Friday, September 10, 2010

The Day the Earth Stood Still

That morning was typical. I think that is the first thing we all remember about it. How typically the day began for all of us. It was a pretty day; destined to still be hot down here in the Georgia mountains, but cool that morning. At the time I was working at Northwestern Technical College, an institution that does not even go by that name anymore. I was not teaching at the time; we were on quarters and summer quarter had not ended, but I was getting paid to work on accreditation matters. How inconsequential those things are now--I only remember them because they figured into why I was doing what I was doing that day.

I didn't leave the house til right before 9:00. I listen to Moody radio, which at the time, and probably still does, had a lot of programming as opposed to free DJ time. A program was coming on, but the local announcer, Andy Napier, mentioned, with an usually concerned sound to his voice, that "we are getting reports that a plane has flown into the World Trade Center." In retrospect, I know that Andy knew more than he was telling, even if it had only been ten minutes since the first crash. My response was, "Some fool in a Cessna has lost his way or gotten disoriented and run into the Trade Center." That had happened lately somewhere else and been reported. In my mind, I suppose, that would have killed the pilot or passengers but not affected the Trade Center much.

It embarrasses me to say that I didn't think about that report until I parked my car and walked to my office. When I arrived at work fifteen minutes later, clumps of students and staff workers were gathered in the hall watching the monitors we used for campus announcements. By then the second plane had hit the second tower--we now know that the first was at 8:46 and the second at 9:03. Of course, not much work was going to be accomplished that day. I had a meeting with the Vice-President of Academic Affairs about 10:00, but by then we knew the Pentagon had been hit, and that probably was when it dawned on me. If they had attached New York, and now targets in Washington, where else? Surely not Rock Spring, GA, but why not Atlanta? Who could know. The Vice-President and I could only stare at each other, numb and speechless. "All hell's broke loose." I said. Not usual for me, but the only thing that made sense.

We would a little while later hear that another plane had crashed into a Pennsylvania field; we knew it had been destined for the White House or Capitol. So what would be next? Would there be more? Of course, the military would get involved, but how quickly. So we waited and watched TV and tried to do a little work, not taking the philosophical tack that it may not mean very much but instead being thankful for something to occupy our minds.

By 11:00 there seemed to be an end to the strange commercial planes--our own planes, not some Russian or Chinese or other nation's military--targeting and killing our own people. But emotionally we were as still as the planes seemed to be. And there was such a sense of helplessness. My son was in middle school, and I really don't know why I didn't go get him. Some parents did; I suppose I figured he was as safe there as anywhere.

As usual we waited for the news media, the Dan Rathers and Peter Jennings'--I watched him the most at the time, we didn't have cable--to tell us what was going on. I think of Peter Jennings when I think of 9/11. I know that he stayed awake for over 24 hours; he probably had some sense of responsibility. We watched TV mostly that day; what else could one do. By the afternoon I had a urinary tract infection. For some reason I was starting to get those, and there are miserable. My husband and son went to dinner with a group of friends that night but I stayed home, in dull pain, miserable with the infection and watching the TV reports horizontally as I lay on the couch.

We watched the ash-covered, horror-stricken New Yorkers walk. That's another thing I remember. Those poor people, some of whom escaped the towers, some who had been inundated with clouds of smoke billowing down their street, some of whom just had to walk because all the transportation was out. Just walking. I wonder if they knew where they were going, other than simply and inexorably away from the area that would come to be called Ground Zero and represent our national tragedy.

I was only one of millions who sat helplessly for the events of September 11, 2001, to unfold. We are still traumatized; we still draw a line of before and after that day; it still defines the way we see Muslims, middle Eastern men, foreigners. For a little while there was a surge of patriotism; we were all Americans, not hyphen Americans. But today our nation is as polarized and divided as it has ever been, and I think that is largely due to 9/11 and the responses to it. The 9/11 attackers succeeded in a way they never suspected. They probably just thought they would attack and destroy symbolic sites for decadent Americans (although the attackers lived pretty decadent lives while in pilot training). They succeeded in creating the ultimate schism. Or perhaps their act just showed the schism already there, brought it into a glaring light.

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