An Impossibly Normal Day
Everything is about perspective. This paper begins as my story, my thoughts and my perspective, but changes along the way. Simply put, the events of September 11, 2001, were, and still are about much more than any one person's thoughts or perspectives. The story of the destruction World Trade Center - a story that each of us will repeat to children, grandchildren, and those born after the event in years to come - is a tale of unexpected, searing tragedy, through which the pathway to a more secure existence will hopefully be made. That last part comes later though.
The morning of September 11, 2001 began as so many mornings before it had - without a hitch in sight. I arose to the static sounds of my radio alarm, and showered and dressed quickly, wondering why classes had to begin at such an ungodly hour. I breakfasted in front of CNN, cringing at what had to be the umpteenth stories I'd seen about Gary Condit, the tax surplus, and the coming recession. Then I caught the bus, and began, what, at the time, seemed like an impossibly normal day.
What a beautiful day it was. I remember staring at the radiant blue sky in my second hour and wondering why the most wonderful, temperate weather always arrived when class was in session. It seemed almost sinful to sit amongst fractions, and division signs, while nature's comeliness went unappreciated. No matter though, I always had the afternoon to enjoy myself, perhaps I could even find a way out of my seventh hour. Something told me it was going to be a good day.
It's been said that everyone will remember where they were when they first heard the news. I'm no exception. For me, it began with the expression on my English teacher's face as she stepped into class. Her look resembled the one worn by the woman who had pulled her outside a few moments ago, grave, ashen, and stricken. Time seemed to blur after she told us the news, the Pentagon's been bombedů The minutes ran together, suddenly of no real importance, as the television was turned to CNN, where we were greeted with the images that would become so familiar to us in the days to come. I didn't completely understand what was going on at first, and my eyes searched the wreckage hungrily, looking for some indication of what was happening. Then the first tower fell, live, before our eyes. The smog, debris and ash that resulted descended upon the grounds where the tower had fallen stifling, asphyxiating, and devouring everything and everyone in its sight. Glancing down at my desk, at unchecked homework, I was filled with wonder at the thought that only a few moments ago, the paper that sat before me was the foremost in my worries and thoughts.
I describe my mindset - the way I was experiencing the world in those first few moments - as surreal. My teacher talked to students for the remainder of the hour while we watched the news. She would often reach out and take someone's shoulders - just place her hands on them - in what she told me was an attempt to make things seem more real. It was strange, how many people - myself included - described what was the most terrifyingly real of situations, as surreal, dream-like, essentially unreal. Perhaps by retreating into this dreamlike-state, by donning a veil of unbelieving shock, we shielded ourselves from the brunt of the devastating, often overwhelming news.
For everyone, those first hours after the attack were the worst. We - the entire nation - were reduced to frightened children, waiting in relative darkness for a terror we had no knowledge or sight of. So we went to our televisions, our radios, and our newspapers - each and every one of is. Normally empty garages were filled as adults and children alike sat glued to their television sets, fed bits and pieces of information which they readily devoured. Nothing changed, nothing improved, and nothing happened. In fact, the coverage was downright depressing, yet it was mesmerizing. Even after the tenth time I watched second tower fall, I was still entranced. It is said that police officers shouted at those fleeing from the wreckage not to look back. Did they know what I, and the millions upon millions watching from their homes knew? That the sight of what most had only seen in cheesy action movies had an almost supernatural pull?
I have a subscription to Time Magazine, and though it was no real mystery what would be the week's cover story, I was still quite affected when I received my visibly slim copy. I showed my mother the cover, the two skyscrapers looming against the bright morning sky, amid fire, chaos and terror. Save for the inscription "September 11, 2001", there was nothing else.
"There are no words," she sighed, nodding her head.
There are no words to describe the sight of individuals faced with the inevitable jumping out of windows, sometimes in groups, and the faces of those watching them from below.
There are no words to describe the tone of a young woman calling her husband in her last moments, frantically cramming what should be said over a lifetime into thirty seconds, and the silence that resulted after the line went dead.
There are no words to describe the sight of people of all walks of life - people who would normally avoid touching each other on the subway - running hand in hand from the wreckage, helping the less fortunate out of a storm through which they themselves can barely see.
There are no words, still no words as one watches fall of the second tower again and again, no adjectives to describe the weight of the knowledge that one has just inadvertently watched thousands die, again, and again.
It's so easy to give in to the despair. It's behind every corner, on every channel, on every newscaster's lips. It's etched across the faces of those who've lost their families, friends and neighbors, as well as those who didn't know a soul involved. Don't. Think of the people who risked, and even sacrificed, their lives to help what many initially dismissed as a hopeless cause. Think of the flags, brought out of basements, cellars and attics, dusted off and straightened out, that fly proudly on cars, homes and buildings alike. Think of the foes, political and ideological, whose differences were forgotten the moment a situation and a cause more important than themselves arose. If we allow ourselves, at any point, to be consumed by despair, resentment, or rage, we'll have truly succumb to the terrorists, we'll have truly lost.
Unfortunately, there is no definite cure for the sickness of heart and mind that most of us still suffer from as a result of the attack on our country. The only medicine is hope, love, comfort, and perhaps a bit of pride. With those thoughts in mind, fly your flags, wear red white and blue, and display your nationality proudly. Give blood, money, and anything else that can be spared. Count the survivors more often than the victims, but remember those whose lives, legacies and laughter were cut short. When the wreckage is cleared away, and the World Trade Center is rebuilt, fly there on some sunny, radiant, impossibly normal day. Thumb your nose at terrorism by not being afraid, by refusing to change your life or your ideals, and rejoice in the fact that you are living in a safer, less naïve, and altogether better country. I'll probably be there too.
***I'm sending my then 16yo's thoughts on 911. It was written days after the attack.