September 28, 2012Recently, I was asked if I remembered where I was when I heard the news about the Sept. 11 attack. Of course. Just as I remember when and where I was when JFK was assassinated (in the seventh grade); just as the older generation remembers what they were doing Dec. 7, 1941.
Someone asked me that on this, the 11th anniversary of that terrible tragedy. And I thought sure, I know. But do I remember how I felt and how I was affected by it?
I was at a chamber function at the Roswell Country Club. We were all sequestered in the dining room for a breakfast and then some speakers. We took a break at about 9 a.m. or 9:30 a.m. and I noticed several people reach for their cellphones. (I didn't have one then. It was more of a luxury or a curiosity in 2001.) Then, the talk began. Some people said a plane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. I wasn't exactly sure what it was, but I assumed it was a tall building.
Then others began saying it was a terrorist attack, and I thought oh, that is just somebody jumping to conclusions, because I remembered then that the World Trade Center was attacked for real some years earlier.
Then I heard a second plane hit TWC. And you knew two planes crashing at the same place and day is no coincidence and no accident. I still didn't know the planes were passenger jets. Details were sketchy at first, and we all went back inside. When the meeting was over, I turned on my car radio. Hearing that two planes and possibly a third were down, I raced back to the newsroom and turned on CNN.
Thinking back, I remember all the emotions -- shock, anger, the desire for revenge. And the helplessness of knowing that whoever did this would be far away and hard to strike back.
The days passed, and we began to realize this was something everybody was experiencing. We were all standing a little straighter, thinking a little harder, turning away from the trivial.
We gave blood because it was at least something. And we knew one thing. The world -- our world had changed.
First, little things popped up. Flags on mailboxes, then decals on cars. Just about all the men wore a flag lapel pin. By general consensus, all flags were at half-mast until the government told us 30 days and no more.
Each day, we would hear another heart-rending story of a mother, a father, a sister who called from one of the towers with a message of love before oblivion. We heard of the bravery of the passengers on Flight 93, encapsulated by Todd Beamer, the one who left a message for his wife and children. "Are you guys ready? Let's roll."
It takes a tragedy to make you stop and hug your kids a little tighter, hold your wife's hand a little longer, watch the sun go all the way down.
Life is precious; we should waste not a drop. Yet as that receded, the sharpness of its focus has blurred. Our purpose blurred too. Somehow the war against terrorism became a second war against Iraq.
I remember how we promised the Afghans we would help rebuild their country after we defeated Al Qaeda. That was lost in Iraq also.
But my clearest memory of the days that followed came from my brother-in-law who was a Navy chief serving on the USS Enterprise. His ship was heading home after a six-month tour.
But their last port of call before heading home had been in Spain. There also happened to be a German naval ship also in port. As NATO allies, the Germans invited the American officers to dinner aboard their ship. In return, my brother-in-law and his fellow NCOs hosted their counterparts from the German vessel.
When the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, my brother-in-law's ship turned around bound for the Persian Gulf. They had not gotten far when they saw the German naval ship they recently had dined with in port.
It suddenly veered to come almost within hailing distance of the huge carrier. As my brother-in-law told me, the entire crew was turned out in their dress uniforms with the Stars and Stripes hoisted to salute the Enterprise as she passed.
On that day, everyone was an American.
Managing Editor, Appen Newspapers Inc.