(This is my recounting of 9/11 and what it means to me, in great detail. Possible triggry things here.)
September 11th, 2001. It was a Tuesday. The day before had been parent-teacher conference day, my first one in my 7th grade year. In January of 2001, my family and I had moved to Alabama from Mississippi, the supposed "last stop" of my father's Air Force career. Mississippi had been the "last stop" too until it wasn't. I was a skeptical 12-year-old (soon to be 13) preteen.
Parent-teacher conference day was a boring and embarrassing affair. My mother went and took me along with her (as that was policy in Alabama for some reason). I had to sit there and listen to my teachers talk about me in the third-person, even though I was sitting right across from them. They didn't have anything bad to say about me, in fact they were very pleased with my performance so far.
It was still embarrassing to have to hear it, though. After we got done, my mother and I returned home. To celebrate my good grades and reviews I got a Sonic milkshake -- vanilla. It's funny how the little details stick with you.
Tuesday was any other day. I woke up that morning and had my breakfast, a bowl of Quaker's cinnamon oatmeal. I read the sports section while simultaneously criticizing my first little brother on his poor math scores. I proceeded to be a grade-A dick to him by asking him math questions he wouldn't have an answer to, which frustrated him.
I got chewed out by my mother when she finally made her way downstairs after dressing my two youngest siblings (my four-year-old little brother and nearly two-year-old little sister). I rolled my eyes and shut my mouth, my mother dropped us off at the bus stop and then we rode to school. Our mornings started at 6:15 those days and none of my family (minus my father) are morning people. As much as I wanted to sleep on the bus, I refused the urge. I had an English test I didn't have to study for but my English teacher, Mrs. Eutsey, glowed about me: she was notoriously difficult to impress according to everyone in my school, so I didn't want to slide in her eyes.
I got to my junior high around 7:30 that morning. I headed to my first class, Civics with Mrs. Mays (that woman who could tell a yarn that would last all class period -- and we let her because we did virtually no work as she spun her tale). The junior high was old -- really old. It had originally been the new high school built in the mid-1940s. The junior high was ancient, hallways and everything, but each classroom had TVs hooked into the wall. Admittedly, the only thing we ever watched was some stupid news program produced by children which had a budget less than anything on PBS (and one annoyingly high-pitched girl who was the main anchor. Her voice absolutely killed my ears.).
We got other channels, but it was against school policy to turn the better channels; I half-suspect that the a few of the teachers had been caught watching ESPN (notably the sports coaches who taught science) and the policy had been enacted because of them.
Whatever the case, Mrs. Mays' class began like any other day: she took the chalk, scrawled in her nearly illegible writing our assignments on the board, sat down in her chair, and then we tried to bait her into telling a story within the first five minutes of class: if we could, we'd be guaranteed virtually no work. If not, we'd complete our minimal assignments pretty quickly. We operated on a seven-block schedule, so it wasn't as though we had to sit in any one class too long, but getting out of work was always preferable.
It was around 7:50 that things got weird. Mrs. Mays tended to keep her door shut during class but an office-aid came in and delivered her a handwritten note: usually this meant someone was getting sent to the office, but no one got sent anywhere. Instead, Mrs. Mays propped her door open. There was some hustle and bustle in the hallways, Mrs. Mays stepped out to talk with our principal (who later that year would resign from his position) and then, around 8:00, she turned on the TV.
She turned it to CNN. The image of the World Trade Center, with dark smoke billows coming out of it, came on the old CRT TV. I could read -- we all could -- and the bottom line of CNN confirmed what we were seeing. Now, the only reason I knew what the World Trade Center was at this point came from Godzilla (1998 version); the newscaster in that movie compared the destruction Godzilla was wreaking to the World Trade Center bombings some years past. The Twin Towers held no more meaning to me than that before 9/11.
We watched, in silence, as the bottom line scrolled and witnesses came on the air to describe what they saw. By all accounts, it seemed like a tragic accident. Who would fly a plane into a building on purpose? No one, that's who. It didn't make any sense otherwise.
And then the second plane hit. I don't know if the other stations figured out that the second plane hit quicker than CNN, but for a few minutes after the second explosion occurred CNN was saying that a part of the first plane, buried in the tower from the impact, had ignited and exploded. But we all were watching the TV and we all saw a second plane fly towards the towers before the video cut out briefly, then an explosion.
(The entire CNN broadcast of that day in on Youtube. I could link, minute by minute, what we were seeing, but I certainly won't.)
CNN figured it out after those first few minutes that it was a second plane. They kept saying it could be a navigation error, that something had to have gone wrong. Hopes, that's all those were.
We didn't get any more work done in that class. 8:45 rolled around and we transitioned to our next class: for me, it was English. Mrs. Eutsey declared our test postponed, CNN above her. I went to the library to return my book, as it would be overdue the next day. It was Black Beauty. I was on a horse kick for some reason. I dropped it off, came back, and found everyone staring up at the screen still.
It was about 9 when the first tower dropped. There was a guy on the roof, with the twin towers in the background. I have no idea who he was, still don't know to this day, not even sure he still works there. But he was on the roof, with the twin towers smoking behind his left shoulder. By that point CNN was saying it was no accident, that it was a terrorist attack more than likely, and he began referencing the OKC bombing, as well as the previous terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
They cut to the Pentagon, showing it damaged and smoking. Then as the reporter there was telling what was going on he was interrupted; CNN cut back to New York and where the second tower was now there was only huge plumes of smoke and a new round of sirens screaming through the air. Thirty minutes later watched, live, as the North Tower collapsed. "Good Lord," the reporter exclaimed. Up to that point he'd been calm, collected, he'd been doing his job ... and then that.
That was when I knew. When it hit. This was going to get worse. There were audible gasps in class. Tears from my teacher and a few others. I was standing in front of her desk, trying to get clarification on a grammar question. I'm pretty sure I was the only one trying to do work at that point. I'm not sure why.
Lunch was silent that day. The cafeteria was separate from the school, built behind it. We walked there in silence. We ate in silence. Few conversations were even attempted as everyone was watching the TV in the cafeteria. Eyes glued. We were in the middle of Alabama, a bunch of preteen punks, and even we knew what we were watching was every kind of bad that it could be. Nothing got better. CNN just kept giving us worse and worse news.
The TVs were turned on for the rest of the day, in every class. It was the only time I can ever remember every door, to every class, being open. Everyone looking up at the screen and no work being done.
When my brother and I returned from school, the TV was on Fox News at home. My mother was there watching it quietly as my little sister napped on the couch right next to her. My little brother was painting on the table, something he was very messy about and usually would have my mother supervising him. Not today.
I chucked off my backpack and stood behind the couch, reading the bottom line, listening to the reports, watching the constant replaying of everything that had happened so far. My father got home early, around 4PM and he sat down in his blue armchair, didn't even bother getting out of his uniform (which would normally be the first thing he'd do when he got home). We didn't really talk much. What was there to say?
I asked who would do this. My father simply said, "No one good."
We had leftovers for dinner. Roast beef from the previous Sunday.
The next day is really more of a blur than anything else. It was already a weird week, since Monday we had off and the day before was the first school day for that week, except on a Tuesday. The TVs remained on, but muted. It was eerily quiet all morning. The only thing you heard, really, were footsteps. By lunch people began to talk again and the guys I ate lunch with were all in agreement that if another country had done this it meant it was time for all-out war. They were a bunch of rednecks who liked shooting guns, so it wasn't exactly a profound statement on their part, but it never occurred to me.
War. The word is small but means so much. My father was in the Air Force. He had avoided the Gulf War the first time around. Would he be able to avoid this one? This would be the one fear I carried for years past 9/11, up until he retired in 2006. Before I worried whether or not my father would come home with news about us moving. After 9/11, I worried about him coming home with news that he was being shipped out.
Was it irrational, possibly unfounded? In retrospect, probably. My father's back and knees were not in great shape and what he did wasn't exactly "go to war" material: he was, and still is, a computer geek for the Air Force. He analyzes and evaluates software for various different tasks, does some coding, runs numbers: not exactly conducive to being shipped overseas.
But at the time, I was pretty worried.
The immediate aftermath of 9/11 was stunned acceptance of the reality that my world was unsafe; that it was dangerous, that it could end in a fiery explosion, that our military -- impenetrable, unbeatable, the best there ever was -- could be beaten. Not by a nuclear bomb or ships, not by a great war but by people on weaponless planes.
Things changed by the beginning of 2002 for my school life. The junior high, run-down and slated for destruction in the near-future (so the school board kept saying) had security cameras installed. Two new security officers were hired. School board polices were enacted that made us have see-through/mesh book-bags.
The nearby Air Force bases saw massive defensive construction begin; barriers were erected, multiple checkpoints were installed, ID card checks were longer and more rigorous. It would take years before all the changes were completed, nearly a full decade, but they were started very quickly after 9/11.
When I reached high school in the fall of 2003, it wasn't much different from the junior high. Same polices, same security cameras, more security officers. By that point, though, it had been nearly a full-two years since 9/11. The school let us get away with some things, mainly the use of book-bags that weren't clear or mesh.
In the summer of 2005 I got a chance to visit New York with my church youth group. It was a big event and my first time ever flying on a plane. Airport security was a pain but the flying was fun. I was the official trip videographer and I did an absolute horrible job at it.
I was 16 and full of myself. I hadn't yet learned the golden law of camera work, which basically boils down to "Shut up and keep the camera on the action". No, I was self-important and liked to hear the sound of my own voice (which sounds a lot worse on tape). I was a dumb, teenage punk.
But I visited Ground Zero. Tried to sound self-important there, too. If I could, I'd punch myself from 2005 and I'd make it hurt. As it is, the video below summarizes my thoughts on 9/11 then. The church in the video, after Ground Zero, was absolutely beautiful. No idea what type of church it was or even what its name is, but the place was ... serene. That's stuck with me since.
9/11 was the Pearl Harbor of our modern world. In the years after, the day has taken on a mournful, sad tone. It's deserved. For the nearly 3,000 people who died and many more who suffered directly/indirectly due to the attacks, the day will never be anything but one of anguish.
It was -- and still is -- that for me to a certain extent. For the last few years, since I discovered it on Youtube, I've watched the CNN coverage of that day. I don't need to. I remember it very well. Out of all the days in my life to remember, that one is the one I'll likely never forget. I watch the videos of 9/11 and I cry. I don't cry at many things, but I cry at that.
But in recent years 9/11 hasn't just been about the sadness, the anguish, the grief. It hasn't been just about all the bad that has happened since. In my life, at least, good things have come from it.
I know, it's probably blasphemy of the worst kind to say that. Much like Pearl Harbor, all anyone tends to remember about 9/11 is the war, death, and the cultural shift that came after. None of those things are viewed in a good light and none of them deserve to be. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have done more harm than good, one could argue -- and it wouldn't be an argument I'd oppose. The number of people that have died because of those wars, because of the people who perished on the planes, in the towers, those first-responders, those who were harmed by the debris and fallout, those families that were left alone, those kids that never knew their parents ... it staggers the mind considering just how far-reaching 9/11 was. We will feel the effects of that day for the next 100 years, easily.
But 9/11 isn't about what did happen for me: I can't deny what happened. No one can (even the loon conspiracy theorists). It's about what didn't happen for me.
In 2001 I wouldn't know that my best friend would just narrowly avoid being on one of those flights. I wouldn't know the amazing things her friendship would bring into my life. I wouldn't be able to call her family my own, even if we're not blood (and even if some people have issues with that).
Without her, I would guarantee you I wouldn't be here today. She served as my example, my motivation, in getting control of my health and losing all 133 pounds of me that I didn't need. She was, and is, an inspiration to me.
She's still here and because she's here, so is her family. 9/11 didn't take her away from me and, though it's incredibly selfish, I'm very thankful for that. I wasn't deprived of her life-changing friendship and I could have been.
I'm thankful that 9/11 didn't send my father off to war. No matter how likely or unlikely it could have been, it was still a possibility. I could be without my father today, like many I know, because of the wars that followed 9/11. I am not.
9/11 opened my eyes to the world and the dangers it holds and, strange as it sounds, I'm thankful for that too. Yes, the last of childlike innocence disappeared that day like many things in the USA. But it was necessary to teach me how valuable that innocence is and how precious it should be to all.
As selfish as it is for me to find a sliver of a silver lining in that day, I can't help but be grateful for what didn't happen. Maybe that makes me a bad person (which wouldn't surprise me) or maybe I'm beginning to realize how much more that day can mean. I'm not sure.
We're coming up on 13 years now; half my life almost. I remember what the world was like before 9/11, at least my small world. My youngest siblings do not. The day is a day that lives for them in the memories of those older, in the depths of the Internet (where it'll forever be), and in history books. 9/11 is a sad day but it's not a personal sadness for them, but merely a shared sadness amongst a group; like when a friend loses a cat on Facebook.
You feel bad for them, you don't want it to happen to you, but you don't feel it personally (unless you've lost a cat yourself, but for this example let's say you haven't). It's hard to empathize when you don't have a frame of reference. My siblings don't have that and their generation doesn't, really. Their classmates/friends have no idea what that day was like.
The children I know that were born post 9/11 treat the day like it's part of a distant past, like it's something you see only in old movies. As I played war games when I was a kid and pretended to storm beaches and shoot Nazis, some of them pretend the same with 9/11. It's shocking, saddening, infuriating, horrifying, and distraught-inducing all wrapped into one.
It's just a date to them, it didn't even happen in their lifetimes. Much like Pearl Harbor didn't happen in ours.
As a country, as a people, we made a mistake with Pearl Harbor. Dec. 7th, 1941 means nothing to a lot of people in the modern age. But to the generation that was around for it? It was their 9/11. And we forgot it. We made it a date in the history books, we made it fodder for Hollywood, we made it into a set piece to be moved around.
Why isn't Pearl Harbor a national holiday? A day of remembrance? I don't know the answer to that. It's always bugged me, especially after 9/11. Some have told me that it's because Pearl Harbor was a military base and so what happened that day gets lumped into Memorial Day/Veterans Day. But that's not really fair I feel; civilians died as well, people suffered that receive no recognition.
9/11 is heading down a similar path. It deserves to be a national holiday, one of remembrance. Unlike Pearl Harbor, we won't have the luxury of forgetting about it; the Internet will forever exist and hold that day in a time capsule for us. We have, much like Pearl Harbor, devoted ample space and time to honoring those lost with memorials. With museums. With testimonials of their courage and bravery.
We've also turned that day into Hollywood fodder, something that took many years post-Pearl Harbor for that era's America to do. Not so much for us. Turning something into a movie isn't necessarily a bad thing, but movies are primarily vehicles for entertainment; I find nothing entertaining about 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, but if there wasn't a market for the product it wouldn't have been made.
It's probably too late to get Dec. 7th made into a national holiday and, really, it isn't about getting the day off from work. But I feel like this is what national holidays are best served doing; allowing a nation to collective reflect on life-changing events. Much like my thoughts on Arlington, I feel as though Lincoln, Washington, and MLK would gladly do away with their holidays to pay proper respect to those lost on 9/11 and Pearl Harbor.
I don't know how best to communicate to future generations what 9/11 meant to us. What it signified. Words seem small and inadequate (despite how many I'm pouring out here), video seems too distant without context (a context they can't possibly possess because they don't remember what it was like before) and erecting museums/memorials, though noble in intention, will only result in them becoming tourist attractions and school field trips.
It's only been 13 years and we can't even figure out how to explain to those that have come since what happened. For all the technology and knowledge we have, the biggest news of this week isn't going to be 9/11. It's going to be about Apple's new smartwatch and their bigger smartphone. It's going to be about the NFL's negligent actions in the Ray Rice matter. The week isn't over yet and more things will come up, more things will overshadow 9/11.
Already it's becoming a date in a history book despite how many of us are left to tell.
I think, more than anything, that's the biggest obstacle about 9/11; our reluctance to share it with those who weren't there. It's a collective wound that everyone who was around, who remembers, has. We're all hurting still. We were hurting when we came together immediately afterwards, when we put aside our differences and united as this country hadn't since Pearl Harbor.
And eventually the hurt won out. We separated, not long after we came together, and things became divisive. That's the biggest difference between 9/11 and Pearl Harbor; the 1940s didn't allow every citizen of the country to express their individual thoughts and feelings at a moment's notice. In the 1940s, people exchanged those thoughts and feelings in smaller settings, at dinner tables, churches, work, bars, and similarly smaller community-ish places.
Our differences in beliefs, in actions, tore us asunder and made our hurt worse. Now we can't just share it with others who were there; now we can only share it with those who were there and feel similarly to how we feel. Our perceptions of all the things that happened after 9/11 have affected how we talk about that day.
For all the victories we've achieved since 9/11, from the eventual justice brought to the madmen that orchestrated it to the freedom we fought hard to win in countries far away, we still have yet to overcome the hurt. We've yet to figure out the way share it with those who have no idea what happened and we've willingly cut ourselves off from those that don't agree with us about the actions that were taken by our country in the aftermath.
We suffered as one country and we can only heal as one country, in my opinion. But such a healing process has yet to take shape and I doubt it will for many more years. We've all dug our bunkers now, we've fortified our walls, and we're content to try and fix things with the group/groups we identify with first before reaching out to the other side.
I wish that wasn't the case.
I don't know where the future will take us as a country. Right now it seems like we're on the verge of tearing apart and the world seems to be on the verge of doing the same. Things seemed simpler before 9/11 and they were, to an extent. The veil that was draped over the nation's eyes about worldwide affairs was collectively lifted after that Tuesday and never will we have a veil over our eyes again.
I can't begin to fathom how to explain to my possible future children what this day is. I'm at a loss as to how to describe to them everything that ended when the sun set on September 11th, 2001. I don't think anyone was fully aware at how many things just stopped being after that. We couldn't have known.
All I know is that, right now and probably for the foreseeable future years, 9/11 will be a day of profound sadness on my part. It will also be a day of gratefulness for the people and things I didn't lose.
To those that have lost and suffer still, I can only offer my sympathizes and my ability to listen. We're all hurting on some level, some more than others, and there simply isn't any way to undo that. There isn't any way to magically make it disappear or to forget. We remember. We know.
It is that memory and that pain that we all share. I hope one day we can use it to bring us together and to heal one another.
Until then, God Bless. Thanks for reading.