Works of fiction appearing here are © 2011-2016 by Jack H. Tyler, and are not to be assumed to lie in the public domain.
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Monday, September 12, 2011

The Mornings After

          It has been ten years since that dark day in history.  As one who loves my country, despite all its faults and blemishes, it is time to tell my own insignificant story.  Here on the west coast, separated from these momentous events by two mountain ranges and three time zones, it took on a surrealism that couldn't be incorporated by those in the immediate vicinity.

          On September 11th, 2001, I was a shift worker, as I am today.  It was the first of three days off.  I had come off a night shift, and crawled into bed for a good night's sleep around 3:00 AM [all times Pacific, making it three hours later in New York and Washington].  Later that morning, about 10:00 AM, I woke up, staggered to the coffee pot, still mostly asleep, poured a cup, and sat down on the couch.  When I flipped on the TV, KUSI Channel 51, an unaffiliated local station came on, showing a long view of the New York skyline with black smoke roiling up from the Twin Towers, a somber reporter making infrequent comments about the dark day this was for America.  This was puzzling, as this outlet was normally showing a sort of localized version of the Today show at that time, and my first thought was, "Why are they showing a movie at this hour?"  Remember, I haven't begun to come fully awake at this point.

          My first attempt to rationalize what I was seeing was that they must be showing scenes from an upcoming blockbuster.  The FX were magnificent, of course, but when the view stayed the same, and the reporter didn't offer much more in the way of dialogue, I got bored and cycled the channel to our local NBC affiliate.

          Oh my God!  There was the same picture, with a reporter offering much more information.  I have never come awake that fast in my life; I hope I never do again.  As I sat open-mouthed, my shaking hand spilling hot coffee on my jeans, the first tower began its descent into rubble.  At first I thought I was watching live events.  Only later did I learn that all this had happened while I was sleeping.  That didn't matter, it was live to me.  My first thought was, It's the end of the world; somebody's going to get nuked into radioactive slag for this.  Other impressions were of a missing President, as Mr. Bush was out of Washington at the time, and took to the air in Air Force One, escorted all over the southeastern United States by F-16s, presenting a moving target to an attack that no one could say was over yet.  I remember the map with 5,000 little green glowing airplanes beginning to clear as the FAA struggled to clear the skies over America.  But mostly, I remember Ashley Banfield.
   
       Ashley Banfield became the face of the 9/11 coverage for me.  A reporter of personalities, she had a job on Wall Street interviewing the movers and shakers of the day.  I myself had never heard of her.  She looked like a ditsy woman I had once worked with, which was an initial strike against her, but she overcame that within minutes.  Without hesitation, she descended on the World Trade Center, armed with a microphone, and accompanied by her cameraman, whose name, to my everlasting discredit, I have been unable to find.  Arriving shortly before the first collapse, they broke into a closed business to shelter from the fallout.  She emerged covered from head to toe in fine gray dust, finger-wiped her Clark Kent glasses, and proceeded to perform two nonstop days of the finest unplanned news coverage I have ever witnessed.  She was given water by firefighters, caught a nap in the back of an ambulance, and interviewed everybody who would stop and talk to her.  And this was none of that, "What do you think about this?" drivel you see so much at disaster scenes.  Her questions drew out the essence of what it was to have lived through the horror, and kept us up to the minute on what was going on among emergency responders and survivors alike.  I don't know why she didn't get Tom Brokaw's job when he retired.  The only reason I can think of is what I call The Zulu Effect:  In that no-longer-PC movie, after hours of non-stop attacks by thousands of Zulus on a small British garrison, the two officers, played by Michael Caine and Stanley Baker, stand amid piles of corpses in a small yard of the mission hospital they have successfully defended.  Second-in-command Michael Caine asks, "Was it like this for you?  The first time, I mean?" to which his superior, Stanley Baker, replies, "The first time?  You think I could stand in this butchers' yard more than once?"

          I was scheduled to be off for three days, which was the length of time that all of America was a no-fly zone. It was eerie. I remember sitting out under the orange tree with Bonnie, hearing no jet noise, seeing no airplanes, except once on the second day when a flight of F-16s from an Air Force base up north made a sweep over the city. Getting to work would have been a nightmare, as security on all the bases was cranked up to a level unprecedented in American history. There were eight hour waits the first couple of days, as every car was checked with a fine tooth comb from hubcaps to sunroof. It was not the most enjoyable three days off I've ever had, hanging on news coverage that mostly showed the Towers falling, over and over and over again, waiting for hard information that didn't seem to come. It did eventually trickle in, of course, a picture emerged of who they were and where they came from, and the War on Terror began on my birthday; I'm proud of that...


          Now it is ten years later.  What has changed?  Well, nobody flies for fun anymore.  If you simply must, then before you get on the plane, government officials subject you to a level of sexual molestation that, performed outside the airport, would get you life in prison without parole.  It's harder to get into buildings than it used to be.  My "rank" is sufficient that I used to take Bonnie to the Officers' Club for dinner; now I can't even bring her on the base.  Have these measures helped?  Possibly.  It's impossible to describe the attacks that didn't take place because you couldn't bring a bottle of shampoo onto the airplane, but it is more difficult to make your way through your daily life, and I can't help but think of the words of Benjamin Franklin, words to the effect of, "Anyone who gives up some liberty to obtain some security will soon have neither."  I guess the jury's still out on that one...
          The survivors have become a subclass of our culture, and they say some things that seem odd.  From the fireman who pulled his buddy out moments before the collapse to the securities manager who carried a woman in a wheelchair down sixty-eight flights of stairs, they all say, "Don't call me a hero.  Talk to that guy."  Survivor's guilt?  Modesty?  Just fed up with their unwanted star status?  That's not for me to say.

          I sort of get it, though.  As a child of the sixties, I am a Vietnam Veteran, and while I will freely talk about what it's like to ride out a hurricane on a small wooden ship, stand a pier watch in freezing rain, or hold a 25,000 ton fleet oiler steady in a seaway while a helicopter medevacs a stricken shipmate, I don't talk about 'nam.  I can't.  I tried to write a work of fiction incorporating some of the events that happened to me; it doesn't come.  What happened there, stays there, somehow part of a sacred core that no one is allowed to touch.  The 9/11 survivors had their "Tour in 'nam" visited on them in a single hour, and with none of the training or preparation we had as soldiers and sailors.  I briefly mention my own experience here as a reference point, but had I made a thousand trips, it would pale by comparison to what these people went through.

          My grandparents recognized one date on which they remembered where they were, what they were wearing, who they were with, what song was playing, everything, like it had just happened moments ago.  Their Date was December 7th, 1941.  In the aftermath of that memory, their generation rolled up their sleeves and went to work.  My grandma took a job building fighter planes for Lockheed, Rosie the riveter, freeing up a man to carry a gun.  Carry guns they did.  They made sacrifices on the home front, endured rationing, saved cans, turned in their aluminum pots and pans so that their soldiers, the Greatest Generation, could stamp out the greatest evil of their day, a pair of Empires so vile that we allied with Josef Stalin's Soviet Union to defeat them.

          How is our generation measuring up?  Not well.  Who do you know that has made one meaningful sacrifice?  Oh, an individual here and there, and certainly those who have joined the services to stand in the face of a form of evil that will commit mass murder in the name of their god, but what is happening on the home front?  Practically nothing.  We whine about the price of bread while our soldiers die in faraway lands so that we can sleep peacefully in our comfortable beds.  As Kipling noted 120 years ago:

Makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, and they're starvation cheap.

          As Al-Qaeda, and the other poisonous leagues of evil it has spawned, diligently plots the downfall of Western Civilization, what are we, that very Western Civilization, concerned with?  Why, ninety-two flavors of butt-stupid "reality" shows, and hanging on every word of some rich-ass celebrity who's blubbering into a hanky because the elevator in her mansion is out of service, while children starve on the sidewalk within view of her rooftop patio.  Look what happened in our nation's capitol last summer, when our petty piss-ant politicians were willing to let America slide down the toilet rather than take one step to compromise with the opposition party.  Just who is the enemy here, really?  We elected these jackasses, so I guess we deserve them.  Seriously, I posted the solution to that particular problem on The Tyler Gang.  It was up for six weeks.  There was not one comment.

          I look around ten years later, and I see the camaraderie that followed in the days after the attacks gone.  It's business as usual, like nothing ever happened.  If you study the history of our great nation, you realize that the path of that history is littered with the wreckage of swaggering dictators and petty warlords who all believed that Americans were too soft, too addicted to their little creature comforts to actually set them aside and fight to preserve them.  As I look around ten years later, I fear that this time, they may be right.

          You will notice that I did not post any pictures of the actual attacks.  You know where to find them, if that is your interest.  I cannot look at them without being transported back to that day.  It is like salt in an open wound, and when I see the images, all of my emotional makeup wants the bastards who orchestrated it killed.  I want the people who nurtured them, and gave them the beliefs that led them to this killed.  I want the countries who harbored them laid waste.  See, when I look at those pictures, all of my religion, what I claim to be my spiritual beliefs, are made lies, because I don't want to forgive any of them for anything.  I want them killed, horribly, terrifyingly, lingeringly killed.  Is this what my grandparents felt when they watched the black-and-white newsreel footage of the USS Arizona exploding?  Most likely.  Their generation acted on it, going so far as to immolate two cities in nuclear fireballs.  In the aftermath, Germany and Japan are two of our staunchest allies.  Where will we stand with the Middle East in fifty years?  More importantly, where do we stand with ourselves today?

          I sat down here to remember those who fell in a savage act of pure evil, and to honor the heroes of that day.  I don't think that can be done without looking at what has happened to the rest of us, to our culture, because of those events.  I have spent many years learning the history of this nation, and from that perspective, I have to say that what I see frightens me for our future.  Oh, not our brave and skilled warriors, but those of us left behind in the civilian world whose lives and actions form the foundation on which they stand.  What do they stand for?  What must they think when they look back to their homeland and see the biggest news items of the day are who got booted off American Idol, or what zillion dollar resort Kim Kardashian is frolicking at for her honeymoon?  I think that, while it remains a date on the calendar, most of us have, by and large, forgotten 9/11.  As a person a continent away whose personal life was untouched by these events, that seems a sacrilege.  And yet, during all the remembrance shows of this past weekend, one thing stands out.  A survivor, being interviewed about her experiences of that day, losing her husband among them, had this to say:

          "Everyone tells me, 'never forget, never forget.'  Every time I want to speak with my husband, I remember, but if we are ever to achieve true peace and closure, don't we have to, at some point, forget?"

          In 1973, thirty years after the Second World War, my grandmother refused to allow me to bring my good friend, my good Japanese friend, into her home.  Will my grandchildren be more enlightened thirty years from now?  Let us hope...

8 comments:

  1. I watched Dateline Friday night, and when you came to bed, I had to tell you how much I appreciate and love you. I have your warm body to cuddle up next to every night. I have your lips to kiss good-bye in the mornings before you go to work. I have learned over the years to appreciate those loved ones I still have and it enables me to empathize more deeply with those who lost their loved ones that day. If it doesn't touch our hearts, then we are in a sad state. If it doesn't make us appreciate one more day of life, and to not take our loved ones for granted, and to forgive each other for petty annoyances that use to just bug us, and if we don't love and appreciate America more and be glad to be an American, then we truly are hopeless. I for one believe that there are many good people who walk the streets of America, who pray for her and fight for her and live a better life because of that day. All I can do is pray, and the Bible helps me believe that all those innocent people joined God that day in paradise. If I couldn't believe that, this tragedy would be too much to bear. I thought the day John F. Kennedy died was hard to bear. I can't believe so many people died so pointlessly and by such hateful people. How can we not be changed? I spent 28 years working for my goverment, for my America, because of the fire's planted in my heart by John Kennedy. I can only live a better life every day, and love my family to the utmost and pray for America beause I know that God will answer my prayers. I also know in my soul that He is powerful enough to change the human condition and to change the hearts and minds of the American public to also want to love more completely, and live better lives to honor those who died and take responsibility for who we are as a nation. Your words are so beautiful and so deeply felt. I am proud to be your wife and friend, and you have made my life richer by far with your own beliefs and your actions always show me you are a good man, a changed man from whatever you were before your beliefs were instilled in you. You make me want to try harder, be as honest as possile, live a better life, take better care of my things and appreciate the people, places and things that I have seen that make me a better person today, and everyday that I live and apply what I have learned from you to my own life. Thank you for being who you are and for loving America as you do. I hope those who read your post find themselves changed and more determined to live a better life today than they did yesterday. You have sacrificed your life for me. You covered my head with your coat to keep me from getting wet before I even knew you that well. You have covered my soul with your love and sacrifices and have changed my life, and for that may God richly reward you. Not only are you a wonderful husband, you are a wonderful person and human being and your devotion to what you love is something all Americans should take a second look at and let it change their own hearts.

    I love you dearly and respect who you are and all you have become over the years we have been together. You inspire me with your words. You have given me courage in the face of fear. You taught me that "Fear is the beast that lives within, It has no power but what you give it"...and as one who lived with fear most of my life before I met you, I thank you that today I am fear free and will live a free life for all my days. And I thank you for that and all the many wonderful things you have made me aware of in my life. Your service to our country will never be forgotten by us, nor all your sacrifices for us today. You are truly a fine American.

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  2. A thoughtful post Jack, thank you.

    I try to avoid topics like Sept 11th when online as those conversations typically don't go anywhere useful, but you hit on a point that was bothering me over this past weekend. I too have doubts if the country could come together to accomplish an arduous task that requires everything we have like World War II. For all the talk of 9/11 changing things, it doesn't seem to have restored that capability.

    Our future is much more likely to include ongoing wars and even worse attacks than it is to resemble the days before 2001. And I don't know if either political party or the general populace has the stomach for it.

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  3. It is an honor to welcome you all to this particular endeavor. As you all know, this is a recreational blog, and I try to keep it light while bringing you things you may not have thought of, or have access to, but there are events about which the person I am, the person I was made into by the journey that brought me here, has to say something, even if it isn't light and fluffy.

    Bonnie's my girl, my soulmate, and I knew she'd have my back, but when two fun-loving guys who essentially know me as a class clown take the time to tell me that I got something like this right, that means something, and I sincerely thank you both for your insights and support. Don't get too comfortable with this, though; I'll be back in a few days whooping it up as usual...

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  4. Is there some character limit for replies? Because it won't let me post mine...

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  5. It's possible, though, look at the size of Bonnie's! If it's longer than that, you could break in into two sections. Or take out all the adjectives; that's what my books on writing always tell me to do...

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  6. This has proven to be one of those posts that I have more trouble responding to, not because I have nothing to say, but because I probably have too much to say (didn't know how prophetic I was!). I realize that this is an opinion blog, and everyone is entitled to an opinion, even if we disagree. What I want to say, hopefully, won't be offensive to anyone. It isn't my goal or intention, particularly concerning a topic as sensitive as 9/11, but I too have an opinion to share.

    First, I agree that we as a nation have lost much of the closeness we experienced after 9/11. Blame the childish antics in Washington, blame the recession, blame two unpopular wars, blame one of the best healers known to mankind (time), blame distance, blame your neighbors, blame yourself, it doesn't especially matter where one points the finger. That incredible patriotism and unity has, for the most part, disappeared. It is a loss that many, likely don't pay much attention to until days like 9/11 and that is a tragedy in and of itself.

    Where I have to respectfully disagree is with the notion that these generations can't or won't stand up and fight. It was these generations that ran into those burning sky scrapers to rescue strangers. These generations that fought the hijackers of flight 93 until the plane smashed into an empty field in Pennsylvania saving who knows how many lives. These generations that joined the all volunteer military forces and re-enlist in record numbers. These generations that hunted Osama bin Laden for ten years, through two unpopular wars, and put a bullet in his ass once he was finally located. These generations that continue to fight terrorism in the best way we know how.

    Please don't think that I am not aware of the contribution of Americans of all ages, nor do I wish to give all the credit to any one group of people. I merely point out that these generations, our generations, are doing the best we can with a deck that seems horribly stacked against us. I have always been interested in history and I have the utmost respect for the victims and survivors of Pearl Harbor. The sacrifices they made were incredible. But, in all fairness, nobody asked us to sacrifice our nylons to the war effort, or to build bombers for the troops. I would like to think that our generations, as well as future ones, would rise to the challenge with the same grit and determination as generations past, should we be asked to. Until then, it seems unfair to judge us based on the standards held for participants of WWII.

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  7. For me, personally, I didn't know what to do after 9/11. I wanted, desperately, to do something, anything to help. I didn't have a huge disposable income, but I gave what I could. I donated blood. If I had been capable of meeting the physical requirements of joining the military, I would have done that too. Like you, I was enraged enough to have pushed that nuke button if it had been within my reach. No event comes with a manual for how to react, but I think all Americans have made a damn fine effort. The victims of 9/11 and the soldiers of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the ultimate sacrifice. Their families and friends have sacrificed too. All American's have sacrificed some freedoms and have made permanent changes to their lifestyles. That might not sound like much, but it's still sacrifice.

    Have we lost some of the initial sting of 9/11 that brought us together? Of course we have. Are we a "softer" nation courtesy of all the technological advances we've made? Most likely. But we're still made up of the same fabric that saw us through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, the current wars, the Civil Rights Movement, and everything else that has shaped our nation. Presented with an obstacle, I think we can tackle it. Asked to sacrifice, I think we will. We have to believe that, when it comes down to the wire, we will do what we have to do for our country, for our neighbors, and for ourselves. It shouldn't be about which generation is "the greatest," or who sacrificed more, or which was the most aggressive as these things can only be measured in vast and varying opinions. When the time comes, if we stand up for what is just and right, then we're all "the greatest."

    I hope I haven't offended anyone. I watched the 9/11 specials with my 11 year old niece who was 19 months old when 9/11 changed our world. She doesn't remember the events, the shock and horror, so she eventually reached the point where she was "bored" with the coverage. I can understand where she is coming from, but I fervently hope that we "never forget," not only the events of 9/11, not just the consequences, but the response. It is something to be celebrated, respected, and remembered.

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