Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn’t have a care in the world
With mommy and daddy standin’ by
But “happily ever after” fails
And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales
The lawyers dwell on small details
Since daddy had to fly
The End of the Innocence – Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby
I have spent a lot of time today in thought. Thinking about the last few weeks, thinking about this day eleven years ago…
My biggest memory of the 9/11 tragedy is the fact that I almost had no idea what had happened that morning. I had driven home from work that morning, with sports talk radio playing to keep myself awake on the hour-long commute through Atlanta. The biggest issue of the day was the fact that Michael Jordan was talking about making a comeback or some such. Maybe he was trying to be a player/GM for the team he wanted to buy. I honestly do not recall the details, but I know that was all that was being discussed. The Braves were in a three-game slump, but nobody cared. MJ coming back to the court was the order of business. I got out of the car when I arrived in Lawrenceville at 8:35 AM, and nothing had been out of the ordinary.
I went into the house, dropped my messenger bag on a bar chair, leashed the dog, and took her outside for a walk. She did her business, I smoked a cigarette, and we went back inside. I sat down on the sofa and turned on the television. I put it on FX, which was just barely a channel then, but I was a fan because they showed MASH and WKRP in Cincinnati reruns in the morning. A good episode of MASH, one from the first season, was on. I ate my Croissanwich and watched Hawkeye and Trapper give Frank Burns all sorts of hell. The WKRP episode that came on after that was not one of the best ones, so I decided to go to bed. There had been no break-in to the program with any sort of news flash… nothing…
I got ready to go to bed after a long night at the hospital. I was tired, and I could feel sleep trying to move into my head. The phone rang. Normally, being a graveyard shift person, I switched the phone ringer off when I walked into the bedroom. This day, though, I had not gotten to that step in the process yet. I looked at the Caller ID to see if it was anything important. It was my sister’s number.
Even then I almost ignored it, but it occurred to me that she knew I was a night shift worker. She knew I didn’t answer the phone until 4 PM or so. So why was she calling me? It had to be something important, so I answered it.
“What are you doing?” she said, very tense. No “hey, what’s going on” or “didn’t mean to wake you”…
“About to go to sleep, why?”
“Turn the television on.”
“I was just watching it a minute ago. Why, what’s going on?”
“Turn the television on now.”
It was the “any channel” line that freaked me out. If you tell someone to turn the TV on to see something, it’s usually on a specific channel. “Any channel” meant something bad was going on.
I flipped the bedroom TV on and knocked it over to CNN. Just as the picture came on, I saw fire blow through one of the Twin Towers. The other Tower was already engulfed in smoke. My sister gasped when the fire blew through the Tower. “What the hell is going on?” I said. “This can’t be real.”
My sister said, “God, I wish it wasn’t.” I sat silently on the bed, holding the phone to my ear and staring at the TV screen. “I need to go,” I said to her. “Call Momma and Daddy and tell them I am home and safe. I’ll call them tonight.”
She said she would, and I hung the phone up. And I did not go to sleep for the next 30 hours. It was like being mesmerized by some horrific sight and being paralyzed. Reports were flying all over the place. CNN Plaza was being evacuated in Atlanta. Capitol Hill and the White House were both being evacuated. Every plane in the air was being landed anywhere that could take a plane. The next targets were Las Vegas, Disney World, Chicago, Dallas, the St. Louis Arch. Confusion was coming from every corner of the planet. Who did this, why did they do it, who was the mastermind…
I remember calling the hospital I worked for and asking my supervisor if I needed to come in. She told me, “Stay where you are and do not move. Come in tomorrow night unless you hear from me sooner,” and hung up. I did exactly what she said.
The next night, I left for work at 9:45 PM, just like always. The world was supposed to be on complete shutdown, but there were a few folks out driving that night. Ordinarily, traffic going through Atlanta was less than the normal madness once the sun went down, but it was still a bit unpredictable. Tonight, though, I felt like I was driving through a ghost town. Skyscrapers were dark when they were usually lit up. The Peachtree Plaza Hotel, with its revolving Sundial Room high atop the building, was dark. Turner Field was dark. It was unnerving, to say the least.
But, the memory that stays in my head the most from that whole 48-hour period was driving past the airport…
Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta is notorious for being one of the busiest airports in the country. Planes never land on time, day or night. You see planes circling Atlanta for miles, waiting for permission to land. There is never a place to conveniently park because people seem to LIVE in that parking lot. The sky around the airport never looks like there is a nighttime because the sky is painted with landing lights, plane lights, billboard lights, and pretty much any other light you can think of.
But that night…
The airport looked abandoned. There were no lights anywhere, not even in the parking areas. No guide lights running lines across the interstate to bring planes in on a straight line. There were acres and acres of empty parking spaces. I counted five cars as I passed, still sitting in the lot closest to I-85. I leaned forward and looked up into the sky through the windshield, and what I saw made me slow down and pull over for a moment.
I saw stars. Twinkling stars in the sky. Nothing else. No moving lights to indicate planes circling overhead. No reflections of lights from the airport highlighting the clouds. All I could see were stars and a midnight black sky.
It was only then that it all seemed to sink in. Everything that had happened the day before. And what it had done to the world in only 24 hours.
I put the car into gear and got back onto the interstate. I had been listening to a CD on the drive down because the radio was only talk, but I didn’t feel like listening to music any more that night. The rest of the drive was quiet and, somehow, lonely.
I think about that night a lot. Especially when I have to go to the airport, or even if I just have to drive by it. It reminds me of the days after 9/11. Days of Americans pulling together, helping one another, pausing a bit longer to make eye contact with one another as we passed in store aisles or sitting at red lights. People took “America” a bit more to heart, and didn’t seem to care if their neighbors were black, white, Republican, Democrat, Christian, Jew, Chinese, African, or any other subtitle that goes with the word “American” these days. For a few days, maybe even a few weeks, hatred of one another took a back seat as we were bound together by sadness, tragedy, and confusion.
Then, the hatred crawled back into the picture. Suspicious eyes spotted evil everywhere. Anyone that did not speak our language, anyone that dressed in any manner other than normal American clothes, or anyone that just did not ‘look right,” became targets. I heard the phrase “those people” a lot. I hate that phrase. I always have, and probably always will. I have heard it in reference to any of ten different races and probably as many different religions, and it chills me to the bone. Why? Because my first introduction to the phrase came from a man handing out pamphlets at a crossroads in my hometown, inviting people to a Klan rally. It was a two-word phrase that dripped hatred, anger, and venom, even to a ten year-old kid.
On September 11, 2001, I was thirty-five years old. I had been married once, gone through a painful divorce, and had remarried. I had travelled to Europe, graduated college, had a couple of automobile accidents, broken several bones, made some really stupid choices in my life, and paid for those choices. But on September 12, 2001, I suddenly felt old. I felt frightened for the first time in my life, scared of what might be around the corner as a result of one event. My ‘inner child” had finally been scarred by something that would never heal completely. I look around now and remember those first days after 9/11, and wonder if anyone else remembers the short period in our lives when we didn’t hate, we didn’t scream and tag one another as ‘racist’ or ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ or worse because we had different ideas. We rose above that because of 9/11, and became one, if only for a while…