Sunday, September 10, 2006

9/11---Five Years Later

Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center.

That event has become, for my generation, like the Kennedy assasination was for my mother's generation. We ask each other, "Where were you, when the Towers fell?"

And so, I will tell my story, of what I was doing, what I was thinking, where I was, when the Towers fell.

I had stayed up late the night before, packing. We were about to take a trip to Ohio to visit my in-laws. Our tickets were for September 12, very early in the morning. I am always a bit neurotic about packing luggage; I always want to get it over and done with as far in advance as possible, but always end up packing and re-packing at the last minute.

We were all taking a nap when the telephone call came. My husband answered it, and took the phone into the next room. I heard him greet his mother, and groaned. No one wants to be woken up from a nap by their mother-in-law, who they are about to travel 2500 miles to visit.

I heard my husband gasp. My husband is not a gasper by nature. The only other time I can remember him doing so, was at the birth of our first child. I got this unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach. I have never been able to explain it, but even though the only other time I had heard my husband gasp was at a wonderful moment, I knew something very horrible had happened. I just knew it. My first thought was, "Did someone die? Is his father ok?" Then I heard my husband call out my name, and turn on the tv.

The very first image we saw, was the plane crashing into Tower One. I stood, shocked, wondering if what we were watching was some movie like "Independance Day." And then, they showed the second plane. We heard the reporters cry out in horror. We saw the people, the rubble, the emergency vehicles everywhere. This was no movie. This was real.

We sat, dumbfounded, and watched the news report of what had happened. We heard about the other two planes. We sat, unable to move, tears flowing freely down our faces. I could hear his mother crying on the phone. My husband said to me, "This was no ordinary terrorist. Whoever funded this, had big money and a big agenda." I nodded. "Osama bin Laden," I said, and it was his turn to nod. We had no doubt in our minds, it was him.

I have heard that many Americans did not know who Osama bin Laden was, prior to this attack. We were not among them. My husband, a Jew, is very interested in keeping up with the state of affairs in the Middle East. We had many talks about the "big names" over there, bin Laden's being one of them. To top it off, we are fans of the show "America's Most Wanted," and we'd seen bin Laden profiled on that program. Eerily, we had both talked at the time of that profile about the first, failed, attempt to bomb the WTC. We agreed that he would try a bigger target next time...there is no way we could have predicted the horrors of what he did try: the same target, with bigger ammunition.

For a long time, we just sat, dazed, watching the television. After awhile, though, it became almost too painful to watch. We felt this...urgency, to get away. We woke up the kids, and went to the grocery store.

I will never forget that trip, usually so commonplace and everyday. The streets were practically deserted. The few people who were out and about, were hugging each other, weeping. We passed by a restaurant, and saw an old man, openly crying and changing the flag to half-mast. Everything seemed quiet, subdued. As if even the very streets were in shock and mourning.

The grocery store was much the same way. We have shopped there for many years, and for the first time, no Muzak was playing over the intercom. Instead, it was continuing coverage of the crisis in New York City. It was very loud, and yet, everyone in the building, from fellow customers to the cashiers and the managers, were straining to hear every word. Some stared in disbelief. Others walked about, doing their shopping, behaving very much as if shell-shocked. Even my young daughter, only five at the time, could sense the feeling of loss, heavy in the air.

And the same thought was stampeding across all of our minds: this is America. This isn't supposed to happen here. How could this happen? And how can we go on now? How can we face tomorrow, the day after this?

Our world had changed. There was no going back.

I remember spending so much of that day, just praying. Praying that lives would be spared, that the heroes of the NYPD and fire departments would save more lives and not do so at the loss of their own. I thought about all the families who lost loved ones, and prayed for them, too. And then I prayed for all of us, from New York City to San Francisco and everywhere in between. I felt so helpless. All I could do, nearly 3000 miles away from the epicenter, was pray. And so I prayed, and prayed, and prayed some more.

I also remember my in-laws, believing firmly that we would still be able to get on a flight to Ohio the next morning. They seemed to believe that our government had contigencies for such a tragedy, that they would be able to get back to "work as usual" in quick order. I think they needed to believe that. My father-in-law, who is from New York originally, just clung to the idea that it would all be taken care of, that the spirit of New Yorkers would not be broken.

He was right, of course, about their spirit. It would not be broken. If anything, it was strengthened. I see people now, proud to be New Yorkers. Tragic as it was, it bound them in a way I think those of us who were not there cannot truly understand. We can see it, we can empathize with it...but we cannot really be a part of it. I wondered then, and still wonder now, if the people who lived through Pearl Harbor felt that same sort of bond afterwards, this greater sense of a tragic community whose spirit could be bruised but never broken.

But my father-in-law was wrong about the flight. We didn't fly out the next day, or the next. It was three days later, that we were finally able to board the plane.

I didn't want to fly. I have a fear of flying under optimum conditions, and that was the furthest from "optimum" that I am capable of envisioning. I had what was tantamount to a panic attack, upon hearing that my in-laws still expected us to get on that plane. It was the last thing on Earth I wanted to do: fly. We tried to get train tickets, but alas, we weren't the only ones with that idea: they were completely sold out for the foreseeable future.

And so, three days after the Towers fell, we woke up early in the morning and went off to Portland International Airport.

I used to be a bartender at that airport. Every day, I would go to work amongst the crowds of people waiting to fly, getting off of planes, reuniting with loved ones. I always think of it as a hive: busy, busy, busy.

It was not so that day. The building was quiet, eerily so. It seemed no one wanted to speak loudly, or at all, if it could be helped. The ticket counters for the airlines that had suffered losses were groaning under the weight of what seemed like hundreds of bouquets of flowers. National Gaurd men, some with big bomb-sniffing dogs, were everywhere. Two of them took the time to come over and reassure my kids, to let them know everything would be ok. They even let them pet the dog. I have always been grateful to them for that. Children are so sensitive to their surroundings, and they pick up on so much more than most adults give them credit for. My kids were scared, but they were less so after the encounter with the Gaurdsmen.

When I worked at the airport, I went through security five or six times a day (my job was a "relief bartender." I walked about the airport and manned posts while others took their breaks). It was usually pretty quick. Not so, that day. In fact, nothing and no one was moving at any sort of speed, and no one seemed to mind. Checking in at the ticket counter took hours. Going through security, even longer. Now, I've seen this happen before, of course, in my time as an airport employee. But usually, it was accompanied by loud complaining and the occassional hissy fit. But not that day.

I have no problem admitting that when I got on that plane, I was scared stiff. I do not, as a rule, drink in front of my kids. It makes me uncomfortable. That day was the only time I have ever broken that rule. I could hardly wait for the attendant to work her way around to me with the drink cart and have a shot of liquid courage.

It was like no other flight I had ever been on. NO ONE was talking. NO ONE was sleeping. Everyone sat stiffly in their chairs, eyes forward, silent. It was uncanny. The airlines were thoughtful enough to provide free earpieces for the movie, and it was a kids' movie to boot ("Cats and Dogs"). I think this went a long way towards making the kids on the flight more comfortable. At one point, the plane hit some significant turbulence. Everyone on the plane got even MORE silent, if such a thing is possible. Everyone turned pale. When the captain came over the intercom to explain, there was a very audible sigh of relief....from everyone.

If I had thought that the atmosphere at the Portland airport was unique, I was soon disabused of the notion. Arriving in Cinncinati, we again came into an airport that seemed like an inhabited ghost town. Shops were closed, people were moving about but not speaking. The sense of fear and of mourning was almost visible in the air. It hit me then that every airport in the country was like this on that day. We were all afraid. It occured to me that in this way, the terrorists had won. Their aim was to make Americans afraid, and they had done so.

I then suddenly was able to see the wisdom in my father-in-law's insistance that the airlines get back to business as usual. I had thought he simply didn't want to postpone our arrival, or that he was being foolish or naive. I realized that instead, he knew that Americans needed to fly again. We needed to overcome fear. That way, the terrorists had lost. Americans would not be afraid.

We didn't fly back. My in-laws gave us their old car, having bought a new one, and we drove back. We drove across a country, filled with American flags at half-mast and signs declaring that we would stand united, and not be defeated. And above us, in the skies, planes roared as they took Americans to El Paso, Denver, Las Vegas, San Diego, Miami, and all stops in between.

There was something about the sound of the planes above that gave me hope. Americans were flying again.

The terrorists could run. They could hide. But they couldn't win. Americans would not be terrorized. Our spirit would not be broken.

Today, my thoughts and prayers are with the survivors, and with those who lost loved ones, and with the NYPD and fire departments....America's heroes.


At 5:00 AM, Blogger mdmhvonpa said...

Reading about how the simple diplay of americn flags gave hope and strenth to people, you wonder why people want to burn it.

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