Friday, September 11, 2009

The Day that will Live in Infamy . . . Until It's Completely Forgotten by the Next Generation

I was scheduled to help out at my husband's office, so I was bustling about the house cleaning up the breakfast dishes and getting myself and my one-year-old baby girl ready for the day. On a typical morning, I probably would have had the TV on and I would have stopped later at my favorite coffee stand for a caramel latte and I most likely would have listened to the radio on the 10-minute drive to work, but I was running late and feeling the need for calm, so I hadn't turned on the TV and I forewent the coffee and chatty barista and I drove my car in relative silence, enjoying the sound of my baby's babbling.

I walked into the office, head down as I hauled the infant carrier in the crook of my arm while balancing the diaper bag and my purse over one shoulder with a heavy bag of work-related files hanging over the other. I glanced up to see my husband standing in the middle of the room just looking at me, waiting for me to say something. I was confused. "What? What's wrong?"

He asked, "Did you hear the news?" "What news?" "Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center in New York." "WHAT?!?" If he was joking, it was uncharacteristically lame humor.

He explained as best he could what had already occurred that morning, and gestured to the radio that was broadcasting the breaking news. Slowly, gradually, my mind began to process the information. The World Trade Center? I could recall clearly our first and only trip to New York a few years prior when we'd visited the city over Memorial Day weekend.

We'd come across the World Trade Center completely unplanned, as we were walking along the sidewalk staring up at all the skyscrapers, marveling at the acoustics and the sense of standing at the bottom of a very deep concrete canyon. We saw the sign out front and decided on a whim to enter the glass doors; we naively thought we could just wander through and explore at our leisure. We were informed that only one tower offered an observation deck, and we'd need to purchase tickets from the counter that blocked any further entrance into the building. Once we forked over our cash, we were directed to a line that snaked through the lobby and ended in front of a bank of elevators.

We stood together with other sightseers in typical urban fashion, I suppose, with little regard for personal body space, all smushed together and jostling for position. I remember my irritation at a small group of middle-aged Japanese men in dark suits pressing in around me. I'm a tall chick, and one guy was practically nestling his face between my breasts. He was leering and talking to his companions in Japanese and they were laughing at his obviously obscene jokes. I thought about making a scene, because the good Lord knows I can pitch a hissy fit, but I decided it wasn't worth it. I'd never see these jackasses again. I wanted to go view the sights from the top of the building, and if I started a fight I'd most likely get thrown out by security. So I flared my nostrils, narrowed my gaze, and spun around to give the ogler a view of my shoulder blades. He pressed up against my butt instead.

When the elevator doors finally opened, I made sure I inched away from my sexist pig of a friend and stepped into a different car. It started up, up, up. It took a long time to get to the observation deck, not because the elevator was slow but because we were traveling past scores of floors. The elevator must have been dedicated for us tourists, because we weren't stopping to let anyone on or off and a guide was talking about facts and figures, none of which I recall anymore. I guess I was thinking of the scene in Sleepless in Seattle when Tom Hanks steps off the elevator right onto the observation deck of the Empire State Building, so when the elevator let us off next to a snack bar, I was puzzled. Were we on the wrong floor? Was this all there was to the "observation deck"? There weren't even any big windows! We walked around for awhile, reading the placards under large pictures that showed the construction and detailed the history of the buildings, until we came across a narrow set of stairs that led up. Aha!

When I stepped outside into the light I was immediately overcome with a case of vertigo unlike any I had ever experienced. I literally stepped back and flattened myself against the wall to prevent myself from falling into oblivion. I was overcome with an illogical but terrifying sense that I would somehow be pulled by malevolent forces across the walkway to the side and pitched headlong over the fencing to my death. When I later talked to my husband, who possesses absolutely no fear of heights and has participated in some pretty scary climbing experiences, he admitted that he too felt his stomach lurch and had to take a deep breath before moving out further.

We were just so far up, it was surreal. I was looking down on clouds. Far away and below me, I could see small airplanes buzzing across the river. Through a telescope I viewed the lush greenery and trees growing on the tops of city buildings! We spied the Empire State Building, significantly shorter and less spectacular than the building upon which we stood.

All those memories of our time at the World Trade Center filled my mind as I walked through my husband's office, and I just couldn't reconcile my experience with what I was being told was happening in New York: the impacts, the explosions, the smoke, the bodies falling through the air. I attempted to work as I listened to the newscaster on the radio—I think it was Peter Jennings—repeat the same information over and over. My baby rocked back and forth in her swing next to her daddy's desk, nodding off into sleep.

In the middle of his commentary, the newscaster stopped himself. With disbelief in his voice he described to listeners his astoundment as he watched the first building crumble. "I'm telling you, there's nothing left. It's collapsed completely to the ground." I could not wrap my brain around the image he was creating with his words. How could that huge building be gone? Surely, it was just a small part of the building that had broken off. There still must be framing and girders and floors with gaping holes. There still must be people clinging to doorways and hiding in stairwells and holding on for dear life. An entire building doesn't just disappear. Human beings aren't just disintegrated.

* * *

After visiting a concentration camp, Eisenhower wrote a letter containing prescient words, which are now engraved outside the Holocaust Museum in D.C.
The things I saw beggar description . . . The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were . . . overpowering . . . I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to "propaganda."

It must have seemed at the time preposterous that Eisenhower would even bother to say something like that. Who could forget the Holocaust? Who would dare to rewrite the horrific events that occurred while the Nazis ruled? Yet here we are in 2009 with kids learning their history from books and movies that fictionalize, romanticize, and parody World War II. Wackos across the world insist that the numbers of Holocaust victims were exaggerated, that it wasn't that bad, that perhaps the murders didn't even happen—it was all a conspiracy to vilify Hitler.

And here we are in 2009 with people insisting that 9/11 was orchestrated by the U.S. government, that something other than a plane hit the Pentagon, that the Islamic terrorists were not part of a larger movement against America. Time has passed, and some Americans seem to have forgotten the grief and horror and anger that we all felt and which shaped our country's response to the events of 9/11. I wonder what my children will be taught in school, if anything, about the circumstances leading up to and the consequences resulting from September 11, 2001.

I remember 9/11. I will always remember. Will my children?

Dinner last night: steak, baked potato, green salad


Michele said...

Thank you for sharing your story. I will also never forget the chilling, visceral fear I felt when I came to the realization that it wasn't just an accident, that we were no longer safe on our home soil. Orchestrated by the government? Unbelievable... and insulting.

Helene said...

It must have hit you especially hard since you had actually visited the towers in person before that. I have never been to NYC so I don't think I could fully appreciate the severity of it all, having never seen it in person. Of course, seeing it all on the news as it unfolded was pretty nerve-wracking. I can't believe people actually have made accusations about our govt being in on it. That's just sick.

Unknown said...

wow. nothing can compare to NYC(im only assuming) but detroit sorta looks like that now. it is truly amazing how one thing can change the world forever. kinda like jesus huh?

Dianna@KennedyAdventures said...

beautifully written ....

glitzen said...

You are such a vivid writer, I felt I was up there with you, staring down on planes and clouds. I have never been to New York, but I too will forever remember Sept 11th...and I hope I can share my memories with my children so that they can see its an event that has shaped our world ever since. I love that song, "Have You Forgotten", its so haunting.

Kathy B! said...

I think my children will remember. They've seen the video footage. They've seen me cry as I so every time I watch it. I will consider myself to have failed if they *don't* remember.

Thanks for sharing. This was such a powerful post.