Sunday, September 11, 2011
Ten Year Ago Today
Ten years ago today, it was a really beautiful fall day. I was living and teaching just outside of Washington DC and the day started as one of those fall days where it has been hot and muggy all summer and suddenly it was cool, but not too cool. It was sunny with a few perfect fluffy clouds. It was the kind of day where you can't help but look at the sky.
I can't say that I notice EVERY day that is like this, but most years I notice the first "nice" day of the fall. This weekend, I was out of town for a wedding and we had similar weather. It has been SO hot this summer in TN, and it feels like it has rained non-stop since last weekend! Suddenly, it is THIS weekend and the air just turned cool and clear, and I can't help but look at the sky.
The odd thing to realize is that for the past ten years, looking at the sky has included the sickening realization that in your field of view you just might see an airplane that is out of place, horribly off course, and aiming for a building. I remember a boy in high school who used to stare at the sky and claimed that he was watching for planes to crash, because he just knew that if he watched long enough, one would. I, like everyone else who knew him, thought he was a little "off".
The idea of planes crashing still sounded crazy to me, even as it was happening. I was teaching in a suburb just south of DC and living in a suburb just east of DC. It was September 11, 2001, early in the morning and a student returned from the restroom and said that the "mall" was on fire. He wasn't a good student and often said things loudly to get attention. I told him that the mall (the strip of park land between the Capital and the Lincoln Memorial) was NOT on fire and instructed him to get back to work. I did not give it a second thought. Large government areas in Washington DC did not catch on fire, and if they did it would be a small fire and someone would put it out. I was wrong.
The announcement came over the PA system a short time later. Apparently the planes had already crashed in both the Twin Towers in New York AND into the Pentagon (near the mall) in Washington, before my principal decided we needed to know anything about it. At that point there were reports of fires and explosions in other parts of DC. There were planes in the air that weren't responding. It was all very confusing and no one knew for sure which parts of the DC area were safe. I had students in my classroom when they announced some details of what was going on. I did not have a TV, or a radio, or a telephone in my classroom. I did have my very first cell phone, which I used to try calling my first husband (who worked right next to the Capital) but I couldn't get through. I offered my phone to any student who had a parent at the pentagon and several students also couldn't get through. At some point we switched classes an I ended up in my planing period and then we went into lock down. I was able to find a classroom with a TV get "locked down" in front of it.
Shortly before noon, the school decided to close early an finally got all the school buses back so that we could actually dismiss. It was several hours after the last plane crashed. Many people who worked in DC never made it into the city that day because the buses and subway system shut down for fear of further attack. Those who were in the city at the time of the first attack, promptly evacuated when news of the Pentagon got out. My route home from south to East DC, took me on a freeway that was, at that point, eerily deserted. If you have ever been to DC, you understand that there is ALL WAYS traffic, all ways! So there I was, on September 11, driving through a town that EVERYONE ELSE had already decided was too dangerous to be in. While driving the empty freeway home, military jets and helicopters flew over head. I wanted to be HOME, not in DC but in TENNESSEE, with my family. Instead, I made my way to Cheverly MD and sat alone on my couch in front of my TV for hours. The phones were working intermittently, so I was able to find out that my husband was driving his stranded co-workers home and that my family in TN knew we were both OK.
Only nothing was really OK. I sat in front of my TV for days until I couldn't stand not doing anything. I got it in my head that being a universal blood doner, I could do something. So I set out for the only Red Cross offices that I knew of, in Virginia. I remember it feeling like a chore trying to get dressed and drive my car for the first time in days. But I had a mission and so I drove, and my route took me on the freeway past the Pentagon, which at that point had a huge flag draped over its still smoldering scar. This was the stretch of freeway that took me to my first DC apartment everyday of my first year in the city. It was the freeway that would continue to take me home to TN every chance that I got. It was also the freeway from which witnesses dialing 9-1-1 on 9-11, reported first seeing a plane, flying terribly off course and so low that you could see the faces of those on board. It was the last time those passengers would be seen alive. They weren't injured in anyway that my blood donation would help and so I was politely refused by the lady at the Red Cross and sent home. My route this time took me around the other side of the Pentagon, further away from the crash site, but closer to the building. Close enough that I could see the camouflaged Humvee with the soldier laying on top pointing a large weapon at everyone on the road, including me. For the next year, I would see this same Humvee, the soldier, and the gun (pointed at me), on this stretch of road too close to the Pentagon to be safe but too important to the flow of traffic to be shut down. It would never seem normal.
Eventually, school reopened. We put up our American flags and we went back to work. We tried to get that part of our lives back to normal but I had students with relatives that were still missing in New York. Back on Capital Hill, anthrax was found in the mail for one of the government office buildings where my first husband worked. It took weeks of testing and sorting and searching and waiting and debating. More anthrax was found in more places. At some point my husband went to work in a suit and tie and men in white Tyvec suits, with respirators and sensor machines, came to test the air. They were checking for anthrax. He was told to just ignore them and work normally. At some point they sent everyone in his office building home so they could clean the building "just in case" there was anthrax. By then the mail had shut down in the DC are, "just in case". It was around Halloween and, yes, it was scary.
Eventually, the mail ran (radiated as it were) and the men in Tyvec suits stayed away and we tried to move on and days turned into weeks, and I could not get into the Christmas spirit. I felt a need to go to New York for the holiday. It was a bittersweet mix of every childhood fantasy of Radio City and giant lighted trees and amazing window displays to lift my mood, mixed up with posters for missing people and makeshift memorials to bring me back to our sad reality.
Eventually, the holidays passed and the weather began to thaw and we tried to get back to normal and then someone was shot at a suburban supermarket just outside of DC. And then someone else was shot at a different supermarket. And then someone else was shot at a supermarket that I had shopped at. Suddenly, in the midst of hunting the terrorists responsible for 9/11, and while still trying to figure out who sent the anthrax, DC was searching for a serial killer sniper who was believed to be in a white utility van.
Eventually they caught the sniper and the school year ended and we decided for several reasons (most of them unrelated to the events of the past year) that it was time to go home to TN. I was relieved and tried once and for all to get back to normal, but "normal" would never be the same. I was fortunate to have not lost anyone close to me on September 11. 2001, but today something is missing that will never quite be regained. The crazy idea that if you stare at the sky you might see a plane crash seems about as crazy as driving in DC with no traffic, or men in Tyvec invading an office, or people dodging sniper fire at the supermarket. Fortunately, I can categorize those events as isolated to a unique period of time in a place I no longer live, but I carry them with me as possible scenarios for what could happen. I have come to understand that most generations have a defining momentary shattering of innocence. For my parents generation, I assume it was some combination of the assassinations of Kennedy, King and Kennedy. For others it was Vietnam or Kent State. Far enough back in history it would have been the civil war or the assassination of Lincoln. I take hope from the fact that I studied each of these events without understanding or suffering from the magnitude of their weight. I believe my daughter will similarly study 9/11 without understanding that I cringe physically and emotionally for a split second at the thought of that time. I am glad that she will be able to hear about September 11 and still retain her innocence. I just pray that she does not have to experience anything like it in her lifetime.