Sunday, September 11, 2011

"There was a time when it all went wrong...."

Ten years ago this morning, I was driving to work. My job was in a telesales office for a pharmaceutical distributor. I liked the people in the office immensely, and for what it was, the job was about as good as it could have been; I probably should have realized a lot sooner -- say, before I was fired after a year and a half -- that I'm just not temperamentally suited to sitting at a desk and talking on the phone all day.

But anyway, on that day, I got in the car, turned on the radio, and started driving. I was listening to NPR, and they had broken in to discuss something that had happened fifteen or twenty minutes earlier: an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Details were sketchy at that point, and my first thoughts were "Wow, what is it with that building's bad luck!", remembering the bombing in the parking garage eight years earlier, and that it had to be some twit in a little Cessna or something. It took a while before I realized that it was a passenger jet, which was appalling enough.

Minutes later, the second plane hit, and the already sickened feeling I'd had over a massive calamity already unfolding doubled, not just at the scope of the calamity (two buildings burning now, with no way to stop it), but at the nature of it. Two planes couldn't be pilot error, faulty flight data, or mechanical failure in the worst possible airspace to fail in. By the time I was walking into the office, I knew that my country was under attack.

Everyone already had the radio on, and we stood around, listening in stunned silence. The last guy to arrive at work that day, the guy with the longest drive, walked in five minutes later, and saw everybody standing around; he shot me a puzzled look, so I beckoned him over and told him what had happened. He'd been listening to CDs in the car, had no idea.

Over the next two hours, the news coming over the radio was chaotic, filled with half-reports urgently read by newscasters who said things that later turned out to be false. There was a car bomb that exploded outside the State Department. A passenger jet had been shot down. There were unconfirmed reports of many more missing flights. The President's whereabouts were unknown. And then, a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. That one, alas, was all too true. So were the unconfirmed reports of a plane that had gone down -- nobody was yet sure why -- in rural Pennsylvania. And, about an hour and a half into our work day, a horrified announcer saying, "One of the twin towers has just collapsed."

We made our sales calls that day, but nobody was really much into it. The woman at the desk next to me was a very talkative type, and she spent the day calling her regular customers just to commiserate on the shocking events. We had no teevee in the office, so the radio was all we had. Another co-worker actually went out to lunch with one of her most reliable customers that day, and she came back from Applebee's looking deeply shaken. She'd seen the footage that the rest of us wouldn't see until 6:00 that night.

I took the next week off. We'd scheduled a trip out to Iowa to visit the Wife's extended family. Our paychecks, though, were delivered via FedEx from the home office in Baltimore, so when all air traffic was grounded for days after the attacks, our checks were stuck in Baltimore. My office supervisor came through for me, taking money from her personal savings to pay me the amount of my paycheck. What I remember most from those days after the attacks was looking up and seeing no contrails in the sky.

A lot of my liberal brethren have criticized President Bush's response in those first days after the attacks, from his sitting in the classroom for a few minutes to his flying to Strategic Air Command instead of returning to Washington immediately. I never had a problem with any of the things he did in those first weeks, though, and in all honesty, I think he handled it all as well as a President could have. I found his speeches -- particularly the one before Congress -- masterful. I don't have any illusions about the bipartisanship that briefly came out of 9-11-01; such things cannot last, and I'm not one to sing the praises of bipartisanship much anyway. I tend to think that partisanship is a good thing, because it's through disagreement that constructive conflict can arise. And in any event, what I wish had been sustainable wasn't so much the "bipartisanship", which tends to mean "everybody agreeing on the same policy", but rather that sense of collective Americanism that was too short-lived. "We may disagree, but we are still Americans." I wish we'd kept that spirit, somehow. But again, I don't think we could have.

We hear a lot about how we can "never forget 9-11". It won't be forgotten, but it won't remain vital in our memory, either. It won't, because it can't. It's how things work. The Daughter was just over 2 years old when it happened; she has no active memories of that day, and for her it will always be something somebody told her about. For her, 9-11-01 is history in very much the same way that 11-22-1963 or 12-7-1941 are history for me. Over time, tangible connections to that day will be lost, until all that will remain are chronicles of what happened, and historians will continue to debate why, and what came after. Time and history are relentless. They always have been, and always will be.

Here is a video I made yesterday, using images of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and that field in Pennsylvania, from before, during, and after the attacks. The music here is a piece that has been deeply personal to me since I performed it, as a member of the Wartburg College Concert Band, during my freshman year. It is also the first piece of music I was able to listen to after the attacks.

Those of us who were alive can, and must, remember. Those who come after? Theirs is to hold and honor the history of one of America's wickedest days.


Andy said...

DUDE! I have no words because you said them all! Good stuff Kelly!

Roger Owen Green said...

You thought it was a small plane, in art because much of the media did, I suspect.
and I NEVER complained about GWB taking his time to return to DC that day; indeed, he would have come back sooner, had he not yielded to the wishes of the Secret Service.