Friday, September 11, 2009


Image via i'mjustsayin on flickr

Eight years ago today, I was woken by my roommate.

“Hey, someone flew into the Empire State Building.”

“Wow; you think it’s bad?”

“Nah, I guess people do it a lot – probably a little biplane or something.”

I just nodded, groggily, pulled on some clothes and grabbed my books for my history class. On my way there, I noticed a weird trend – nearly everyone I saw was on their cell phone. What is a common sight now was, in those days, somewhat surprising. Cell phone minutes were scarcer, overages more expensive, and people often still used the phones in their rooms to make most calls. Seeing so many phones to ears piqued my interest, but I was already running late and had an entire campus to cover before I reached my 400-person history seminar.

When I walked into the huge, ampitheater-style classroom, I could see my professor – a small, athletic woman standing with uncharacteristically hunched shoulders at the podium.

“No class today. I don’t know how they would expect us to teach on a day like this.”

She continued mumbling, something that I couldn’t hear from 20 rows back, but she looked distraught. Confused (and, frankly, a little angry that I had gotten up to make a trek to a cancelled class), I turned around and left the building again. Still, people were walking briskly while talking excitedly on cell phones. I began to worry – had something happened on campus? The news from my roommate echoed in my head again. Surely this wasn’t all about a biplane running into the Empire State Building.

As I walked the long path back toward the dorms, I noticed an even more bizarre scene in front of me. More than twenty students were gathered around a television on a cart in the middle of the grass, connected by a very long extension cord to a nearby building. Hands covered mouths, eyes were wide. I hurried over and looked over the disheveled heads in front of me. To this day, I’m not sure what I saw. It was somewhere around 9:00 a.m., and on the TV, I could see the twin towers. Maybe I came just in time to see the second plane hit. Maybe I saw one of the towers fall. The recollection of weeks of replays and dissection of these videos have erased all memory of what I truly saw that day. Whatever it was, I realized that my roommate had misheard, but must have since discovered the tragedy that day.

Everything beyond that moment is blurry. I remember spending a lot of time in the student common rooms to watch the footage. I watched what little streaming video was available in those days – there was no YouTube then to guide me – to see the entire thing. I went home in a few weekends to my parents’ house, where I spent hours trying to understand what had befallen our country that day. Horror struck anew as the stories came out – the bravery of those who went down in Pennsylvania, the panicked phone calls family members received from their loved ones held hostage at 30,000 feet, the videos of the rescue efforts in the mangled wreckage of what used to be a major feature of the New York City skyline. I was sensitive to everything for months – the CD store I worked in pulled several albums which had cover art reminiscent of the attacks, and a few days after the attacks when the song “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” came on over the loudspeaker, I scrambled to find the “eject” button on the CD changer.

In the years to come, I’d occasionally meet someone who would tell me about a loved one who had lived through or died in that attack on our nation. But it was only months after the attacks of 9/11/2001 that I met a gentleman who brought the tragedy right in front of me. I was working at Walt Disney World in Florida, serving turkey legs to the masses, and he stopped to talk for a moment. He had taken his whole family to Disney World, because “it’s only money,” as he said. He had been on one of the higher floors of the second tower – 90 or more floors up. He had made it out just in time, had been caught in the wafting smoky debris on the streets of NYC. After that experience, he knew what mattered – to see his whole family laugh with delight at the wonders that only a family vacation can illicit. Scrimping and saving money and vacation time, staying at work all hours of the day had suddenly ceased to matter to this man. And there he was, buying a Budweiser and a turkey leg. Not wearing an American flag or spouting the “United We Stand” motto to me, but reminding me that – although patriotism is important – it’s not your country you think about when faced with the very real possibility of death, but, rather, all those moments that could have been shared with the ones you loved.

At the risk of sounding trite, I’d encourage you to hug someone you love today, and remember the ones we lost eight years ago.

Where were you eight years ago today?

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