On August 24th, 2001 I stepped off a plane from Miami onto the tarmac of Quito International Airport, excited to be experiencing a new corner of the world. Two and a half weeks later, I sat in the teachers’ lounge at the Colegio Americano de Quito, watching CNN and drawing angry, furious sketches in an art book wondering what the hell was going on. I was a junior in high school on a foreign exchange with Rotary Youth International – one of about 30 who had come from all over the world to live in various parts of Ecuador.
I woke up that morning and gone to school like every other day, and it wasn’t until I arrived that I first heard anything, and what I did hear was nightmarish: that America was dead and gone, that cities were burning, that I would have to go back right away, that I couldn’t ever go back, that everything I knew and loved was gone in a flash and I was 3,000 miles away from anything and everything familiar. In a way, it was almost a relief to get the facts – as horrific as they were on their own scale – they were tame compared to the rumors I had heard all morning. I spent the rest of the day skipping class and watching an endless repetition of planes flying into buildings and collapsing towers. I felt sick.
I remember being simultaneously angry that someone could possibly have the gall to do such a thing, and unsurprised that what we as a nation had essentially done to so many third-world countries in the past was now coming home to roost. It was clear to me that Ecuadorians bore individual Americans no ill-will; it was our government they hated, not us – and I came to understand why. Ecuador did not remain untouched during the years of US intervention in South America, and many people around me saw what happened on September 11th as justified retribution for a nation that had interfered in the affairs of so much of the world. I remember thinking – for months afterward – that this meant war, and fearing that “9/11!” would become a rallying cry for another crusade for blood. I remember turning in my draft card a little less than a year later frantically searching for ways to make my Conscientious Objector status known. I remember the ramp-up to the war in Iraq. I remember “Mission Accomplished,” flight-suit-bulge Bush, and the PATRIOT ACT. I remember the worst of us coming out in the months and years following, and the best of us seemingly absent everywhere.
As time passed, and memories of that day started to scab over, my life returned to normalcy – well, as much as any strongly opinionated teenager’s life can. I knew nobody personally in New York, nobody directly involved with the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. I went to college, and to Japan, and up until March of 2008, I thought I would go on to law school, to a cushy desk job, to (some) wealth and happiness. I had everything all planned out.
September 11th never entered into my mental calculus when I first went to EMT school. A year-and-a-half of laboring at a desk being bored out of my skull every day, however, did. Life in the desk job world wasn’t doing it for me, and the prospect of returning to school for three years, just for the pleasure of going back to it didn’t excite me in the least. I wanted to actually feel like I was doing something with my life. I wanted to be a firefighter.
It’s been three years now since I started that part of my life, and while I’m still not a firefighter – at least not professionally – life in emergency medicine (as a paramedic) is shockingly similar. I live in a world that’s been defined by September 11th in a way that my life up until now had not been. There are shades and echoes of it all over, from American flag stickers with ‘343’ etched over it (for the 343 firefighters who died that day) to ambulances with a 9/11 theme. This corner of the world still bears the scars of that day, and it’s hard to say sometimes just what that’s supposed to mean to someone who never considered being involved in it until well after the actual event.
So many people in this line of work say we should view 9/11 as ‘just another day’ – even though it was anything but. Could this sort of thing ever happen again? Of course. Will it? Hopefully not. But when your job description is essentially “run toward the things that other people are running away from,” awareness of the possibility starts to come with the territory.
It remains to be seen what will happen on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but for my part, I hope it’s just another day.