Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 11, 2013

Today is September 11.  We call it Patriots' Day in the States now after what happened on that day back in 2001.  There are memorials going on today in New York, DC, Shanksville, Pa, where the planes actually fell, and smaller ones in other spots around the world. There are pages on Facebook that are loaded with all sorts of red, white, and blue memes bearing the slogan "Never Forget", and others that are going silent today to show their respect.  One page that I read a lot posed the question, "Where were you?" 

It's been twelve years since the towers fell, the Pentagon burned, and a fourth plane was brought down by people who decided to fight back instead of meeting their fate in fear. And twelve years later the events of that day still resound like Pearl Harbor, or the Kennedy Assassination, or the Challenger and Columbia explosions.  If you were alive to witness that history, it stays with you, haunts you, and you always remember where you were and what you were doing when it happened.

I was in a laundromat in East Windsor NJ when the first plane hit. None of us saw it happen, but all the tv stations began to cover the story, and I remember everyone thought it was an accident at first.  

Everybody's first reaction, of course, was "I hope there weren't too many people hurt."  

Then the questions came to mind. 

"I wonder how air traffic control messed up that bad," we said.  "How could an accident like that happen?"

By now, the spinning clothes in the machines were forgotten, and everybody in the place was now huddled around the tiny 13 inch TV behind the counter. That's when the second plane hit the towers.

That's when we all knew.  It wasn't an accident at all. 

I remember when the first tower fell some of the ladies in the laundromat started to cry and the couple of men that were there just hung their heads. This was New York City for crying out loud. How did this happen in New York City?  I just stood there in shock as the second tower started to go.  It didn't even look real.  This was a Cameron or Bruckheimer movie we were watching, right?  This couldn't be happening.  

But this was no disaster movie.  The World Trade Center wasn't just some movie set that was being trashed for the cameras. I'm Jersey City born and raised.  I've been to New York plenty of times.  The towers were a part of my landscape since I was old enough to see out my bedroom window by myself.  And now, live and in color, one of the towers, and everyone inside, was turning to dust before our very eyes.

When the second tower fell, the picture on TV fuzzed out to snow.  You see, all of the New York stations used to send their broadcast signals through antennas mounted on the roof of Tower Two. So did a lot of radio stations.  So when the second tower hit the ground, almost all the media stopped too.  There were no more reports of what was happening.  Anybody who didn't have cable was effectively cut off from the world.  

I was due into work at 3 that day, so my next thought was to get to work.  I'm just a railroader, but I figured that maybe they were going to use trains to get people out of the City, and that if I went to work and did what I do, in some small way I would be helping things.  Plus I was still in shock and desperately needed something to do.  So I saddled up and tried to go in.

Little did I know, the NJ Turnpike had been shut down, along with the bridges, tunnels, and train service into and out of the City.  So I was turned away.  The Parkway was shut down, and all of the free roads were gridlocked, so there was no way to go north.  I had to turn back and head home.

I wound up taking my mother and going to my girlfriend (later my wife)'s apartment in PA.  We grabbed some pizza, although I don't remember eating much of it, and tried to get updates on cable of what was going on in NY.  The feeling for the rest of that day was, well, fear.  Were the attacks over?  Or were more coming?  Where would those be?  What if they decided to hit Philadelphia next?  That wasn't too far away.  They had just leveled two of the biggest buildings in the world, in one of the biggest cities in the world.  If someone could do that to them, what chance did we stand in our little suburban town? Like the rest of the world, we were all spectators at that point, watching history unfold on CNN.  But at the time, we had no idea if it was over or not.  So like everyone else in the country, we sat riveted to the news.

Finally at around 6 or so that night, President Bush came on TV and made his now-famous speech about how the attacks on our nation would not go unanswered, and America would stand tall against terror.  And I remember feeling that it was too little, too late.  Emotionally our country had been falling apart all day, and this was the guy who was supposed to be our leader.  I remember thinking "where the hell were you?"  To be honest, at this point I don't even remember half of what he said.  I just remember that his words that night didn't make me feel any better.  

But I'll tell you what did.

I went to the store the next day.  I don't remember which one.  It might have been Target. Someone actually held a door open for me as I was coming up to it.  I said "thank you" as I walked through, as I normally do, and the person actually said, "you're welcome."  Now on its face, you think big deal, right?  But think about it for a minute and ask yourself how often people would take the time to do that.  How often did people take that much time and give each other that much respect before that terrible day?  And now it was happening again.

I went into another store, I think the supermarket.  Instead of running their carts into each other and trying to get to the $1.99-on-sale tomatoes first like usual, people were letting each other go first.  "Please" and "thank you" filled the air, and people, even if it was for just that little while, were being nicer to each other. Instead of droning on doing their business and blocking others out, they were being people again.  I suppose it was the idea that after something that terrible had happened to us, people could go back to some normalcy, and maybe even be just that much better. 

Once the roads opened again, everyone that could flocked north.  Every able body wanted to help in the rescue efforts at the WTC site, or just to help hand out food and water to the volunteers.  Blood donations skyrocketed when they announced on TV that there was a shortage, and donations were rolling in to the Red Cross of food, clothing, and money to help in the relief efforts.  When the President sent our troops over to Iraq and Afghanistan, we heard about "Shock and Awe" in the desert.  But in my opinion, there were some pretty awe-inspiring things happening back at home, too.  

The WTC attacks were a tragedy, no doubt.  But part of healing is to look for positives, and hold on to them.  And if there was anything positive to take away from that whole period of time, it was what I just described.  When a tragedy happens, people can, and do, come together to lessen their own pain.  Whether it's by talking to someone who cares, or by just going out of their way to be a little more polite.  It isn't always one grand thing in life that can make it better.  It's a thousand little things.  Sometimes the normal things can be special.

And when we remember all that happened on September 11, 2001, and all that we lost, I think we should remember something very important that we found in the aftermath, too.

Our humanity.

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