Sunday, September 11, 2011

Witness to my History, September 11, 2001-2011

As the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 drew nearer, I thought it was important to start documenting my own experiences of that day, and what it means for me now.

I have been through many of my grandmothers’ various letters, have spent time with my great-aunts and uncles, have seen the family connections to WWII in medals, uniforms, and honors, and actually wear a WWII-era family heirloom every day, but in all the time we spent together, a discussion of what they experienced on December 7, 1941 – when they learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor, never took place in my hearing, or, as far as I know documented for the family histories. Their lives, and their descendants’ lives, were shaped in ways that are still being felt. For that matter, I have no record of what my parents or aunts were feeling and experiencing on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated. These particular days shaped their generations.

This blog, while being entertaining for me and a few family members and other miscellaneous readers, is really intended to stand as a record for my nieces and nephews of my life. When they are older, I hope they can this personal history to inform and shape their understanding of their silly ol’ Auntie Nettie.

While I have noted the anniversary every year on the blog, I hadn’t ever really ever written down my perspective of events. In the early hours, days, weeks, and months, we—the nation and world—were all in a state of shock and survival. Survival often means coping; by carrying on, suppressing, or glossing over things. With the passage of ten years, it felt right to try and delve backward in time and try to articulate … something, anything, to put a personal connection on what the kids will soon be learning about in their history and social science classes.

Ten years after September 11th , (and I honor that day by not abbreviating the date, because it seems more proper somehow), so much has changed. It has been analyzed, fictionalized, and theorized countless times. Many of the major players have written their accounts, or been captured or killed. The political and physical landscapes have changed. Security procedures have changed. Words like “threat assessment,” “pat-downs,” and “watch-list” are part of new lexicon. So soon into a new decade and millennium, one simple fall day has ended up shaping and informing our world.

These are my recollections.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Let me preface this with some context. I was not in New York City that day. That particular chapter of my life had not yet started. Unfortunately, it was such a huge tragedy that no one went unscathed.

We all knew someone who was affected, or knew someone who was. We might not have realized that we knew someone, until the flyers for the missing went up – even as far away as my southern-Westchester County, New York commuter town. When parking lots emptied at the end of evening rushes that week, you began to notice the few cars that were never picked up. You noticed the flowers later placed upon them, and then marked their absence when the cars were finally towed away.

Years later, during a visit to a friend many states away, you’d freeze when looking out a second-story window of a bookstore, having not realized the location was in the direct assent flight path of local airport. Your friend would find you, pale, sweaty, and trying not to have a panic attack in the middle of the aisle, because, for one split second, you had the thought that the plane taking off was going to make a direct hit.

You watch planes in the skies more carefully. Is that one flying too low? Why? Is that its usual flight path? Is that a normal banking sound?

Even now, you worry for a former colleague’s husband, a New York City Fire Department officer, who responded to the calls that morning and wasn’t heard from for many heartbreaking hours. One of New York’s bravest, who after taking cover under his rig as the Towers fell, spent hours searching for victims and then days and months working on “the pile.”

Your now daily commute to New York City via Grand Central Terminal and the subways under Times Square are never quite “routine.” You have to remain vigilant – to “see something” to “say something.” You scan the fellow passengers while maintaining the New York look-through-you/I’m-in-my-own-world gaze. You begin to notice when the “usual” National Guards and NYPD officers are augmented by additional troops, SWAT teams, and sniffer dogs. You wonder what the “chatter” is saying.

But that is now.

This was then.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ten years ago, I was living in my first solo apartment in a working-collar section of a suburban town. My little walk-in converted basement studio was cozy, at least to me. Everything was so close together, I could see the television from most vantage points. I was in the habit of half watching, half listening to the t.v. as I got ready to drive to work – at Caramoor those days.

I am pretty sure I was running late that morning. Most offices open at 9:00 a.m., but Caramoor was pretty relaxed, especially after the summer Festival, and I knew I could work late if needed. I wasn’t rushing to get ready, but I hoped to be out of the door no later than 9:00.

I think I was almost ready, certainly showered and half dressed, working on my hair and makeup, when the news was announced that there had been a plane crash into one of the World Trade Towers.

As a history minor in college, I knew that there had been instances of planes crashing into New York City skyscrapers, but those had been decades earlier. The likelihood of this being an accident? Let’s just say, I’m not quite a paranoid conspiracy nut, but a healthy sense of skepticism helps shift through news reports to find the various slants and agendas. A plane crash into such a large, looming landmark could have been an accident, if the plane had serious mechanical issues. But with the river and harbor right there? If the pilot could have avoided the skyline, he would have. My thought was that, of course, it had to be more malevolent, a hijacking gone bad, or something intentional.

Already running late, my preparations slowed down even more, but I continued to get ready for work.

I was still at home, watching the news, when the second plane hit.

I was watching a different channel, so I didn’t see either one of the now famous clips of that impact. In the hours, days, and weeks to come, because they were played over and over again, the impact is indelibly scorched into my minds’ eye. Out of self-preservation, grief, tribute, what have you … I started closing my eyes when the loop queued up to the section where the plane seemingly pauses and then accelerates into the second tower. It’s become an involuntary reflex – to close my eyes when that particular piece of footage comes up. I can’t escape the image though. What my eyes won’t see, my brain can’t erase. It is seared into my soul.

At that point, it was clear that these were no accidents. It was also clear that I was late for work. There was no protocol for something like this. You fall back into what you know. What I knew was … I was late for work, so I left the comforts of home, got in the car, and started the drive north to Katonah.

It has been remarked what a beautiful day it was. It was so, so beautiful – an early fall day, with that pristine sky blue that is unique to September in the New England/New York area, unmarred by clouds, with a light breeze to whisper over your skin, and no humidity to cast a pall over the your enjoyment. The hue of sky blue made the trees seem to glow, that last gasp of the high summer healthy green before they began to leech toward the autumn hues.

But I didn’t really notice any of that on my way up the highway. I was focused on the news reports coming in over my car radio, tuned to WCBS 880 AM.

Honestly, I don’t remember the drive that much, except for the growing lump in my throat and the dawning realization that nothing would ever quite be the same. I fought the tears. With my driving record, that was imperative.

I may have heard about the other planes in D.C. and Pennsylvania, but I don’t remember.

What I do know, is that I was in the car when the first tower came down.

My memory gets a bit hazy after that. I get snatches of images and sensations. Certain things are more vivid than others.

I remember sitting at a red light at a set of lights on the exit ramp of 684N, waiting to make a left turn. My car windows were open and I was listening to the news. There was a semi to my right, also waiting to make that left turn. I think the driver and I were both listening to the same reports. I have a recollection of turning my head and making eye contact with him, a shared “are we really hearing that the World Trade Center is coming down?” glance of disbelief, shock, terror, and primal sorrow. Planes crashing into the skyscrapers we could fathom. The towers collapsing? How was that happening? The light changed and traffic moved on, but I remember that shared glance.

By the time I ran my errand in town and got to the office, both towers were gone.

As can be expected, the office was abuzz. All of us who knew the latest were updating the others. I pulled out my radio to tune back into radio broadcasts, as in 2001 our internet connections were limited. The radio was a faster bet for up-to-the-minute information. We were all concerned for what this would mean for us, our families, but mostly concerned for our work family, especially our colleague/friend’s husband. We knew that as an FDNY officer he would be called in to the Command Center. Little did we know that he was already in the thick of it.

In the midst of this, my brother Jed called from Nevada where he was watching the coverage. I’m pretty sure it was a delay in his feed or they were replaying a piece, because I recall trying not to cry when I said something like “I think you are watching tape, because both towers are gone.” I told him those of us who had made it into work had decided to close the office for the day. No one was going to be productive, parents wanted to go get their children and hold them close, and we all needed to go home.

We weren’t the only office to make that decision that day.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Memories are tricky things. After a certain point, you don’t know what memories are distinctly yours, or what has been influenced, overwritten, or created by external forces. For something as momentous as September 11th and the weeks afterward, perhaps the best thing to call these testaments, is collective memory --one with lots of facets.

Like so many, I spent most of the rest of that Tuesday in front of the television. I tend to stay behind the curve of technology, so was still getting my television signals from aerial reception, in my case “rabbit ears.” Since I was close to New York City, I still could get about five to six channels just fine. Most of the major New York networks had large transmitter arrays set up on City skyscrapers, the majority on the Trade Center Towers. During the first attack on the WTC, the 1993 domestic bombing attack, network signals were interrupted – except for CBS. It was the only major broadcast company who had a transmitter set up elsewhere in Manhattan. Fast forward to 2001, the towers have collapsed, taking the transmitters with them. Once again, the only signal that I could receive was CBS. Between the radio and television reports, that day was shaped for me by CBS.

Other facets of my memories from that period:

Family and friends: I know I talked to my parents and both my brothers that day. We were sure that all of our extended family and friends were accounted for.

The only nagging concern in my work family was for Caramoor’s fireman. Late in the evening I got a call from my one of my co-workers, the only time that the office emergency calling tree had ever been put to use at that point, to spread the word that “our fireman” had been heard from, located by his extended blood-family of firemen, and that he had called home to reassure his wife. While all of us at work were relieved, our happiness was tempered by the growing knowledge that the losses stood to be horrific.

Work: Most of the rest of the week remains a blur. I know I went to work. I know we all tried to be productive. It was a time for taking stock, reshaping solicitation letters, and offering the arts as a balm to grieving souls.

The stories: I listened to the radio on the commute and I remember the personal and tragic stories of those searching for their missing loved ones. I heard stories about what happened to the other planes, the people on them – the children, the couples, and the heroes who took matters into their own hands. I heard the stories about the generosity of the Canadians who took in the stranded passengers of hundreds of diverted flights. Most of all, I remember the accounts of those who experienced little miracles – why they were delayed that morning, who overslept, had to run an errand, or were late to work for the first time ever.

The sky: That whole week, the sky was just that gorgeous clear blue. When we get skies and days like that now in early September, it is a bit bittersweet and a bit eerie. You are almost afraid to enjoy it, afraid to jinx the beauty of it, for fear it will be marred too. Because it was so clear that week, the cloud on the southern horizon made up of smoke from the fires at “the pile” was visible up into Westchester County, coming up via the air currents into the Hudson River Valley. There was a plume for days, casting a pall over the skies even that far north.

The what-ifs: September 11th was about more than New York City. The heroism of the passengers on Flight 93 cannot be underestimated or ignored. Without their sacrifice in bringing the plane down into a field in Pennsylvania, things could be very different. We all now have a standard for behavior on planes and a series of questions to pose to ourselves. Would we step up knowing what the costs would be? What calls would we make in the final minutes? Would you leave a voice message if no one picked up? Who would we call?

Most importantly, what would we say?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A few years later I was in Washington, D.C. for a library conference. We had to drive past the Pentagon to get to our hotel. The scars were still visible. By now, however, the repairs have been made, the paint faded into a cohesive hue, but the work covers a strong building, a sense of anger, purpose, sorrow, and dedication. And yet, the scars are still there – under the surface. I suppose that’s a metaphor for the whole nation. We all still have scars. Somewhere.

For all that I had taken many a trip into the City with my mother over the years, gone with school groups, or gone down for visits during and post-college, I had never visited the original Trade Center site, nor seen the Twin Towers in person. The five boroughs of New York are large, but I tend to stay north of Canal Street. I’ve only been that far into lower Manhattan three times, only once to the site. Ten years later, I still have mixed emotions about going.

For a long time, you couldn’t visit the area. It was cordoned off because of active investigation, recovery, and security concerns. Then it became a construction zone. I understand the impetus that drives people to see things for themselves, especially something as monumental as this was. You have to see and experience it for yourself, make that piece of the national zeitgeist your own.

For me though, it’s still hallowed ground. People died. People were saved. People sacrificed their lives. Even now the death toll mounts. More and more first responders, volunteers, and area residents are getting sick. The memorials all over the world reflect the first wave of deaths. The true scope of the tragedy are still rippling outward from the initial impact – like when a stone is thrown into a pond. The waves radiate outward, getting larger and larger. Who knows what the final count will be?

The first time, and thus far, only time I’ve ever been to the Trade Center area was to take a friend, so she could bear witness for her children – some of my honorary nieces and nephews. Since it was my first time being tour guide in that part of the City, I didn’t know else to get there, aside from walking south from Canal Street. She asked how we would know where to go. I said we’d look for the hole in the skyline and feel the vibe of the neighborhoods change. I had meant to be facetious, but it turns out I was simply prescient. At the time, there was definite vibe about the area that was just sorrowful, even that many years later.

My most recent trip that far downtown was a stroll over the Brooklyn Bridge last month. I headed east toward Brooklyn, the same route that so many took out of Manhattan that day. As I turned around and looked back, I didn’t even think that I should have been seeing the Twin Towers. I had a lovely day and adventure. It wasn’t until I came home and processed the photos that I realized what I should have been missing. It was a realization that my mental picture of the skyline has had a chance to shift. What once was looming large over the tip of the island, still shadows and informs my sense of the City, but like it, we’ve all continued to change, adapt, and survive.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ten Years Later

In the history of mankind, a decade isn’t very long. Scars are still tender. As the commemorative coverage started to gear up, a lot of emotions starting swimming to the surface. Things that hadn't bothered me last year or even five years before are hard to process.

I have friends who have spent the last few years providing music, production coordination, and family assistance during the annual memorial services at the site. But call it what you will, avoidance, cowardice, self-preservation, denial? This year? I am retreating from the field and leaving the state.

I am going “home” for the weekend – to a house stripped to a hermit cell-like state, unplugged from social media, the internet, and away from the 24/7 cable television news-cycle with all the specials and retrospectives. I am not going to get a newspaper and I will not be turning on the radio.

This year September 11th falls on a Sunday, a holy day for most denominations. Rather than be distracted by the noise of the world, I think, for me a retreat to the scene of a safe, happy, and carefree childhood, visiting with dear friends, and enjoying nature is fitting and necessary. It’s important to take stock and appreciate what I have been given. I will be taking my moments of silence, remembering, and praying for peace.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Next generation

To my beloved nieces and nephews, for whom I’ve tried to record all this, what else can tell you that I’ve learned from this important anniversary?

Like my ancestors before me, all we can tell you that you just have faith and … carry on.

Random, horrific, terrifying, and previously unimaginable things happen, everyday, to good people for absolutely no reason. Life isn’t fair. Sometimes there isn’t an easy answer or even an answer at all. Every generation will have its challenges. It is how you rise above, and overcome them, that matters.

There is only one thing that will ultimately overcome all the evil of the world and it is the greatest thing of all.

Because of that, if and when the time should ever come? I know exactly what I would say:

I love you.

Auntie Nettie

1 comment:

kristinsfourkids said...

I thank you for taking me. That was so hard for us both, but I knew I HAD to go. Meg was just 8 months old on September 11, 2001 and only just now knows small details of that day. Somewhere I believe I have my photos of our trip that day. It's hard to dig them up to look at them, because it brings me right back to that moment in 2001 when I heard the horrible news. I can flash back to parts of that day and so much of it is a blur after all this time. I do know I couldn't wait to get home to Meg and hug her a little bit tighter.
Love you N.