Archive for November, 2007

It’s Time That the Story Was Told

November 29, 2007

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

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Solar Homes have returned!

November 6, 2007

As an engineer and conservationist, I was energized by the 2005 Solar Decathlon, and I spent the next two years looking forward to the next contest. This year, I took my wife and a local friend to tour the current offerings of this year’s contestants. Twenty teams, two more than in ’05, lined up two-by-two along the National Mall. There were many of the same innovations pioneered two years ago… green construction materials, induction cooktops, LED lighting, waste heat recovery, combo washer-dryers, high-efficiency solar panels and insulation, much as I expected. It’s neat to see the teams converge upon a solid solar house design, making small improvements ever more vital toward victory. The new contest catagory, Market Viability, kept radical innovations at bay this year, but I think the spectators were more receptive to today’s less risky designs.

But what I didn’t expect were the crowds! Last time, I just stumbled into the contest right out of the Metro station, and then got into line at the first house. I was able to tour most competition entries that afternoon, spending time learning all I could from the teams’ engineers. This year, there were NPR and newpaper articles touting the event days ahead of the opening weekend. What were once ten minute lines for some of the local teams are now theme park sized 30 minute lines to get into *any* house. Teams were getting a crash course in crowd management, trying to funnel sightseers through their abode as efficiently as possible, unfortunately unable to linger on good questions posed by inquisitive visitors. I spent over 10 hours on the Mall, and only got to make cursory passes through half the homes. I was glad to see this showcase of green tech getting much-deserved attention, but at the same time I wondered how I could beat the crowds in 2009.


On the following weekend, I was visited by my mother and grandfather, who took Amtrak here from Indiana to visit my wife and I. My granddad enjoys caves, so I took him to Luray Caverns for the day. We all had a blast in their excellent hedge maze! Then we went up the road to Skyline Caverns, and played inside their mirror maze.

Let me tell you, these two caves, despite being only 20 miles apart, couldn’t be any more different. Well, they could be, if one were full of packing peanuts, and the other were painted pink… but I digress. Luray Caverns is festooned with a cornucopia of stalactites and stalagmites, flowstone and draperies, all arrayed in the spleandor of nature’s slowest freak show. Luray had rocksteady handrails and a paved brick floor, perhaps the first wheelchair accessible cave I’ve ever been in (there were many baby strollers taking advantage of this). Of the thousands of formations, 37 stalactites were selected throughout the cave for their natural resonance, and were arranged into a cave organ. To hear this organ ply the subterreanean rhythyms is an experience that can only be done justice by direct sensation, truly a "you had to be there" phenomenon.

On the other hand, Skyline Caverns was far more low-key and down-to-earth. Formations of any kind were sparse, and the lighting, though more colorful, was dimmer. But instead of sprawling vaults of spires and spikes, Skyline was a serpentine water-carved path with a dirt floor. Much more confining, personal, and dirty, this cave felt more like a good old-fashioned cave crawl. And they did have some unique formations of their own… anthodites, a world rarity.

And what about the mirror maze vs. the hedge maze? Although the mirror maze was a fun toy to walk through and play in, it was a juvenile challenge compared to the labyrinthine hedge maze at Luray. If I had to recommend just one, I’d recommend the hedge maze.


Last but not least, our good buddy Chris led us through the Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. Chris was excited to show us one of his favorite museums, which in his estimation contained the best collection of tanks in the western hemisphere. "To see a bigger collection," he said, "you’d have to go to England or St. Petersburg, Russia." It was indeed a comprehensive collection, and it’s the kind of exhibition best done with an expert in tow.


My niece just celebrated her first birthday! I hope she enjoys the hat Evelyn made for her. Also, I’ve invented a new game… sneaky tile game which I call Wanderlust. More on that later, pending favorable playtesting.


Nifty Wikipedia Thing: Microcars

Amusing Internet Video: Animator-vs-Animation

Hundred-dollar-T_shirt-idea: "The dice made me do it."

Movies I’ve Seen:

Topaz ~ best spy film I’ve ever seen, but a weak Hitchcock offering

Torn Curtain ~ a later Hitchcock film more like his early British works

Mister Roberts ~ surprised by the amount of drama in this comedy

What I’m Reading:

"Confederates in the Attic" by Tony Horwitz