Sunday, September 11, 2011

Almost Obligatory Musings on 9/11

I've been tossing this post around in my head for the last 3 or 4 days. I suppose I didn't have to post anything, after all, there's nothing new I have to say to add to the volumes spoken or printed today. But it seems as if I need to say something.

The day today is exactly, exactly like it was 10 years ago. It's a delightfully sunny and warm, crystal clear September 11th. There isn't a cloud in the sky. There wasn't a cloud in the sky ten years ago, either.

I had to drive to Sycamore, west of here, to service equipment. Luke had to go to Rockford, also west of here, to do inspections. Dane was in the office to deal with reports. A drive to Sycamore pretty much shoots your morning. At the time, we only had 2 machines out there. You took batteries, downloaded any data stored, replaced the batteries, ran service checks on the machines and they were then ready for another 3 weeks of monitoring. Hour out, hour back and an hour to do your work. You got back to the office around 11 a.m. It's also a pleasant drive west, leaving the real suburban area behind and heading into farm country.

I got going early on that day 10 years ago. I stopped by the Dunkin Donuts, now gone, on north main street for tea and a couple of donuts. In my memory, I can see the line in front of me, the three people helping to move people through the line, and the guy who turned to the rest of us, having received his coffee and donuts and said, "Did you hear that? A plane just hit the World Trade Center." He shook his head and left. It was only then, that I realized there was a radio playing in the background.

I sometimes drive by the empty building where the Dunkin was and, every time I do, I remember how my first reaction was, "Oh well, it must have been a small plane," but I wondered how a Cessna (as an example of what I was thinking of) could come close enough to hit the buildings. I didn't know of the weather in New York so perhaps it was heavily overcast and the pilot miscalculated where the buildings were. I also thought perhaps the gentleman had misheard something since the radio was scratchy and just barely audible.

There were 4 or 5 people in front of me and we progressed through the line as quickly as possible. I remember two people were getting donuts for their offices so that took time to select and box up a quantity. I was served and I left. As I walked out to my car, it struck me that no one in front of me had left the parking lot. They were sitting in their cars obviously listening to the radio. I got into mine, a Geo Prizm, started up the car and WDCB said there were reports of a jet liner hitting one of the World Trade Center buildings, but the music would go on. I quickly flipped to WGN where Tom Peterson told me what I didn't want to hear, what none of us wanted to hear. WGN went to the live feed from ABC News and Peter Jennings was with me on the rest of my drive. I called Dane and told him to turn on the radio I had in my office, that there was a huge disaster in New York.

I drove west, listening as another plane hit the other tower. Then came the reports of the attack on the Pentagon. What was happening to my country? West of Lily Lake, with another 15 minutes ahead of me, I called Carole. Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was her first day of college. We had moved her in the previous week. She had gone through all the "welcome to college" events and Tuesday was to be the first day of classes, the first day of the next phase of her life. She said, later, she went to her first class where the instructor had the in-room TV on and all they did was watch. There were no classes that day.

I told my daughter I loved her. I told her that I felt she was safe but she should be diligent. She should take all necessary precautions and to follow instructions if something greater was upon us. I told her what I was doing but that I'd be back in the office around 11. We'd go from there. "I love you, sweetie. We'll get through this," I remember saying.

I was out of my car working on a machine when the first tower fell. I had the radio blaring so I could keep tabs on things. I will never forget hearing Peter Jennings ask a reporter, whose name I do not remember, "X, what are we watching here? What is happening to the tower?" The reporter stammered, "Peter, I...I think the tower just crumbled. It fell down. How could it just fall?"I finished servicing this instrument, I had finished the first of these two earlier, sat down in my car and burst into tears. I'm not sure why I cried. I didn't know anyone in New York or Washington. I didn't know any friends who were traveling. I just knew that I felt entirely helpless and vulnerable. Tears seemed to be the right choice at that time.

On the drive back to the office, I heard that Mayor Daley had ordered all downtown high rise buildings evacuated and closed. I heard about the mammoth undertaking to bring all commuter trains into the city to get everyone home. I heard that the FAA had ordered all airplanes to land immediately. I remember pulling over on the side of the road near Elburn and looking skyward. Out that far from O'Hare, it's hard to see airplanes when they are flying, much less if something is there that shouldn't be. Then came the reports of the crash in Pennsylvania and the world seemed to be spiraling out of control. I got back to the office and Dane said we were closing up for the day. I stayed until noon to process the information I'd retrieved from the machines in Sycamore. Then I picked up a book I'd ordered at The Bookstore and I came home to watch, transfixed, at the news coverage.

Carole came home for supper. We hugged for a long time, thankful that we could be together. We watched the news and talked about the events of the day. At 9, she said she was going back to school. She had just needed the reassurance of mom and home.

I don't remember the assassination of JFK. I have vague memories of his funeral on TV and my mother weeping quietly as we watched it. I don't remember the assassination of Martin Luther King. I remember hearing news reports of Bobby Kennedy's assassination and of having my brother awaken me in the morning the next day with news that he'd died. I remember the warm August afternoon when Richard Nixon resigned from office. It was hot that day in Iowa. I remember my dad's stoic face as he watched the TV accounts. I remember watching Challenger explode and being completely unsure what it was I was watching. I remember being in my car, driving to help at church when news reports came of Oklahoma City. I don't remember those events with as much precision as I do 9/11.

Where are we now, 10 years later? I heard an interview with Jim Thompson, former governor of Illinois and a member of the committee to make recommendations after 9/11. He said the biggest failure is not creating a national emergency radio frequency so all first responders could talk to one another. If there was another national emergency, nobody could talk to anyone else immediately. This is disturbing.

I don't necessarily believe we are any safer than we were on September 10th, 2001. We are more divided as a nation than at any time I can remember, even during Vietnam. The massive "We are all in this together" that we showed, our collective strength and unity, forged in those great attacks, has splintered into finger pointing and inertia. Our leaders pout and 'hold their breath' until they get their way. The ability to work together, to compromise, to see everyone's point of view and to come to a consensus has vanished. We question someone's patriotism if they don't display an American flag in front of their house and call them narrow minded if they do.

As I sit here listening to the sound of a last weekend of summer, children's voices, birds, barking dogs mingled with the occasional whine of an airplane as it flies over my house on the way to land at O'Hare, I feel the legacy of 9/11 is not that we pulled together and worked together to make a better country. I feel the legacy is finger-pointing, "it's not my fault", passing the buck, questioning whether the person who wears a turban because of his religion is really an American. It's my way or you're a total a**hole and not worth acknowledging as human. That's the legacy I see ten years on and it makes me profoundly sad.

Five thousand people died because we live in a country where being free to express ourselves makes us hated. We don't know how good we have it here. We have forgotten that this good life, this free life was built together. I hope that as we step back to remember, we realize we came together when under attack. There is no reason we can't come together when we're not under attack.

Beverage:  Huckleberry tea


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