Saturday, September 10, 2011

NEVER FORGET! A Memoir of September 11, 2001

When I was growing up I always heard people talk about where they were, and what they were doing when President Kennedy was shot. Over the years I heard countless personal recollections of that day, and they were all different, but the one thing they had in common was that whatever the person was doing; wherever the person was… seeing or hearing the news of the assassination stopped them in their tracks. When an event stops virtually everyone in their tracks all at once, it’s safe to say that the whole world, for all intents and purposes, comes to a standstill.

In 1996 a movie called Independence Day was in theatres. Perhaps you’ve seen it. It has since become something of a classic; being shown over and over again on cable TV. I have the special edition DVD, and I’ll tell you why. When my (then) fiancĂ©e and I went to see Independence Day, the 7:00 pm show was sold out. We bought tickets for the 9:50, and went to get dinner. Of course, dinner didn’t take all that long, and we found ourselves back in the lobby of the movie theatre waiting around for the earlier show to let out so that we could go in. When the doors opened and movie-goers started streaming out of the theatre, I immediately noticed something odd: nobody was speaking.  Nobody was laughing, nobody was recounting their favorite scene, nobody was saying “that was awesome,” or “that sucked;” nobody was saying a word. I elbowed my fiancĂ©e and whispered this observation to him. After we saw the movie, we understood. Although ID4 was far-fetched and pure science fiction, the idea of the entire planet pulling together against a common enemy was pretty intense. The idea that we could pull together as a human race and no longer fight amongst ourselves but look upon every other human, no matter what gender, race, creed, nationality, or sexual orientation and just see ‘humans,’ was enough to set your mouth to silent mode and force you to think.
In 2001 I was working for a small business and my hours were 10:00 am – 7:00 pm. In the morning, I would get up early with my (then) husband, and spend the few hours before I had to leave taking care of housework, getting dinner into the crock pot, and packing my lunch for the day. Every day I would get up and put on the news. I have no idea why, but on September 11th of 2001, for some unknown reason, I did not put on the television. To this very day I do not know why I broke from my usual routine that morning. But, for whatever reason, I didn’t put the TV or the radio on. I went about my usual chores, and when it was time to leave for work, I got into my car, turned the key, and heard a caller on the radio say: “I think they timed it so that camera crews could get there in time to get footage of the second plane crashing into the tower.” The DJ replied, “We really don’t know anything yet, but I suppose it’s possible. If you’re just joining us, or if you’re just getting up, two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center….”
The DJ’s voice was not the usual tone for him. I had a love/hate relationship with this radio station, particularly because I couldn’t stand this specific morning DJ. He was arrogant, opinionated, snarky, and annoying… but on September 11th of 2001 his voice was different. It was somber, hesitant, and even somewhat frightened. It was this one hundred eighty degree shift in his voice that unsettled me. This was a man who was so high on himself, so sure that the sun rose and set on his very existence; to hear him sounding scared actually put fear into me, and I didn’t even know what was going on yet. I didn’t put the car into gear. I sat there, still with my hand on the key, my head turned slightly as if I’d be able to hear better, and listened like I’ve never listened to anything before or since. The news was coming in so fast and furious, and from so many different places, it seemed they could not even keep up to relay it all to the public. I heard it all in what seems like a split second, and a chill ran through me that I honestly cannot put into words.
The next hour is a blur in my memory. I recall pulling out of my driveway, thinking that it was scary as hell to know the planes had taken off from Boston; I was only 45 miles from there! What if I wasn’t safe? What about my family? What about everyone?! Next I remember being on Route 290 heading east and hearing the DJ saying that all air traffic had been grounded, and that no planes would be allowed in the air, and looking up into the sky and feeling creeped out by the fact that they sky was void of any planes at all, even though I’m certain I could have looked into the sky on any given day and seen the same sight… it was just scary as hell to know that we’d taken this measure because… good God… The United States of America was being attacked. At that time, we didn’t even know yet by whom. The next thing I remember is walking into the garage where I worked and seeing my manager standing there looking sort of like I felt, and asking him, “What the hell is going on?” He just shook his head, said he didn’t know, and that he was going to get one of the small televisions that was in the closet upstairs and see if he could get the news to come in, since there was no cable in the garage. He knew as much as I did, and logically I guess I knew that, but he was the first person I saw after hearing the news and I guess I just wanted someone to say “Don’t be scared, everything’s going to be all right.” In reality, though, at that moment in time, nobody could say such a thing with any sort of confidence. He did manage to hook up a small television in the room I worked in, and to get one of the local stations to come in; grainy though it may have been I think I would have lost my mind had I not had some form of access to the news that day. I, along with everyone else, was glued to it all day long.
Looking back I realize that September 11th was not just one day. In the days and weeks that followed it did seem as though the world had come to a halt. It seemed as though nobody could breathe, as though nobody could function, as though the day… September 11th… just went on and on and on. The events of that morning and all of the related news were the only topics of conversation no matter where you were, who you were with, or what was going on around you. The small television stayed in the garage for a several days, always tuned to the news, and despite the fact that I continued to enter invoices into the computer and wait on customers and take phone calls, my attention was always fixed on any new information as it was presented. In the evenings, my husband and I would sit on the end of our bed, across from the television, a box of tissues between us, and cry with the victim’s families as they showed photos of their missing loved ones, begging for any information, for help, for someone to tell them this wasn’t really happening. Nobody got a happy ending. We cried and cried with them, unable to wrap our minds around even a portion of what they were going through.
Three things were most frightening and unsettling about the attack, for me. One was the notion that throughout history, when “war” broke out, or when an “attack” was launched, it was one group of people versus another and the line in the sand was always defined. I knew nothing of warfare or military tactics, but I did know that up until that morning, it was clan vs. clan, or tribe vs. tribe, or country vs. country. I knew that until that morning, the enemy was always a clearly defined group of people residing in a clearly defined space, and that the enemy was always after domination, control, land, riches… or making an effort to oppress another group of people. It was generally always a greed driven or power driven thing. Or, at least that’s how it seemed to me. But this enemy… this enemy was scattered all over the globe; hiding in plain sight, living amongst us, and, perhaps most frightening of all, patient to the point of insanity.
That was the second thing that frightened me. It didn’t matter to them if they had to wait 10, 20, even 100 years to destroy us, they would wait, patiently watching for us to become complacent, and then they would strike again. We adopted the phrase “Never Forget” because truly, eventual complacency is what they count on from Americans. The idea that future generations would not be able to grasp the magnitude of that day through accounts such as this and feel the need to guard against it happening again. The idea that the depth of our commitment to pull together as a nation and stand as one against them would, in time, loosen and eventually come apart all together. The notion that Americans care more about consumerism and material things than they do about each other, so much so that in our quest for shiny cars and 5000 square foot homes and the latest gadgets we would become a country filled with people only out for themselves. When I was a kid, my family had a running joke. We would say to each other, when we wanted to let each other know that we’d get our revenge for some silly practical joke: “When you least expect it; expect it!” That’s the exact theory this enemy goes on; they count on us to let our guard down.
Thirdly, I was, and still am, very unsettled and bothered by the idea that there are people in this world who are, unfortunately, not told the truth by their governments and honestly believe, because it’s what they’ve been told their whole lives, that we are evil. It scares the crap out of me that people on this planet are fed false information in an effort to make them fear and hate us. It is so hard to imagine: not having freedom.
In my childhood I developed a love of history that I carry with me to this day. It was my favorite subject in school; I found it fascinating and I was decidedly alone in that opinion. But history teaches us that which we need most in life and in society, in my humble opinion. It teaches us what happens; it teaches us the results of courses of action that have already been taken. It is a guide to life as human beings. It is not just names, places, dates, and facts to memorize for a test and then dismiss as something you’ll “never use in real life.” History is real life at its most real, and every generation will have their shaping event that they talk about in front of children, hoping to God they can convey the lessons they learned by living through it. September 11, 2001 is that event for me. The world truly did change that day, and although the generations that come after me cannot possibly identify with that, since they didn’t live before that terrible day to really understand the magnitude of that statement, the fact remains that the world is not the same. This war on terror has raged for ten years now, and I am still acutely aware that this is not village vs. village. This is not an enemy you can simply surround and capture. This is not a war that will end because of one decisive battle. This is not an enemy that will ever surrender. And so, on the tenth anniversary of that awful day, I implore you: NEVER FORGET. Never forget that they count on us to get complacent. Never forget that they count on us to stop making each other a priority. Never forget that they wait patiently and watch from the shadows abroad and even from among us where they still manage to lurk for signs that we are not paying attention anymore. Never forget that in this case, the truth will not set us free. And, above all else: NEVER FORGET THAT YOUR FREEDOM ISN’T FREE. We have soldiers; fathers, sons, brothers, friends… who have been and still are in the middle of all this ten years later, trying to secure our freedom and our safety, and so many have lost their lives doing so FOR YOU.
As I write this today, I know that it’s a miracle that I was born in the United States of America. I am an American woman. That’s a blessing I can’t begin to be thankful enough for. I am free. I wrote this sitting in the front yard of my own home that I purchased because I have the freedom to be educated, to work, to vote, to walk and talk and think as I please, to express my opinion, to sit in the sunshine in a tank top and shorts in public with my laptop and a frosty glass of Parrot Bay and Diet Coke, and tell you what I think and feel without fear or risk of being killed simply because I love to write and because I have an opinion I wish to share with you. I don’t take that for granted. Truly, I hope that you don’t take for granted that you have the right to disagree with every word I’ve said here, to rebut my opinions, and to speak every bit as freely.