One of my good friends is a baby. Well, not a baby, exactly, but he’s in his early 20s, and that passes for a baby to me. I’m pretty sure I have socks older than he is.
On the 15th anniversary of 9/11, my young friend posted a photo of a tower jumper with this comment:
“I’ve heard many shithole millennials even deny this happened…Google ‘twin towers jumpers,’ but do it with respect, because otherwise what you see will forever haunt you.”
I don’t need to Google it. I’m already haunted.
On September 11, 2001, Dave and I had been dating for about a year. I woke up in his bed, as I often did. Dave was already at work, so I grabbed my stuff and drove to my apartment in Towson for a day of work.
As I pulled into my usual parking spot, the radio deejay was talking about how 9/11 is a day of gratitude for police and firefighters. “First responders” wasn’t a term anyone used back then, and 911 was just the number you called when you needed help.
When we needed help, they came. It was all so ordinary that we needed to be reminded to be grateful.
In the time it took for me to walk from my car to my apartment and turn on the television, the first plane struck.
“No One Knew Anything”
At first, no one knew what was going on. There was no footage of the first plane hitting its target. News anchors speculated that there had been a fire, or that a bomb had exploded. Then, as if in slow motion, the second plane struck. On live television.
The cable news guys didn’t notice at first. They just went on talking about their theories for what seemed like an eternity. And I stood there screaming at the television:
“Is this real? Did I just see that? A fucking plane just…!”
On the screen, gray people ran from the enormous cloud of ash that chased them down the streets of Manhattan. We were all frozen, watching but refusing to believe, our hearts insisting that things like this don’t happen here.
Then, the Pentagon. And wild reports about a fire on the lawn of the State Department. The State Department is a dozen blocks from Dave’s office in downtown DC. My phone started ringing. It was my future father-in-law, our rock, the one who never worries about anything.
“Where’s David? I can’t get through.”
“I don’t know. I can’t reach him either.”
“Annie, please call me when you hear from him.”
“I will. Of course I will.”
In 2001, most of us didn’t have cell phones. And those who did couldn’t use them. Landlines weren’t even working. No one knew anything.
“My Mother’s Going to Kill Me”
Eventually, I tore myself away from the television and drove back to Dave’s house. As I raced down the highway, white knuckles wrapped around the steering wheel and one eye on the blue sky above, I remember thinking, “I’m the only idiot who’s driving toward DC right now. My mother’s going to kill me.”
I found Dave at his house. He had noped right out of there as soon as the news broke. We stayed in his room and stared at the television for hours. Finally, he said, “You need to stop looking at that. Let’s go.” And he dragged me outside to play tennis.
Bad things happen on rainy days, don’t they? But on September 11, 2001, the sky was cloudless. I stood on a green tennis court, balls whizzing by my head as I stared at the bright blue sky.
It took me a while to figure out why I was transfixed. Then it hit me. There were no planes. It was so quiet. It felt like the world was ending.
They Say You Never Forget
They say you never forget where you were when man first set foot on the moon. Or when Kennedy was assassinated. Or when Challenger exploded. And of course, you never forget where you were on September 11, 2001, when two airplanes steered lazily into symbols of American capitalism – symbols that happened to have thousands of innocent people inside.
And more. So much more. People crushed by debris falling from that bright blue sky. People leaping to their deaths from 100 stories up. Marines wheeling cribs full of babies from the Pentagon child care center and forming a kind of wagon circle in a nearby park, guns at the ready. Final, desperate phone calls from air phones on doomed planes. Heroes whose last words rang in our hearts as they stormed the cockpit, sacrificing themselves in a field in rural Pennsylvania, but saving untold others. “Let’s roll…”
The images are burned into my retinas: the towers crumbling to ash, the ghostly gray people tearing through the streets, and the beautiful, silent, planeless sky.
On this anniversary of 9/11, I’m remembering those who died, but I’m also remembering those who lived. I’m remembering the people we used to be.