All Fall Down – my 9-11 memories

This recollection of 9-11 isn’t important, except that every recollection of 9-11 is.

The weather is stupidly beautiful today, here in the Northwest. It is warm (drifting towards hot), with clear blue skies and a faint breeze. It doesn’t seem like anything bad could or should happen on such a perfectly gorgeous day. Which is, of course, how the people of New York felt ten years ago, when a handful of deranged thugs flew right out of their 13th century minds and into the heart of that city.

We had been back in Oregon for exactly one year, in 2001, and had just moved from a charming brick townhouse in downtown Portland, to a lovely plot of land out “in the boondocks” of Oregon City. I was thirty years old, and had not yet experienced the feeling of vulnerability particular to those who have children. I felt good and strong and safe.

I wouldn’t have even thought to articulate that.

On the eleventh of September, Dan had already left for work when I turned on the television for a moment. I noticed that ABC was streaming “live” instead of showing “Good Morning America” – and they were talking about a plane hitting a building in New York City. I flipped to the other networks and saw they were covering the same story.

Although I was already running late, I sat on the edge of the couch to watch for a few minutes. Then another plane plowed into another building, and the news anchors became visibly tense. There was breaking news, there were conflicting reports. Someone mentioned a third plane; theories were floated. Evidently the authorities were going on high alert. Then the first building went down.

There are few moments in life when you are truly horrified, in the most literal sense of the word. This was one of them. I watched live as one of the most massive buildings on earth, presumably full of people, collapsed in what seemed like slow motion. I watched, paralyzed, as confusion unfolded. What had just happened? Was this an accident? How many people were in there? Could they be saved? What about those other planes?

What on earth had just happened?

I stood. I paced. As everything on the television screen turned to gray – gray billowing smoke, gray rubble, gray faces streaked with ash and shock – I prayed. I cried. I called my husband, and then my father. “Dad,” I said, my voice shrill, “they say we’re being attacked. We’re under attack!” I stayed glued to the television through the plane hitting the Pentagon, the plane hitting the field. Eventually, feeling the need to be around other people, I drove in to work.

I was a U.S. Customs Broker by trade: my job was to do the paperwork and computer work necessary to get freight classified and cleared through Customs and other relevant agencies. But in those days following the attack, there was little to do. Planes were grounded. Cargo ships were halted. Government enforcement agencies were in lock-down.

So my co-workers and I sat at our computers and sent e-mails and surfed the Internet, searching for information, for explanations. Slowly, they came. Yes, this was an attack. Yes, we had the names and faces of those responsible. And heartbreakingly, as the hours dragged by: No, there were no survivors.

In the weeks that followed, I found my strength and center, as usual, in words. Thousands of words, by dozens of authors. I devoured information on the news web sites: the latest updates, what “we” were doing, what “they” were doing. Slowly, details on the terrorists emerged: a flight school here, an expired visa there. I pored over on-line profiles of the victims – firefighters, policemen, businessmen, passengers – until I realized I could never get through them all. And I read scores of articles and editorials and essays, from all the major newspapers and magazines.

I read galvanizing words from The President: “We have seen their kind before. They’re the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”

Sober words from the humorist Dave Barry: “I’m not naïve about my country. My country is definitely not always right; my country has at times been terribly wrong. But I know this about Americans: We don’t set out to kill innocent people. We don’t cheer when innocent people die.”

Fiery words from Leonard Pitts, Jr., in an open letter to the terrorists: “So I ask again: What was it you hoped to teach us? It occurs to me that maybe you just wanted us to know the depths of your hatred. If that’s the case, consider the message received. And take this message in exchange: You don’t know my people. You don’t know what we’re capable of. You don’t know what you just started. But you’re about to learn.”

And ancient words of comfort and hope, from King David: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

It is difficult, now, to conjure up the atmosphere of that singular time period, following the attacks. For weeks afterward, news not related to 9-11 simply didn’t exist. There was no weather, no local stories, no celebrity news (unless it related to the tragedy.) Country music artists scrambled to record songs about flags and bombs, which were then played repeatedly on FM and AM stations of every format. Patriotism and goodwill enveloped us all.

There were blood drives, and money drives. Schoolchildren made cards for survivors and sent packages to soldiers. Elderly men wearing veteran’s caps were stopped in hospital lobbies, and thanked for their service. American flags waved everywhere. Makeshift memorials sprang up all over, in people’s yards, on storefronts, on cars.

The United Airlines cargo department in Portland built a permanent memory garden outside their tiny, utilitarian office. Portland’s spunky mayor chartered a “unity flight” to New York, her way of shaking a small, symbolic fist in the terrorist’s faces. A grizzled, bearded man dressed in camouflage stood on a bridge over the interstate for days on end, silently holding an American flag over the railing. Most of us passing underneath him honked our horns in solidarity.

It took a long, long time for the impact of that day to lessen, for those of us not directly involved. Some things in this country have changed forever, particularly on security issues. My (former) company, like all companies in our field, now has a visitor’s log, and identification badges, and a lock on the door leading into the foyer. What had been “U.S. Customs” for my entire career is now called “Customs and Border Protection.” You can no longer accompany friends and family to their gate at the airport. I no longer feel invulnerable to bombs in my own country.

And so on – and life goes on.

The passage of time rubs the jagged edges of memory away – perhaps this is time’s ultimate gift. Life shifts, and evolves into a new normal, and the details of the past slip away, no matter how painful or glorious they were.

But each of us who watched the events of 9-11 unfold have our own unique memories of that day: a day when the world split in two, when heroes and villains were thrust into history by the dozens, when innocence was lost and courage was revealed and not all of God’s children came home.

And we’ll never forget.