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...