9/11: Generation To Generation
After writing and showing my narrative to my dad, he decided to contribute a piece as well. Below you’ll find my piece, followed by my father’s.
When the first plane hit I was struggling with an Advanced Geometry test. Our principal, Mr. Lorenz, announced over the intercom that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. A sophomore in high school, I didn’t really understanding the significance of that first plane, and my teacher insisting that we finish our test without turning on the TV to watch the day unfold, added to my suspicion that a plane hitting the World Trade Center wasn’t significant.
It wasn’t until after failing my test and seeing the images of a smoking tower on the classroom television of my second period history class did I realize that something more important was going on. There wasn’t much discussion as Mr. Richied’s students started to fill their seats, eyes wide on the live footage of blackness billowing out of one of the twin towers. It was apparent our planned history lesson would be forgone for the day, as history was in the making.
Before any discussion arose as to how a pilot could have been blind enough to hit a building, another jet rocketed into the other World Trade Center building, sliding in like a knife through butter and spitting out a belch of fire and debris. “We are under attack.” Soon, CNN, was touting a suggestion that planes had been hijacked and the United States of America was under attack. Who would do this? Who would be stupid enough to attack the strongest military in the world? Besides, I thought that everybody loved America.
The burning buildings and shocked New Yorkers gazing up at those trapped in the upper-levels seemed all too familiar to me and wasn’t adherently shocking. Perhaps the years of watching dramatics on television and in movies had numbed my senses but I just couldn’t feel much beyond confusion.
“What’s going to happen to other planes in the air?” a fellow-student asked.
My confusion turned to real fear as Mr. Richied explain that he thought the Air Force would start shooting down any planes still in the air. Wait a second. Wasn’t my father on a plane back to Chicago? Where was his plane coming from? Was he in one of those jets that hit the twin towers? Was he going to be shot down by the Air Force?
Suddenly a whirlwind of thoughts, memories and prophecies spun around my skull. What would it be like if my dad really died? What would it be like growing up without a father? These horrible questioned lurched around my thoughts as I watched CNN for departure cities and airlines of the planes that had hit the buildings. I knew my father always flew United.
By the time I reached my third period English class there were reports about the Pentagon being hit and a fourth plane crashing somewhere in Pennsylvania, my nerves still crackling over my dad.
“If anyone would like to use the phone to see if relatives are okay, you can,” my teacher said.
I called home. My mother picked up on the other line and I asked her if she had heard from my father. I exhaled in relief when I found out she had and that he had landed in Indianapolis.
As I hung up the phone, my nerves settled and I returned to my seat in the quiet classroom of students gazing at the television displaying the same images. Thousands of people in fear and anguish watching those buildings burn as hundreds more watched down upon them in high rise windows, unable to breath from the smoke rushing through their offices. We watched as faceless bodies unfit for the air plummeted beyond the reach of cameras.
I quickly realized the many people who were feeling just as I was feeling about my father were feeling the same about their endangered loved ones, friends and their fellow humans. My fear of my own father’s death helped me to realize how truly real 9/11 was for these people on the streets of Manhattan, for families desperately dialing their loved ones’ cell phones, for the thousands staring blankly at those towers not sure of what was going to happen that day.
September 11th, 2001 was no feature film. Real people lost their lives because some misguided souls wanted to show America that they could stand up to its army for occupying their land. In the time following, our government tried to make it into a movie, touting those who committed these acts as “evil” and suggesting that we were going to go hit those who had hit us so hard as if the world needed more bloodshed. Deeply hurt Americans wanted answers and the Bush administration were quick to be the problem solvers declaring a “war on terror,” which sent bombs to Afghanistan and soon after thousands of US troops to lose their lives in Iraq on false pretenses of WMD’s. This successfully brought American troops into the hands of Al Qaeda who hoped to fight Americans on their home turf.
It’s easy to send blame around in what has happened on and since 9/11. Surely you could blame Rudy Giuliani for placing his Emergency Command Center in the World Trade Center after being warned not to, surely you could blame the city of New York and the government for not protecting the health of those who work diligently to clear rubble and not reimbursing their medical costs, surely you could blame President Bush and his administration for leading America on a hopelessly mismanaged crusade against an ideology when it’s possible that the US helped create those groups and their hate in the first place, and definitely could you blame those monsters who took the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans by flying two planes in the twin towers, one into the Pentagon and one into the ground of Pennsylvania. But all that hate and emotion has only seemed to amount to lost lives and a country hurting, a country still angry and still fearful and worst of all something has been lost in that confusion−maybe it was lost already.
What sort of America are we? An America that acts impulsively, storming to far off lands for revenge and “justice”? Or are we an America that heals and remembers those families who were torn apart, an America that works to build a better tomorrow and sets an example for morality and peace, an America that remembers the moments in which we watched those buildings fall from our cities, our homes, our offices, and our schools and in the same moment cared about each other.
As it does with many things, time has dulled my feelings about 9/11 and has constrained my memories of that day. Along with my memories of that day, a few notable things also rise from the dust of seven years: my visit to Ground Zero a few months later; seeing the commemorative lights of the WTC blazing into the night sky; being unexpectedly unable to control my emotions upon seeing a made-for-TV movie on the United flight crashing into the Pennsylvania countryside.
There’s so much to say about our country’s policies both before and after — most of it opinion misrepresented or misinterpreted as fact. I won’t get into any of that much. And I won’t get into what it meant then and now to be an American: it’s a complex issue that merits its own attention. I’ll only focus on what transpired in my life that day — just one day in my life, but one of the few I will always remember.
It was a beautiful late summer day, sunny and crisp. Fairly common at that time in my life, I was on my way to O’Hare airport; this time for a morning flight from Chicago to Tampa. It was just another Tuesday.
The United flight pulled back from the gate just after 8 a.m. and we took off shortly thereafter. The pilot came on the loudspeaker shortly after we had reached our cruising altitude, and told us that it was a beautiful day with perfectly clear skies between us and Tampa, and that he anticipated we’d be flying directly there with no delays. I settled in for the 2 ½ hour flight and began to read a book. Moments later, the plane veered fairly sharply to the left, a move I remember thinking that was in sharp contrast to what the pilot had just said. The pilot came on again and said that the FAA had ordered all planes to be immediately grounded, that we were being diverted to Indianapolis; that we might see other planes nearby on a similar flight path; but that there was no threat to our plane. What the heck, I remember thinking, did that last comment mean? Beyond that, I felt no particular concern; it was a beautiful day and I figured it was some major computer problem. Although diverted, there didn’t seem to be a problem with the plane and my meetings didn’t begin until the following morning, so I had plenty of time to figure out how to get to Tampa.
The pilot came on a few moments later and said that there had been an incident in New York City; that we would be landing shortly and that each plane would be allowed to the terminal one after the other; that it would take a while; and again, that there was no specific threat to our plane. What the heck could that mean?
We landed and stopped and I asked the nearest flight attendant if I could use my cell phone. I called my wife Lisa and was informed that two planes had hit the twin towers and that one of the towers had collapsed and, basically, that all hell was breaking loose. My “oh my God” caught the attention of my seatmates, as I was one of the first to use their cell phones. My wife was relieved that I was safe, and I promised I would call again when I knew what I was going to do. My understanding of what was actually happening was modest at best, as I still had not seen a TV nor heard anything on a radio: all I was focusing on at that time, to be honest, now that I heard air travel was not going to happen anytime soon, was figuring out how to get back to Chicago.
I called Hertz and reserved a car, and settled back as the plane crept to the gate. Finally, it was our turn. I disembarked into the near deserted terminal, and we were instructed to leave as quickly as possible. Without a glance at a TV, I hustled out of the terminal and onto the Hertz shuttle bus, still fairly unclear about what was going on.
The Hertz facility was fairly chaotic, with dozens of people milling around trying to get on the list to rent a car, and craning their necks each time a car was returned. I stayed close to the rental desk, making sure I was on and moving up on the list. About an hour or so later, my name was called and I retrieved the keys to a Lincoln Towncar, which I had rented to drive back to O’Hare. To this day, I regret my smugness about ensuring my place on the list amidst the poor saps with less foresight and mileage status, and most of all, I regret my selfishness in not seeing if anyone there wanted to share a ride to Chicago in the behemoth of a car I was given. I called Lisa again to tell her my plans, and started out on the highway to Chicago.
The drive back was remarkable, as only then did I begin to understand what was happening from the various radio reports I heard. Still, it was too surreal. Although it was pretty clear what was happening in New York, the reports from the Pentagon were just beginning to come in, and unconfirmed information was rampant. Supposedly, there were several flights unaccounted for and reports of crashes. Speculation was running rampant that suicide terrorists were on the loose and that there was more going on than was suspected. I continued on my way, noting the bright blue Midwestern skies free of any air traffic. Gradually, as I approached Chicago, the events of the day had become clearer. But I had still not seen a TV and still didn’t really have a grasp of the horror.
It was late afternoon when I drove into the Hertz facility at O’Hare — an odd thing, as I had never needed to rent a car in my home town. I remember seeing dozens of people looking tired and somewhat longingly at my rental car. It seemed somewhat like a refugee scene, albeit refugees with rolling luggage and now-rumpled business attire. The Hertz shuttle dropped me off outside the closed and deserted terminal, and I walked to the parking garage to retrieve my car.
I hugged Lisa when I returned home, and only then did the horror of the day begin to sink in. I was safe, but was never in any danger anyway. Now, however, I saw on TV the images of the day; replays that I was unable to visualize from the radio reports; images that I would never have been able to imagine in my worst nightmares.
There is a WWII-era painting by Norman Rockwell entitled Freedom from Fear, that depicts parents tucking their children into bed, safely protected from the horrors of the world at war continents away. I remember having a similar image in my head as we went to bed that night, safe from the horrors of the day, our precious children safe and secure. The events of the day, the loss of lives, and the lives torn apart, were beyond my comprehension. I had always appreciated what I had in my life, but the day’s events accentuated those feelings.
As the days passed after 9/11, and the facts uncovered, my thoughts turned to the terrorists; the blind followers and the heartless planners of the events. No justification could ever exist for these inhuman, irrational acts of murder.
I had the opportunity to visit Ground Zero a few months later and saw the remaining girders from the wreckage of the towers. The area was still in disarray with more than the usual dirt of New York. I saw a nearby church with its outside wall still containing hundreds of missing person photos and tributes. It was impossible to not be shaken by being there.
On a flight to New York City on the one year anniversary, I saw the sharp blue beacons shining toward the heavens, outlining the twin towers. Another incredibly moving image, one that I felt should be illuminated nightly. But maybe that’s too much to have to absorb on a daily basis. It’s clear, though, that something magnificent must be built on the WTC site so that the world never forgets, and so that America can demonstrate her resolve.
The story of the United flight on which the passengers fought back was brought to life first on a made-for-TV movie a few years later, well before United 93 was made into a feature film. I don’t recall the title of the made-for-TV movie, but it was hard to watch, and I cried nearly uncontrollably thinking of the conversations between those on the plane and their loved ones on the ground. I don’t think I can watch United 93; an unusual thing for me, suggesting that it affected me more than I even realized.
This, more than anything else, brought home to me the horror of 9/11. Not the poor souls on the planes, or in the towers or at the Pentagon, but the hopeless passengers on United 93, knowing their fate and making desperate calls to their families. I guess being a frequent traveler, it was a situation to which I could relate.
I imagine that only the invasion at Pearl Harbor and the country’s reaction to it could be drawn as a comparison to 9/11. Separated by a couple generations, both incidents seemed to galvanize a nation, serving as a call to arms. I’ve never really asked my mother about it, and I often wonder how my father, a WWII veteran who died earlier in 2001, would’ve reacted to 9/11. Then as now, it seems ironic and wrong that seemingly it takes events like these to shake us and to remind us of what we have that’s worth keeping and, I guess, worth fighting for. But we’ve got to think more about how getting and keeping what we want as Americans is often at the cost of others. And how we take so many things for granted. We really need to give back to the country and to foster greater appreciation for what we have and, importantly, for our responsibility to the rest of the world. Perhaps it’s a sense of guilt that only the tragedy of 9/11 can make us recognize that our policies can foster such hatred. While, again, nothing can justify these acts, is that what it takes to have us question our policies both at home and abroad? Did we have it coming to us?
I reflect periodically on my own lack of convictions and generally middle-of-the-road attitudes about things. These are, I rationalize, shaped by a recognition that absent actual facts and incontrovertible truth, it’s hard to take a stand about things. That I will never know the truth about things, so how can I take a stand based on imperfect knowledge? How, for that matter, can anyone? I guess it’s a matter of faith, but that, to me at least, seems a shaky foundation on which to base actions that will affect many lives.
The one incontrovertible fact, however, of 9/11 is that there is and never will be justification for these acts of murder. I can’t imagine the upheaval in the lives of the families, and I don’t want to imagine the terror of the victims. It’s so sad that we now view TSA screening at airports and other security measures as commonplace, as necessary for maintaining our standard of living. It’s so pathetic that we spend billions and billions of dollars controlling for events that are unlikely to happen; that, because of the actions of a few madmen, the lives of innocent citizens are affected.
Have we learned anything from 9/11? Is greater vigilance over our safety and security the only thing to come from it? I hope not, but I wonder what the world would be like had it not happened. I suppose we would’ve continued in our lives, safe here, oceans away from the world’s hot spots, concerned in the abstract about others, but content in our prosperity and security.