I wasn’t planning on writing anything about the anniversary of 9/11 but all the other memories being posted today dragged mine back up to the surface.
In September, 2001, I was on break from college, staying with my parents on the far west of the country. I was 19 and still trying to decide if I was going to sign up for a Sophomore year or try my luck with something else.
As we were four hours behind everyone else, I got a phone call at an ungodly hour from one of my closest friends. We’d known each other for years and been roommates in the dorms the previous two semesters. He had family back east that had given him a similar call a few minutes earlier.
I fumbled at the phone until it stopped beeping and put it to my ear.
“Dude, turn on your TV.”
“Just do it, turn on the TV.”
From the tone of his voice I knew it was something serious, but just because it was a big deal to him didn’t necessarily mean it would be to me. And it was 5 o’clock in the morning, what could be so important? With much cajoling he convinced me to get up and go to the living room.
I switched it on and the screen filled with a building pouring out black smoke.
Satisfied that I was paying attention he got off the phone to make more calls.
I still didn’t know what was going on, nobody did at that point. A plane had hit one of the skyscrapers half a world away.
My dad left for work, my mom came and sat on the couch with me.
I honestly don’t remember whether we saw the second plane hit in real time or whether it was one of the thousands of replays that day, it all blurs together, but it soon became apparent that this was no accident.
We watched the towers hit and fall, over and over again for hours as all the talking heads tried to make sense of it. Terrorism. That was the word of the day, but no one really knew anything.
I had work that day so I had to leave. At the time I was a waiter at a diner downtown. A couple blocks away was one of the main roads and it dead-ended into the largest Army base in the state. Before even arriving at work I could see the traffic backed up for miles. The terror threat had jumped the less alarming colors and the security measures had increased dramatically. Cars were being searched, there were dogs everywhere, men with guns watching everyone very, very carefully, traffic inched forward.
My boss, who was an all around horrible person, was just as shook up by the situation as I was and that prompted her to somehow make one of the nicest decisions I’d seen so far. We packed up boxes of to-go cups full of coffee and walked to the traffic jam, handing them out to all the soldiers stuck in their cars.
It was a small gesture but we couldn’t think of anything else to do.
The rest of that day was spent in a daze of disbelief.
And fear. Terrible, creeping, undeniable fear.
For those who were too young to understand, or born after 9/11, this is all history. It’s easy for them to see it as a singular blip in time, one horrible action that hasn’t been repeated. But at the time we didn’t know what was coming, we didn’t know if this was a first strike in a coordinated attack. We didn’t know if this was just the beginning of something even worse. Would Chicago be next? Would it be trains, or bombs, or gunmen at the malls? We didn’t know, and that was terrifying.
I was 19, not currently enrolled in college, what if the government started the draft again?
Of course, all our hearts went out for those that lost their lives, and all our support went out to the men and women responding to the situation… but underneath all of that was this uncertainty that ate away at us. We had all been blissfully unaware of danger, children really, in a stable life, a safe place, far from the horrors we heard about on the news in countries we couldn’t find on a map, and that innocent naivete was wiped out in a single morning.
That was the point. That’s the goal of terrorism, to terrorize, and it worked.
A year later I joined the Navy. Originally I’d signed up for the Marines but the Navy process was months faster at the time. How much of that decision, and all the others that followed, how much of my life was changed by that day I’ll never know.
But I do know I’ll never forget it.