September 11, 2001 & Beyond
Tuesday, September 11, 2001: In Flight
The pilot’s voice startled me: “The weather is bad. We’ll be landing at an alternate airport. Please prepare for landing.” I had been dozing, but his phrasing jolted me wide awake. Alternate? Why didn’t he say the name and location? I expected the flight attendants to move up and down the aisles, commanding us to stow tray tables and pull up our seat-backs. Instead, they strapped themselves into seats. My stomach clenched as the plane descended. Where were we anyway?
We had left Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport that morning for the eight-hour, non-stop flight to Philadelphia. I was hoping for an upgrade when I checked in, but business class was full. There would be no special treatment: “May I take your coat?” “Would you like a glass of champagne or a Mimosa?
But it was primarily the crush of people that made economy travel uncomfortable. Luckily I was seated in a section secluded from the larger cabin in the rear, next to a window and no one beside me. There were so few people in this part of the plane that after dinner, four young women, traveling together, each chose an empty center row to take a nap. The pilot’s announcement had them scurrying back into the row of their assigned seats.
On flights from Europe to the U.S. breakfast is served shortly before landing. “Alternate airport” hinted at something not quite right, while my watch confirmed something was terribly wrong—breakfast ought to have been on our trays, if not finished by now.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001: On the Ground in Nova Scotia, Canada
By the time I slipped on my shoes, the plane was on the ground. I looked out the window and knew other passengers were doing the same. Planes taxied down the tarmac on my right until one parked next to us. We were lined up two-by-two like cars in a traffic jam on a highway.
People murmured, wondering out-loud the same questions going around in my mind: “Where are we? What’s going on?” “What’s wrong?”
The pilot’s voice boomed through the intercom: “We’ve landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia. U.S. airspace was shut down because terrorists are using planes to attack the U.S.”
I would have paid the exorbitant charges to use the airplane phone, nestled in its box on the back of the seat in front of me, but none were working. A few passengers had cell phones and were graciously sharing them with the rest of us. If I reached my daughter, I could count on her to call my mother and her brother. The call wouldn’t go through.
I dialed my mother’s number, relieved to hear a connecting ring. But she didn’t answer, and I was forced to talk to the answering machine. I had little faith my message would be described accurately to my children. Talking to her directly, I might have been reassured she understood. Mom could be confusing when communicating, at least information important to us. On the other hand, she was great at getting stories straight about stuff that interested her, like the exact details of OJ’s murder trial or her weekly pool-league statistics.
Later, I borrowed someone else’s phone and successfully reached my son-in-law. Many passengers were crying and some quite upset. But after we were safely on the ground, my anxiety went away and I felt neutral, even calm. No one I knew worked in New York. My daughter and her husband lived in St Augustine, Florida, and I didn’t think my son in Virginia or Mom in Pennsylvania as being near targets. I had seen the news announcers and others on TV, so when I heard John’s voice, I was surprised to feel tears flood my eyes and hear myself think: Oh, thank goodness, someone in the U.S. is still alive!
Six months later, after my next trip to Europe was scheduled, I finally joined the growing number of cell phone users. In 2001, less than half the U.S. population had a wireless connection. By 2010 the percentage approach one hundred.
The four young women and I hung over the seat of a man in business class to view his laptop. Re-runs showed the planes hitting the World Trade Centers and the towers dissolving to the ground. We knew the Pentagon had been hit, but there seemed to be confusion about other planes and threats to the White House and the Capitol.
The majority of us stayed calm, and the flight attendants went out of their way to maintain good cheer. There were a few problems with some in the rear of the plane. Breakfast was eventually served and another movie shown—one of the Crocodile Dundee series. We dozed off. After breakfast, the only food served was airplane snacks: little bags of pretzels and packets of cookies. Additional water was brought on board.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001: Halifax Stanfield International Airport
About eleven p.m., we descended a two-story high stairway rolled to the door of the plane. I wondered if this was why we spent ten hours waiting in the plane. Besides the logistics of arranging for facilities, there could not have been many of these extremely high stairways. Even for someone as agile as I, the steps were slow going. Small children had to be carried, and the less able had to be assisted one-on-one. Those terrified of heights presented a challenge for airplane staff.
Buses were waiting to deliver us the short distance to the terminal. Before allowing us to disembark, a steward instructed us, when we got inside, to listen carefully for our flight number—US43—for the next step in our journey.
The airport terminal was crowded and chaotic. There were people laughing, apparently enjoying the adventure, while others appeared so distraught, I wanted to walk up and give them a hug of reassurance. Every few minutes a flight number was announced. Travelers disappeared to be herded onto buses and driven to shelters.
It wasn’t that long before our flight number was announced, and we made our way through the exit doors to buses, curious to see our final destination.
Three days later, when the process went in reverse and we clambered up the stairway to re-enter our plane, I realized plane passengers were kept together and identified by their flight number. For me, whether I knew a person by name or someone by sight, those on flight US43 belonged to “we” and “our group.”
Tuesday/Wednesday September 11-12, 2001: Halifax Exhibition Park
Our group was lucky. Instead of a public school or community center, which lacked adequate space and amenities for large crowds, we were taken, along with several other plane loads, to a large exhibition center. Past midnight, we were introduced to our accommodations, entering through a well-lighted area with stands staffed by Red Cross and community volunteers for those needing special services.
A woman leading the way asked for quiet as she opened the door to a huge exhibition hall, used by vendors during events. The floor was covered with mattresses with just enough room to walk between. (Where did they get them all? And, this was only one such shelter.) On each was a neatly folded sheet and blanket, topped with a pillow. The room was silent with almost no movement. In the dim light, I could see lumps under blankets where passengers who arrived earlier were sound asleep.
I chose an empty mattress. It felt so good to stretch out and not have to support any of my body parts. I expected to fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. Except for dozing on the plane, I had been awake for almost twenty-four hours. Worse yet, the previous night—Monday, I only got a few hours’ sleep because Jacqui and I stayed up late talking.
We had become close friends during my first move to Rotterdam in 1989, renewed our relationship during my five-year stay from 1991-1996, and remained in touch after I repatriated to the U.S. Work commitments and taking care of the condo I purchased in 1993 were good excuses to travel often to Europe. If my condo was occupied by a tenant during a visit, Jacqui and her husband Fons were happy to have me stay with them.
By eight a.m. I had carried my suitcase downstairs to the kitchen to join them for coffee. After dropping me off at the airport, Jacqui and Fons went forward with their plans for the day, “used up” Tuesday and went to bed. The sun would soon wake them, while I was about to go to sleep. But I was too energized—or something—to relax.
I put my shoes back on and returned to the lighted areas, I found a large room filled with tables and benches next to an industrial-sized kitchen. Drinks and food were available, served by attentive volunteers. I wouldn’t go to bed on an empty stomach after all. I returned to my mattress, snuggled under the blanket and took off my slacks.
By the end of my stay, I had gained weight. Concern the hours without food on the plane would be repeated in the shelter were quickly laid to rest. Three hot meals were served daily, and cold cuts and sweets were available around the clock. People speak about the inordinate amounts of food available on cruises. I no longer have to imagine what that would be like.
Wednesday, September 12, 2001: Halifax Home Stay
By the time I awoke in the morning, the place was buzzing with activity. In the entrance hall stations provided practically anything stranded travelers would need: medications, over-the-counter drugs, toiletries, and so on.
One stand was coordinating contacts between locals and we refugees. Parents with children had gone home with residents the previous night or were matched up with local families before noon. People offered showers in their homes and trips to stores. I went home with a young woman and her baby and enjoyed a wonderful, satisfying shower. She loaned me something to wear while she washed and dried my clothes.
By afternoon, we knew planes would not be returning to the U.S. Walking past the table where volunteers were coordinating home stays, I overheard someone say she had a spare bedroom. I asked, “Would you like to have me?” The woman’s smile was sweet and welcoming.
As we drove to her home, Louise made it sound like an apology that I would be in her daughter’s room. Jennifer would squeeze into the guest room which was crowded with boxes for the family’s upcoming move. I was grateful for the previous night’s floor-mattress, but looked forward to sleeping in a private room with a bathroom next door.
Twenty years later I finished this essay, complete with photos. Louise, after reading it, wrote (condensed): One memory you haven’t mentioned stood out for me, and I’ve retold it many times. I remember about my apologizing for the bedroom and you said, “Come with me.” You took me back to show me where you had been sleeping. I just remember looking out into the dimly lit arena, and it was a sea of beds. It has certainly stuck with me through the years.
While we waited for her husband David to come home from work, Louise and I chatted over a cup of tea. We shared family details. David owned an insurance agency, Louise worked for the Nova Scotia equivalent of the DVM, and Jennifer was a junior in high school. I pulled out the photo of Michael and Sherry I carry in my wallet, taken aback as always when I’m reminded of their ages: thirty-nine and thirty-six.
Louise wanted to know: “Where were you coming from? Where were you going? And why?” I could have answered in one sentence: Flying from Amsterdam via Philadelphia to return home to Harrisburg, after completing a consulting job in Germany. But I’m able to make a short story long, especially when someone encourages me.
During the first half of the year, I worked full-time at the European Business School in Germany and lived close by in Oestrich-Winkel, a village along the Rhine River. Students completed a four-year degree, but spent their third academic year abroad. When I arrived in January, the school had an association with ten universities. Before leaving in June, I had increased their choices to forty, including top universities in the U.S., Europe, and even Australia. This was my final trip to tie up loose ends of the project.
Louise’s husband David arrived and off we went to Salty’s, a restaurant in Halifax’s waterfront district. The three of us felt at home with each other from the beginning. Anyone observing would have assumed we were old friends. The events that brought us together were far away geographically and thought—at least for a while.
At the end of the evening I realized, from the moment of settling into Louise’s car to climbing into bed, my experience mimicked a vacation day.
Thursday, September 13, 2001: Another Day in Halifax
In the morning, on the way to the shelter, Louise stopped at a local convenience store so I could buy a disposable camera. With the need to pay in U.S. dollars, my visitor’s status came to the attention of the clerk and other customers who became friendly and talkative. They asked where my home was, and “How are you enjoying Halifax?”
Arriving at Exhibition Hall, we learned that the U.S. had opened most airports and were allowing some flights into the country. Louise went off to work. There would be information sessions at specified times from an impromptu podium arranged with a microphone. I waited for the first session of the day, hoping my plane would be called. It wasn’t.
A man had called out a few flight numbers and told those passengers where to assemble. He answered a few questions, but wasn’t willing to make projections of tentative times or which days other planes might leave. Knowing the time for the next announcement meant we weren’t tied to the podium or even to the shelter.
Someone offered to cart people back and forth to a school to check their email accounts. I took advantage of that opportunity but didn’t join the groups that went by bus to Wal-Mart. To avoid wearing the same outfit everyday, many bought new clothes. I had no urge to do that. Perhaps it implied too much permanence. My blouse and slacks had been freshly washed the day before, and the previous evening Louise loaned me pajamas.
Many people stayed glued to large screen TVs that had been set up the day before. Most who chose to remain in the shelter, giving up the comfort of a bed for a mattress on the floor, were either men traveling alone or couples. I gathered from their wives, the men preferred the public-privacy of the shelter to the intimacy of a private home. Everyone was well-fed from the beginning, and once portable showers were brought in, staying clean was easy.
Wal-Mart donated so many toys and games it looked like Christmas. Adults, who hadn’t known each other a day ago, were playing board games together. I joined a couple from North Carolina and a man from Holland who lived in California. We chatted while working on a large puzzle. It is unlikely any of us filling the long tables had relaxed into such frivolous activities in years.
There must have been people who were irritated and eager to get home—perhaps returning parents who had children waiting or vacationers critical to their workplaces. My situation was different—no job and no one counting on me for care. Apparently I wasn’t alone—when I looked around everyone seemed relaxed and occupied. I knew some had rented cars. The TV coverage showed these people did not fare well. They ended up in long, long lines because of delays at the border. Perhaps all the anxious ones had gone. The rest of us were enjoying ourselves, even having fun.
It seems sacrilegious to write that—enjoyment and fun. Though, no matter two decades have gone by, I can’t talk about the experience without my eyes welling up.
The early afternoon information session included dramatic news: “All non-U.S. carriers have to fly back to their countries of origin before completing their trips to the U.S.” People were upset and angry. I heard shouts of: “I’m a citizen of the United States—you can’t send me back to …! I’m an American—I want to go home!” My heart went out to the man at the microphone—the messenger.
Like me, many of the screamers were only a few hours from their destinations. Unless they could locate a rental car, bus, or train to get them home, they would have to return to London on British Airways, to Paris on Air France, or heaven knows where.
I was selfishly relieved to be on a U.S. carrier and empathized with those who faced a flight back to where they came from. I was also disappointed my flight number hadn’t been called. Using U.S. Airways’ 800 number at pay phones, I had anxiously been trying, over and over, to get someone to answer. I either got a busy signal or the phone rang and rang. When I finally got through, an automated voice said the plane was scheduled to leave that evening.
I confronted the announcer, forgetting myself that he was only the messenger. He listened politely but was adamant, “The only information to listen to is what I tell you. Don’t trust anyone else.” From then on I decided to relax and not waste my time and energy.
This experience was confirming for me the difference between being in control and being in charge. I couldn’t always be in control of my environment, but I could be in charge of myself. I could decide what goes on in my mind. Viktor E. Frankl laid the foundation—internalizing the practice was left to me.
Thursday Evening Happy Hour
I called Louise to tell her the last info session for the day was scheduled for eight p.m. She wanted to come get me if my plane wasn’t on the list.
David, overhearing the conversation, suggested waiting with me. He offered to bring wine. The Red Cross prohibits alcohol, but we agreed the parking lot didn’t count as part of the shelter.
I invited my puzzle-partners to the happy hour. Soon the N.C. couple, the California Dutchman, and I were toasting the kindness of our benefactors from improvised wine goblets.
Many years later, I forwarded a photo taken in the darkened lot to David. He replied: “Yes, I remember those faces. There were a few more people as I remember thinking I needed to be rationing wine and plastic cups. LoL”
I was happy David and Louise had insisted on coming over. My plane wasn’t on the list of upcoming flights. I slept another peaceful night in Jennifer’s bed with her little white dog Benji on the floor beside me.
Friday morning, September 14, 2001: Return to Flight US43
David dropped me off bright and early at the shelter on his way to work. Relief ran through me when flight US43 was announced at the morning session. Remembering our fun night of wine in the parking lot, I felt a twinge of disappointment there would not be another.
At the appointed time, our group hurried to the buses lined up outside. At the airport, we huddled together not wanting to miss the announcement for our plane. The wait was not long. Whoever managed the logistics of moving thousands of passengers out and then back into the same aircraft within a few days deserves more than a medal.
Months later, I read about the coordination efforts I so much admired. In doing so, I learned the reason we remained on the plane so long: Forty international flights were diverted to Halifax Stanfield Airport carrying over 8,000 passengers. Communication complications made it difficult to get an accurate headcount to prevent backups at customs and for coordinating transportation and accommodation. Staff had to go from plane to plane to get the tally directly from the crew.
When the buses pulled up to the plane, we were surprised to see our luggage in row after row on the grass. The stewards repeated instructions in no nonsense tones: “Walk up and down between the rows until you find your suitcase. Don’t touch anything! Point out your luggage to an attendant.” After finding and pointing, each individual or family group made their way to the mobile stairway, which seemed more like a ladder than steps.
The atmosphere in the plane was festive, as if we had all been on holiday together. The four young women had bought matching socks they were showing off. My photo captured the women slouched in their seats with feet propped high.
The pilot encouraged the lighthearted atmosphere: “Be sure, when you go through customs, to claim not only the things you bought in Europe but everything you got at Wal-Mart as well.”
Friday Afternoon, September 14, 2001: Philadelphia International Airport
I’m sure there were some who found a different means of transportation, but most of us who started out together in Amsterdam landed in Philadelphia, sitting in the same seats and arriving close to the time originally scheduled—three days and an altered world later.
During our days at the shelter, fellow travelers from US43 got to know each other. A couple, upon learning I lived in Harrisburg insisted, though it would take them a bit out of their way, on driving me home. What a relief—only a half-hour flight, but getting on another airplane right then was unthinkable.
September 21, 2001: Harrisburg, PA
The day I arrived home, I typed out a thank you letter and sent it the Halifax newspaper. Louise sent me a copy of the newspaper.
To the people of Halifax
It is important for me to tell you what a difference your kind and caring response was to the unexpected visitors who landed in your “backyard” on September 11. Now that I have been at home for over a week, the magnitude of what you did is sinking in. After a seven-hour flight (from Amsterdam toward Philadelphia) and waiting in the plane for another eleven hours, I was checked into Exhibition Park at 1:40 a.m. Wednesday morning. After a fitful sleep in my clothes (on a comfortable mattress with clean sheets), a young woman with a tiny baby drove me to her home so I could shower.
The following day another woman patiently sat waiting for me at the elementary school while I completed emails. The town seemed filled with generous people like these who went out of their way to offer assistance. Although I will never forget what these women and others did for me, I have forgotten their names. But I can thank by name Louise and David Currie, and their daughter Jennifer, whose hospitality provided me with a private bedroom for two nights, my clothing freshly washed, and a dinner at Salty’s!
Thank You and Warm Regards
September 28, 2001: Arlington, Virginia
I was waiting at the bar of a local restaurant for my son Michael. A few of his Verizon colleagues had already arrived for Friday’s happy hour. Michael had learned his lesson and eliminated any further risk of a DUI by making sure his workplace, living-quarters, and local hangout were within walking distance of each other.
Thank goodness it hadn’t occurred to me seventeen days ago how close his Arlington triangle was to the terrorists’ targets. My mind must have blocked out the geographic map: as the crow or an airplane flies, the Pentagon was two miles away.
I drove from Harrisburg every month or so for an overnight visit with Michael at his barely-furnished apartment. We’d have a drink or two at the bar and chat with his friends before picking up Chinese take-out. Then we’d eat in front of his TV watching a DVD I’d brought for the occasion—usually an older classic such as Harold and Maude and The Graduate.
When my son walked through the door, he was greeted loudly and warmly. It reminded me of the Cheers crowd welcoming Norm. Not naturally an extrovert, Michael was comfortable in his six-foot, six-inch frame. His attentiveness and willingness to help made him popular with any group of friends throughout his life.
He and the others were eager to hear about my 9/11 experiences in Canada. What a passive story it seemed compared to theirs. They had to get the cellular communication system up and running. Major components were put out of commission when the Trade Center’s crumpled. Cooperating with staff from competitor companies required around-the-clock activity for three days.
Before I left for home the next day, Michael and I made a pilgrimage to Arlington Cemetery near the Pentagon. I don’t know why I only have a blurry photo of a makeshift memorial to mark the experience.
October 6, 2001: Havana, Cuba
In the weeks following 9/11, many people cancelled plane reservations. I never considered backing out of my scheduled trip to Cuba, but I did alter my plans. The memory of distressed passengers in Canada forced to return to the country where their aircraft was registered was too fresh. Instead of a direct flight via Mexican Airlines to Cancun, I changed to an American carrier.
Early Sunday morning, and our small group walked toward Revolution Square to attend the 25th anniversary in memory of the Cuban fencing team bombed out of the air October 6, 1976. Two anti-Castro Cuban-exiles were charged with bringing down Cubana Flight 455, killing all aboard: twenty-four teenage athletes, six Guyanese medical students, and forty-three others.
Locals parted, allowing us—obvious foreigners with lighter skin color and vacation clothing—to press closer to the platform. The ceremony was long, the weather hot, the crowd close together, and when Castro expressed his sympathy for the tragedy that happened less than a month ago in the U.S., I was overcome by the sense of comradery possible among strangers.
Trip packing post-9/11: Not a staple in my home, a box of breakfast bars has to be purchased for each flight. Tucked into my overnight case is a T-shirt to sleep in, along with a warm pair of socks, and a change of underwear.
September 11, 2002: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
As the first-year anniversary of 9/11 approached I thought everyone must be attending a remembrance ceremony. In addition to those held at the three sites—World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Shanksville—national, state, and local venues had announced their plans for services.
The day began with the entire nation honoring the dead with a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m., the time the first plane struck the North Tower. After the moment of silence, I called my hosts in Halifax and found they had been thinking of calling me. Though there wasn’t much to say, the personal contact seemed important so the phone was passed person-to-person. I spoke a few minutes each to Louise, David, and Jennifer.
I like celebrating birthdays, but it wouldn’t occur to me to visit my father’s grave on the anniversary of his death. I was surprised to find I needed to be part of a commemoration service. I asked my mother to go with me to the old Linglestown firehouse that evening. When we arrived just before six p.m., the sight of so many people of all ages with their chairs and blankets spread over the grass moved my heart. The honor guard paraded in, there were high school bands, and speeches by local dignitaries.
For the first time, I was part of the tragedy in the U.S. and could better understand how people must have felt. I imagined the tension on that Tuesday as people in the U.S. waited, fearing more planes would crash. I thought of their shared anxiety on the days following, hoping for the relief that finding survivors would bring. And, because I was back home by then, I had experienced the helplessness and sadness when none were.
As my mother and I participated in the songs and prayers of the ceremony, I felt subdued and couldn’t hold back tears. What a contrast to the cheerful, even jovial, memories of much of my time in Nova Scotia. It was one of the most poignant moments I shared with my mother.
September 11, 2003: St Augustine, Floria
I had relocated to St Augustine in June to be near my daughter and her family. As I watched the ceremonies on TV, along with remembering those who died on 9/11, my thoughts turned to my mother. On the way home from the firehouse that night a year ago, we stopped at the American Legion. Mom was at her happiest when shooting a game of pool with men from her pool league. I drank a beer and ordered a screwdriver for her. She died in her sleep five months later, a month shy of her 83rd birthday.
February 21, 2013: St Augustine, Florida
The doorbell rang. I was so excited. After hosting me in their home in Halifax, David and Louise arrived to have dinner in mine. They didn’t need a bed, they were staying with snowbird friends in Orlando, but I could at least serve them a home-cooked meal. The two couples arrived with three bottles of wine.
The evening was a wonderful repeat of twelve years ago when the Curries and I so comfortably shared our first dinner together. Their friends fit right in, and again, if anyone were watching, they would assume we had known each other for years. This time it was true for David, Louise, and me—we had spoken every 9/11 since the first call in 2002.
I’m not sure how it began, but we fell into a friendly competition to be the first to call. The one-hour time difference didn’t create an advantage for either side. I lost one year, because David and Louise weren’t home to answer my call. They were in the north woods of Canada in their camper. Luckily, they were able to get a signal and reached me later that morning. If we kept a tally year after year, I suppose we’d call it a tie.
The strangest, almost-missed, connection happened in 2007. I was out-of-the country and normally kept my cell phone off. In the hotel room about to leave for an evening event, my phone rang at eight p.m. It was Louise. It was nine in the morning Halifax time. I’d forgotten the date! I hadn’t looked at my calendar for days because I was being herded around China with a tour group.
September 11, 2020: Nineteenth Anniversary
Curled up on my couch with coffee in front of the TV, I was ready to capture the moments of silence: North Tower 8:46 a.m., South Tower 9:03 a.m., Pentagon 9:45 a.m., Shanksville 10:10 a.m. Each year after the first, this was how I commemorated the 9/11 anniversary.
Earlier in the week, I asked my grandson Noah if he would like to attend the local remembrance event at the St Augustine Fire House. At seventeen, the only invitations he willingly accepts are for meals in restaurants. So different from when he was younger, and I simply took him to the Martin Luther King Day march in January or Veteran’s Day celebration in November.
I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of taking him when he was younger. The 9/11 commemorations takes place regardless of the day of the week, so he could have been in school. Though there were years the date fell on a Saturday or Sunday.
Not wanting to disappoint, and hoping it would be forgotten by then, Noah promised to go with me in 2021. I didn’t share my doubts with him: You will have graduated from high school, living heaven know where. I will have had to make it to my 78th birthday.
After the 8:46 a.m. moment of silence, I was about to phone Louise and David. We haven’t missed a call on this date in nineteen years. The phone rang. Louise had beaten me to the call.
David was off on a bird-sighting hike, but she was eager to talk to me. There was news—they had become grandparents. Jennifer, the teenager who vacated her room for me eighteen years ago, had just become a mother.
David called later in the day for our chat, and at my request, sent me a photo.
September 11, 2021: Twentieth Anniversary
Just past eight a.m. we drove past the St Augustine Firehouse on Malaga Street where the local ceremony is held. This would be the 20th because a first memorial was held September 13, 2001. People were gathering on the grassy area behind the firehouse. Parked along the side street at the edge of the lawn was a firetruck, its ladder extended to hold an enormous flag that fluttered in the light, breeze. The day, with the street drying from the recent rain, was clear and sunny, the sky a bright blue. Just like people always describe the weather on the morning of the attack.
My friend Toni arrived two days earlier from Gainesville for a visit. I was glad she wanted to go with me. This would be my second in-person—not TV—commemoration.
When I called Noah earlier in the week to remind him of his year-ago promise, I patiently listened to complaints about not wanting to go, not wanting to get up early. Then I threw out the bait: “Well, Miss Toni is coming too, and we’ll be going for breakfast after.”
With no idea how crowded the event might be, I had allowed plenty of time for parking. We drove into town a half mile, parked closer to the restaurant, and walked back with time to spare.
The program began at eight-thirty a.m. when the color guard marched in and we all recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The retired chief of the Bronx Borough firehouse was the invited speaker. He had notes, but spoke spontaneously, sharing his hour-by-hour experiences of 9/11. I was glad Noah was hearing real stories and not an abstract speech.
Except for the Chief’s personal anecdotes—for example, the only danger he faced that day was when a police officer, who gave him a ride back to his own car, drove ninety miles an hour—I was familiar with most of the events he mentioned. I didn’t know the recovery efforts at the Trade Center, along with the daily normal workload, made it impossible to show adequate respect at the funerals of their co-workers. The call went out and firemen came from all over the country to create a presence for the 343 Manhattan firemen who lost their lives.
The ceremony concluded with the dedication of a Survivor Tree sapling planted at the firehouse. A damaged Callery pear tree discovered at Ground Zero was nurtured back to health, and each year saplings are given to communities in the U.S. and other countries that have suffered a disaster.
When we left to walk to the Roosevelt Room on St George’s Street for breakfast, I was eager to hear Noah’s reaction. Surely now, he would feel the importance of the event. From coverage of 9/11 in school and on TV, he’s known about it all his life. But the only time he seemed interested was the day he and his friend Olga asked to see “the jumpers.”
All through grade school, Noah stayed with me after school while his parents worked. He often invited a friend to play. On this particular day, Noah and Olga (both about nine-years old) were on the floor building a town with Lincoln Logs, Lego people, and farm-animal kits. I heard their usual bickering turn to whispers, and a few minutes later they came around the shelving that separates my office from the living room. “We want to see the people who jumped on nine-eleven.”
Once in a child’s mind, I don’t believe in censoring what I would otherwise consider inappropriate content. With no idea if such images were posted, I searched and was surprised to easily find them. Noah and Olga, their curiosity satisfied, returned to their make-believe town, arguing this time over who would be which Lego figure.
I waited until we were farther from the firehouse and out of ear-shot of others, to ask Noah, “Wasn’t that special? Did you like the Chief’s talk?”
“I zoned out after a while. He stuttered and it’s too hard to listen. I don’t blame him, I do that too when I have to talk in front of people.”
Noah didn’t mean stuttering of words, just pauses or interjections while the Chief gathered his thoughts. Toni and I understood he was not a professional speaker and was emotionally affected by the stories he shared.
Days later, I again asked Noah, “Didn’t the ceremony make 9/11 seem more real to you?’
“No,” he said, “Oma, I wasn’t alive then.”
Born in 2002, I have to assume the experience for him is similar to how I feel about Pearl Harbor. I know it was horrible, many people were killed, and the world changed. But there is nothing visceral to connect me to the event.
On the twenty-first anniversary of 9/11, I will surely talk to Louise and David. If someone—Toni, Noah, Anyone—provides the motivation, I will drive to the firehouse. Otherwise, with my coffeeon my couch, I’ll turn on TV and observe the moments of silence during the national ceremonies.
Being present at the twentieth anniversary brought alive the memory of the first—the wonderful evening I shared with my mother. There was comfort being with others for the event, a large community, but not so large that you are lost in the crowd.
I think a friend's observation helped. Events, natural or man-made, that kill people are horrible. Why do we mark their importance by the number killed? Is the grief someone feels for a loved one who died on 9/11, intensified or lessened because there were three-thousand others? The year my son Michael died, close to twenty thousand others took their own lives too. This information has no bearing on my loss.