Never Forget

The peaceful, cloudless blue sky was a calming stark contrast to the endless lines of red tail lights in my field of vision on I-270 that morning.  Traffic in the Washington, D.C. area is always bad during the first few weeks of school as commuting patterns revert back to post-vacation reality, but this day was worse than usual.  As I hummed along with a country song on my radio I asked myself why the hell did I choose 9am Tuesday morning for a full blown physical?  Why did I choose a doctor inside the Beltway in Bethesda when I lived twenty miles away in a less crowded part of Montgomery County?

I don't remember what song had played a minute before but I do remember the funny conversation the DJs were having was interrupted by one of them saying "oh my God," followed by a few seconds of silence. His next words were something about seeing a breaking news alert on a TV in their studio. Some kind of plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City.

Some Americans remember every minute of September 11, 2001 and some would prefer to forget the day of the terrorist attacks. I'm one who chooses to remember it in great detail and search for some kind of meaning.

In the remaining fifteen minutes of the drive to my doctor's office the radio reports changed from a possible private plane accident to two obvious intentional crashes of passenger jets into two WTC towers. Nobody at the doc's office had heard the news yet.

I heard no more news during the next three hours of poking, prodding, treadmill testing and questions but as I left I could see tears and fear on the faces of the receptionist and the nurse.

My next sights and sounds were unbelievable. Traffic was gridlocked in Bethesda because everything from federal and local government offices to schools to businesses had closed and people were encouraged to leave DC and some surrounding suburbs. I couldn't believe my ears as I heard that another plane crashed into the Pentagon, less than ten miles from where I was, and one or both of the twin towers had fallen. What?!  I thought I heard it wrong and I couldn't even visualize that.

As I crept along congested streets on the way to my office I tried to reach my then wife but cell phone service was also gridlocked.  It took an hour to travel the nine miles to my Rockville office and that long to contact my wife. She was working from home that day and hadn't seen or heard any of this. She turned on the TV during our call and started crying over the images of smoke, debris clouds, replays of the fireball caused by one of the planes as it hit the building. I still had not seen the images but I could hear the fear in her voice as well as the news reporter voices on the radio as they tried to describe the indescribable and sort facts from rumors.

Other memories that day: Stopping for gas next door to work and continued home; there was no point to going to work at that moment.  Hugs of fear when I got home, followed by lining our front garden with small American flags usually used around July 4th.  Picking up our other car from a repair shop that stayed open waiting for us, even though no other business was still open that evening.  I also remember watching the ongoing television coverage, feeling fearful and depressed but unable to stop watching.

Eerie memories of the next day: Sirens and smoke in the distance on my way to work, which turned out to be coincidental traffic accidents and a tire store fire; but those sights were all too similar to TV images of the still-smoking WTC site in New York.  The only things flying were military helicopters occasionally circling my work building, probably because of the rooftop satellite dishes.  I listened to listeners of my radio station calling in their thoughts, fears and patriotic commentary and decided to make that the focus of my weekly public affairs program on the next Sunday morning.

People were incredibly friendly toward each other for the next few weeks, maybe because of the thought that we had been attacked and we really need to stick together.  Friends and strangers talking through the events, sharing news, thoughts and the occasional “I knew someone in the buildings.”
I usually try to draw some conclusion to my blog observations but I’m struggling right now to find a way to end this one.  I said I remember that day and search for meaning in it, but the search goes on with no conclusion.  The September 11th attacks fifteen years ago did not destroy us, yet they did change our whole way of life.  Metal detectors and other security checks are in place not only at airports and government buildings but also at ballgames, concerts and most other large public gatherings.  The kindness we showed each other that day and week has given way to what appears to me to be fear-based anger and lack of civility in everything from private conversations among friends to rhetoric from political candidates.

There is plenty of uncertainty and fear in the world today and in that respect, the terrorist cowards who orchestrated the attacks have won.  On the other hand, an anniversary of that day brings out public recognition of the heroic reactions of first responders as well as ordinary citizens and reminds us of the resilience and spirit of our great nation.  For now, for today, for this moment, that will be the meaning I seek.
World One proudly stands on the site of the twin towers.