beautiful day, gorgeous blue sky, light winds.  I slipped into the water, and floated out to the center.  And just laid there, face to the blue, silent sky, for the longest time.  I will never forget how that felt - floating in silent water, in a silent residential high-rise development, under a silent sky with the sun on my face - while the world was coming to an end for so many people.

My Dad finally answered his phone...he had been on his Mountain Top all day, puttering around in his garden and in his hunting cabin, oblivious to the horrific events of the day.  When I reached him, he was subdued, low voiced, and not happy that he hadn't been aware of anything until he came home.  I think he felt like he had somehow copped out of the worst day in our history.  We didn't talk long, he was too upset and needed to just let everything gel.  He, like Vera, didn't have much to say.

There was a curious, metallic and empty edge to the evening.  We went out to dinner - Vera stayed home to watch the coverage.  Again, food just didn't taste right, and we scooted back to the condo. CNN was interviewing people who had flocked to Lower Manhattan to look for loved ones.  I remember a young man who was standing on what looked like an ordinary front porch, holding a photo of a beautiful young woman - his sister.  He was saying, "This is my sister, she works for......"  You could tell by his face and demeanor that he already knew the answer.

The interviewer moved across the street to a gang of people behind a barricade.  There was a hefty woman there, strawberry blonde and exuberant about her partner, who was missing in the rubble.  She said, "(Name)'s a really strong person, she can do anything!  If anybody can get out, she will!  We're going to Hawaii in December..."  And the young reporter from CNN lost her composure.  She'd already accepted the fact that no one was coming out of that chaos alive.  The anchors back in the studio coached her through it, on Live TV.  "I want you to take a deep breath, and count to 10, okay?".

I couldn't watch anymore, and went to bed.

We finally rented a car and drove home from Florida.  The rest stops were jammed with people doing the same thing we were doing.  And it was still so quiet.  When we got to the Atlanta airport to turn the car in and find our way to the lot where we'd left our car, the silence felt so wrong.  Airports are supposed to be noisy places...the only sound here was the murmur of people talking, car doors slamming, and the little wheels on the sidewalks from the carry-on suitcases. 

People say that life was never the same after September 11.  When I hear that, I think to myself, "Of course not."  Life is fluid.  Tilt the jar, life moves in one direction.  Spill it out, it's something entirely different.  It evaporates, goes up in the sky, and rains back down in a whole new place.  Not the same, but still life.  What Remembrance of September 11, 2001 should be is that life is a gift.  A gift.

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