Every generation has a moment in their life when they first heard about a world-changing news event. Previous generations can recall in vivid detail the circumstances around them when they heard that John Kennedy had been assassinated, when Armstrong walked on the moon, or even when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. They remember where they were, who they were with, and what they had been doing at the time. Even as other memories blur into the past, this one singular memory still remains everlast.
For my generation, that moment is 9/11/2001. This is my story.
It was early in my sophomore semester in college. Other students had classes at 9:00am, but on Tuesday my classes didn’t start until 11. Nonetheless, after breakfast, I took my laptop and headed upstairs to the third-floor classroom (each class of students shared the same single classroom, four for the whole school). At my desk, I was examining a homework assignment file in preparation for a class later that day. My classmate Colby, the Montana kid with a tattoo on his back the size of a dinner plate, walked into the room through the swinging door. Shuffling over to his desk, he said "Hey, did you hear? A plane flew into the World Trade Center." In my imagination, I supposed that a small private plane had impacted one of the towers. I chalked this up to a incompetent or intoxicated pilot. Out of curiosity, I decided to check the internet for news, and visited my homepage at Excite.com. Expecting to find the story in the Weird News section, it instead was the
headline article. ‘Jet collides into World Trade Center’. That’s when I learned some crucial details. It wasn’t a small prop plane like I imagined, but rather a commercial airliner. More than just some smashed windows, several floors were on fire. Tragic news, but not a daystopper. Stranger things have happened, I thought as I closed the article and resumed with my homework studies. It was 9:45am.
Not long afterwards, I was interrupted again, this time by a different student. "Another plane hit." This is when I realized that something really bad was happening. One collision was an accident, but two is no accident. I glanced at the internet news again, but quickly deferred to TV. My classmate Tim had satellite TV in his dorm, and a large TV. By the time I got there, his room had filled up with a half dozen others, all riveted to the CNN coverage. Live helicopter video of the burning towers occupied the center of the screen while the talking heads told us what little they knew. There were efforts to battle the fires, efforts to evacuate the people inside the towers… and then, the first tower fell. Right there in front of us, it crumbled upon itself, cascading downward in a grey cloud of ruin.
We’ve all seen the footage. The burning towers in the morning sun, the towers each collapsing into billowing dust, the cameramen keeping their cameras rolling as they ran away from the plumes of debris pursuing them on the streets. The ruinous gloom inside the dust clouds, where people staggered grey and zombie-like through a dim cityscape and a snow of office documents. But the horror I felt then, that we all felt, was not in the known but in the unknown.
Classtime approached. Our morning’s first professor, a grey Dutchman named Van Hooff, arrived. Instead of taking his usual position by the chalkboard, he casually sat on one of the student tables further into the room. We told him what had happened, and he said he already knew about it. He decided not to teach, ust sitting there and talking with us as the news unfolded.
That’s when the rumors started. As the towers fell, our local TV and radio reception went with it. Most local stations broadcast using the WTC’s antenna mast, now part of the wreckage in Lower Manhattan. Those like Tim lucky enough to have satellite soon found themselves at the hub of news access. Others turned to the internet. A plane had hit the Pentagon. Another had crashed in Pennsylvania. The National Mall in Washington DC was on fire. A bomb had gone off at the CIA headquarters. Another plane was headed for Los Angeles. Van Hooff was as confused as we were. Fact and rumor blended together in the pain and confusion of the morning. Lunchtime came but nobody had any appetite.
Over them next 36 hours, school was suspended. The president urged us to resume, but no student or professor could find the will to restart intellectual pursuits. We all wanted to do something, anything to help. Students and faculty gathered in groups on the lawn to speak our minds. Students organized van trips into town to donate blood. The auditorium was converted into a 24 hour newsroom. I tinkered with the 1970s TV abandoned in my dorm to see if I could get any news reception. My parents called me from Indiana, making sure I was safe and sound. The air outside, once frequently polluted with the constant drone of aircraft, was strangely and reverently silent. I went to sleep on September 12 with the comfort of knowing that a carrier battle group was anchored in New York Harbor.
Within a few days, one student emailed the above photo to the student body. He had taken it from the roof of the school just a few days before 9/11. In the sunset, the twin towers could be seen on the horizon, just to the right of the brick chimney. This was the most recent photo of the late structures that anyone there had taken, and one of the last we would ever take of them.
That December I went with my dad and brother to Ground Zero, the labyrinth of crowds and fences that sprang up around the former WTC site. The fences and barriers were covered with flowers, cards, mementos, tributes, and art, an impromptu Vietnam Wall for this new American tragedy. I quietly took a marker and wrote on an opportune section of blank canvas "Millions of one, one of millions".
I did not know anyone personally who was killed on 9/11, nor did anyone I know lose a loved one that day. But I was there, just outside New York City.
During Thanksgiving this year, as I sat at the dinner table holding my wife’s hand in mine, I knew what I was thankful for.
Nifty Wikipedia Thing: Billy the Pygmy Hippo
Amusing Internet Video: Tony vs. Paul
Helpful Political Tool: Glassbooth.org
Movies I’ve Seen Recently:
The Big Country (1958) ~ Gregory Peck intervenes in a frontier feud
Tom Horn (1980) ~ symbol of fading frontier or just anti-capital punishment?
Rustler’s Rhapsody (1985) ~ parody of singing cowboy flicks
Himalaya (1999) ~ French film about Tibetan yak herders
Tears of the Sun (2003) ~ Bruce Willis leads doomed soldiers in Africa
Colatteral (2004) ~ Tom Cruise plays a smooth control-freak hitman
What I’m Reading:
"On the Road" by Jack Kerouac