Remembering what matters.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


"What is all this talking on my radio? Where's the music?" I was groggy, having just been woken up by something--I couldn't figure it out, I just knew it was around 6am, 30 minutes earlier than I would normally have gotten up.  My radio was constant words and chatter, but I didn't bother to listen to what they were saying.  A faint glow was coming down my hallway, which puzzled me more. No one turned on TVs in the morning in my house; it had been discouraged for as long as I could remember, and the idea anyone would even try was an absolute horror to my 14-year-old self.

I got out of bed and went to the living room, too curious to let it go. "Mom?!" I exclaimed. Of all the people in the house who I thought would violate the no-TV rule, she was the last. I had expected my brother, since my father had had overnight duty at work the night before. I was about to start asking about the TV when I finally saw how stiff she was sitting, how she hadn't even looked my way when I'd said anything.  The remote control was in one hand, the telephone in the other.  "Are you ok? What's wrong?"

And then I saw the TV.  I remember the smoke, mostly. Lots and lots of smoke, from every direction, from everywhere, no matter which way the camera turned.  I saw the headlines on the screen, but nothing really made sense.  I had only vaguely heard of the Twin Towers, but I had no idea what they really were.  The idea that she was watching a movie flashed in my head for a second, but the layout of the picture was clearly a news channel. "What's going on? I don't understand.  What's happening?"

I've forgotten a lot of details about that morning, important things that I was so sure I'd remember years later. I have no idea if I saw the second Tower get hit. I don't remember any of what the news anchors said. I don't remember if I saw people on TV, or just the constant pictures of the towers. I'm certain I saw the Towers fall, but I don't have a memory of it.  What I do remember is the fear, and the hurt, and the terror on my mom's face and in her voice when she told me that planes had been flown into the Towers. That planes were being hijacked, and that they were saying it was terrorism.

What an ugly word: terrorism.  What person could ever justify an act meant to incite terror into people?  How does anyone feel they are working towards the greater good if the means are by fear and intimidation and destruction?  Even when I was younger and it was just a word tossed around the military lifestyle, I knew the implications and how wrong it was.

Hearing my mom say it, and the TV, and everyone else that day, all I could think was how that word had never meant anything to me before. Being a military kid, certain words are always in your vocabulary, but their meaning never comes to fruition.  They're part of history, given reason long-ago.  Those words aren't in my present. They're just not.

But they were, and I felt that terror when my mom looked at me and said, "Your dad called me and told me to turn on the TV, and not to worry about him. I can't get through to him again."

And I learned that even when you are 2,831 miles away from the worst national tragedy you never thought to imagine, you can be affected.  You will feel your own version of tragedy, of doom and helplessness.  You don't have to be in that city, in that state, even on the right side of the country.  Because when you see and hear that every station of power, every military base has been shut down, evacuated and/or on lockdown, you will feel the world get pulled out from under you.  And you will understand how widespread the attack was, how it was meant to break the country, not just the people who lose someone in the plane crashes and hijacks.

Without too many details, my father had overnight duty from September 10-11, 2001 at the largest Naval Air Station on the West Coast. He was one of the personnel in charge of the base the day, the hour, the very minute that these attacks happened.  He was one of the officers to evacuate everyone else and stay behind with the other officers in the event they would have to take action. That if for whatever reason, the west coast would have to respond or launch air defenses, my father would be a part of it.  That if for whatever reason, the terrorists decided to turn a plane towards the west coast, my dad could be at a target.

I'm very lucky that my fears never became real, that my only tie to this entire tragedy was a viewer and a possibility; never a true victim or one left behind.  It doesn't make me feel any less of this, but I understand that how much I can and will feel towards that day is blessedly limited.

When I think about 9/11, I don't like to think of it as a catalyst, as the worst day in my lifetime, as an ending.  I feel that does a disservice to those lost that day. It is a tragedy, it is a never-should-have-happened, it is a never-should-happen-again.  It is sadness, and anger, and frustration and fear and confusion and something that no one can ever truly understand.

But it is also a day that, no matter what was going on, we were all one. It was a day we came together as support, as hope and love and concern and belief.  It is the day we discovered what it is to be an American, or what it means to simply be human.  It is a day that we were all the same, that the rich where not the richer and the poor were not the poorer; that employees aren't the only workers and the glamorous weren't the shiniest.  It was a day where it was an honor to be alive, a blessing to feel and a gift to be able to touch someone.

Sometimes I do get angry about it still, and sometimes I do blame the day for a lot of other things that have happened. Like making me actually take notice of the danger levels when I'm on base.  Or being the reason for a war that has taken on its own meanings and angers.  For that very war taking away my friends for years at a time and altering them into the men they never should really be.  For that same war taking away a friend, permanently, and altering my heart in a way that never really should be. For the security that my father enforces once again as an airport employee. For changing the way of life by force and fear, rather than through learning and evolving. For creating such a deep sadness and tragedy into millions of lives.

But I always know that ultimately, it was a day where the hug was never tighter and the "i love you"s never meant more when my dad walked through the door that afternoon.  And that, too, is something I will never forget.

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I'm fairly obsessed with penguins, Peanuts (the comic), and the TV show Friends. Parentheses may or may not be (over)used in this blog, and books will pretty much be the only thing I ever talk about because they are my One True Love.

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