I suppose you know what this letter is about. 9/11 is a rather inescapable fact here in NYC. Wifely & I had made big plans to attend a 9:00 AM chamber music performance/memorial on a barge near the Brooklyn Bridge, but we slept through the alarm & woke up only in time to see the Moment Of Silence on TV.
It didn't feel right to stay indoors, so we eventually went down to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade & took in the view of Manhattan as it is now. I tried hard to combine the horrible images from a thousand photographs and TV broadcasts with the sight before my eyes today, & it only clicked for a few seconds at a time. Mostly because the view, as it was early that day last year, was absolutely gorgeous. I couldn't help but feel guilty at how gloriously happy I was to be in this place at this time, seeing the sun bring brilliant clarity to Manhattan's architecture and deep blue to the ocean waters.
People on the Promenade were walking their dogs, playing with their kids, & one could hardly guess that just over the river, thousands were mourning their dead en masse at Ground Zero. I only saw that side of things on the train home, where several firefighters in dress uniform sat quietly, no doubt wishing this day was done.
It seems a good time to write this down, though the world is hardly lacking in 9/11 stories. Many people, Wifely included, have told me that their first emotional reaction to the attacks of that morning was anger or sadness. It wasn't mine.
I was temping at a medical malpractice insurance company. I had taken the express bus, as always, from North Dallas to downtown. There I waited for the rambling old #19 local bus, which would take me to the Lakewood district, just east of downtown. Standing on the street corner that morning, I marveled, as I often did, at the giant skyscrapers that surrounded me on all sides. I knew that soon I would find the Dallas cityscape small & pitiful when our New York move eventually came, but at these moments I found myself amazed at what humanity could do in less than a lifetime.
It was a favorite game of mine to try and view the world through my grandfather's eyes, though he had died a year earlier at the age of 93. I tried to picture what that Dallas cityscape looked like to him. It must have been somewhat otherworldly, even though he had observed much of its rise over the years. During his childhood and even into his early twenties, cars were a rarity in Texas. Skyscrapers existed even back then, but they were not the gleaming, space-age monoliths that are now so common as to be ignored, even vacant and forgotten in many localities.
The world was an inconceivably vast place in the 1910s & 20s, full of places you could never even hope to understand without actually going there. New York might as well have been on a completely different continent, as far as a West Texas farmboy was concerned. My grandfather once told me of the time that he and a few other adventurous folk had loaded up a Model T and driven all the way to Los Angeles, a month-long round trip through the American desert. And that was America. Who knew what was going on in the rest of the world?
But the world was shrinking even at that time, changing. When my grandfather was only 10 years old, America entered the first World War. I've often tried to imagine who the average American thought they were fighting. Very few had been to Germany, or even outside of their home state. There were rudimentary newsreels at the movies, but even radio was in its infancy, and most news came from the papers, which had few pictures.
However, it was clear to everyone out on the dusty Texas plains that the country, somewhere, was under attack. Rationing boards and scrap drives made the war an inescapable fact. But working out in the fields, with no sound but the wind blowing through the crops, the war couldn't have felt very immediate to my grandfather. The likelihood that the Germans were going to march into Stephens County was pretty remote, if at 10 years old he was able to make that deduction.
He would definitely have been able to do so at the age of 34, when once again the United States was attacked. News of Pearl Harbor, however, came in much richer detail from established radio networks and ever-improving newspaper photography. But even in 1941, Hawaii must have seemed worlds away. My grandfather, though too old to enter the military, still felt the effects of the distant war from his post as the head of the Woodson Rationing Board. He was under attack not from the far-off nations of Germany and Japan, but from little old ladies who wanted 2 bags of flour instead of 1, and couldn't see why he was being so stingy about it. I have to think that no one really concerned themselves with the possibility of a Japanese air raid driving them into their tornado shelters.
When I arrived at work on September 11, 2001, it was 8:00 AM Central Time. The insurance company was on the 5th floor of a sparsely occupied 8-story office tower within sight of downtown Dallas. The agents seldom arrived on time, so the secretaries and I made small talk at the front desk for a good half-hour. There was no radio or TV on, and we had no idea that both the south and the north towers of the World Trade Center had been hit. Eventually we each retired to our desks to work, and at 9:00 one of the agents finally showed up, a bit breathless and spewing some story about two airplanes accidentally crashing into the World Trade Center. I was skeptical. Surely he had heard wrong. Maybe one, but there would have to be some pretty incompetent air traffic controlling going on to crash two of them.
I tried to pull up cnn.com on my computer, but the site wouldn't load. Nor would any news sites. I had to admit that even one plane crash would be pretty big news, so I figured everyone was trying to log on at the same time. I had no idea that the south tower had just collapsed. We all retired to our desks again, figuring that we'd hear about it on the news later. Suddenly one of the secretaries came running out of her office.
"They've hit the Pentagon, too! It just heard it on the radio. It's a terrorist attack!"
Oh sure, I thought, let's get alarmist and start broadcasting every cockamamie news tip that gets called in. 'Dude, I seen a plane crash into my cornfield! And it was full of aliens!' I sauntered into my co-worker's office, determined to hear this for myself, and only then, hearing the voice of whichever national newscaster it was, did I understand the enormity of what was happening. No one was making this up. Three commercial airliners had been purposefully flown into major American landmarks, and as far as anyone knew, any of the jets currently in flight over the United States coud be under terrorist control as well.
America was under attack. And not way off in some remote territory or foreign country that I'd maybe seen a National Geographic special about. I looked out the window and saw a plane flying towards downtown Dallas. My heart froze as it got closer. Had airplanes always flown over downtown? I couldn't remember noticing them, but who notices an airplane anymore? Up until the moment the plane cleared the last skyscraper, I fully expected a collision. I didn't even know what such a collision would look like, because we still couldn't pull up any websites, and there was no TV in the office.
Just then a call came from the home office in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Our parent company, General Electric, had instructed all GE employees to go home for the day. GE was based in New York City.
Everyone at the office was grateful for the chance to go home, because they were sad, angry, and couldn't work. But I was concerned with one thing: survival. The order to ground all planes had been issued, but was far from being fully executed. My bus route home took me directly into the streets below Dallas' tallest buildings, where I would wait for the next bus up to North Dallas. If I were a terrorist with the motive and the cajones to carry out such a bold attack, I reasoned, why would I stop at New York and Washington? If it were me, I'd go the distance.
Somewhere in all of this, Wifely called and told me that her idiot boss was making her stay at work. That worried me a little, because she worked close to Texas Stadium, but there was no game that day, and therefore no body count, so I turned my thoughts back to my own survival. There was no way I was going downtown while we were under attack. That would be madness. I spoke my fears to one of the agents, who was about to head home. He agreed with me, and offered to drive me to a different part of town, where I could catch a different bus home. I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked him profusely and honestly.
I startled myself several times on the way home by the thoughts that had taken over my mind. "I" needed to avoid potential attack zones, "I" needed to worry about Wifely taking a safe route home. America wasn't the only one at war here. I was at war.
In the powerful lens of hindsight and against the backdrop of the past year's events, such a story seems weak, grasping, even offensive. Who am I, really, to speak of that life-changing day when thousands of lives were not just changed, but lost, leaving behind grieving families and ravaged cities? Maybe I'm no one, at least in that sense.
But I have to think of my grandfather, who passed away a little over 6 months before September 11, 2001. I wonder if he were still alive, what would he find most peculiar about these times: That our civilization and technology have made this world so much bigger and yet smaller than the one he was born into, or that Dallas, Texas was under attack by foreign powers for a few hours one sunny morning in September? Because it was, so long as I didn't know it wasn't.
It doesn't frighten me to live in New York City during this War on Terror. I've already been at war. And the world will never be distant again in my lifetime.