9/11: A Day Like Any Other, Until
It has been twenty years since life as we once knew it changed. Twenty years gone by, a lifetime to some. A generation that was not around pre-9/11 has lived the first twenty years of their lives knowing nothing but the ramifications of what happened that morning. I know there will be hundreds of retrospectives in the days to come pertaining to 9/11. It will be easy to get lost in the shuffle but I feel I need to write about it to help purge the feelings that never really subsided, how it still stirs feelings in me unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.
I’ve shied away from writing about it for 20 years, thinking who am I to write about this? It was such a monumental day that changed all of our lives, who am I to discuss it in this manner? I did not personally lose anyone to the attacks. I did, however, have family that ended up risking their lives in service of our country fighting in the wars that grew out of that day. Thankfully, they served their tours with distinction and made it home to live their lives in peace and prosperity. Others did not. They made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, for their brothers and sisters in arms.
I am grateful to them and all who volunteered to serve our country during the last twenty years to protect the homeland from another attack like 9/11.
Like all other Americans, 9/11 had a direct effect on my life starting with what I saw that morning.
The day started off like any other day. It was a cool morning, and I was up close to dawn before everyone else in the house, getting ready for work. I grabbed a flannel shirt to keep warm until the sun came up, put on my boots and quietly headed for my truck. As I drove in to work down towards the Ohio River Valley I rolled my window down to get blast of the morning’s crisp, cool air to help wake me up.
The view coming off my hill then was always a favorite of mine as I corkscrewed down what the locals call Power House Road. The valley unfolds on the first bend. You can see the whole southern end of town plus the apex of the Veterans Bridge that spans the Ohio River from there. I stopped at the store to grab my morning iced tea down on Main Street and saw the familiar faces getting their morning whatever to start their day. Coffee, cigarettes, scratch-offs, a newspaper, the little things that each of us need to get our motors running.
Like I said, it was just like any other day.
Coming down the road into Half Moon Industrial Park, named after the half moon bend in the Ohio River that winds around it, I crested the last hill before dropping down the rest of the way into the valley. Surrounded by the hills, I noticed the pre-dawn skies beginning to change as the sun was on its way up for the day. I got to work a couple minutes later. Again, nothing out of the ordinary. The nighturn guy gave me the lineup for the day. I spoke to a few of my buddies then hopped on the fork-lift and got to it.
As I went about my business I made it a point to go out and watch the sunrise from the docks, as I would do on many occasions. I remember how brilliantly blue the sky was that morning. Enough so that I stayed a little longer than usual to take it in.
Later that morning as I was carrying a load of steel to the front of the plant the Foreman stopped me. He was a friend of mine, one of the few guys I worked with that I could have conversations with that went beyond the regular subjects that most talk about at work. Even though we have not worked together for years now, to this day he is a very close friend of mine. He was in the morning staff meeting when his pager (yes, a pager) kept going off. He said to me “come on, my wife has been paging me about something happening in New York, let’s go to the War Room.” The War Room was our conference room that just happened to have a TV in it. We turned it on and within a minute we saw the second plane hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
We both stood there stupefied by what we were witnessing. So many emotions began to overwhelm me. Jim said to me “who would do this?” I immediately answered “Bin Laden, it’s that son of a bitch Bin Laden man!” Jim had no idea who I was talking about. I explained the other attacks that he had a hand in before that day. Jim was familiar with the incidents but did not know about Bin Laden’s involvement in them.
When it came to my knowledge of Bin Laden, it had a lot to do with my voracious appetite for history and staying dialed into current events both international and domestic, a true news junkie. As an example, I used to read three to four newspapers a day minimum, along with gathering information any other way I could. I thought to myself in those first few minutes standing there with Jim, he tried it before and failed, it has to be him.
His name would pop up in my research before that morning. Kenya/Tanzania, U.S.S. Cole, then leading back to the first bombing of the World Trade Center plus other terror-related incidents. His hands were dipped in the blood of innocents across the world throughout the nineties in the name of his jihad.
Jim and I split up not long after the second plane. I tried to call my wife but could not get hold of her at the time. Within minutes of that I was told about the Pentagon and that there may be more planes. I ran back to the War Room to find it full of people by then watching in horror at what was unfolding before their eyes. It was then that we all saw the South Tower collapse on itself. It was sickening, a feeling of shock, dread and utter sadness that I’m sure was being felt across the nation and the world at that very moment. The gasps, the crying of some in the room with me that day is as vivid to me as of this writing as it was then. Soon after, the North Tower fell. I walked out of that room in a daze. I headed for the docks and immediately looked up at the sky. I have never seen the sky as crystal clear as it was that day. Not one cloud, not even a wisp.
As I gazed into the azure sky I went from a feeling of sadness and confusion to one of clarity. My family. I need to figure out what to do with my family, I thought to myself. If the nation was truly under attack, I needed to get my wife and daughters together.
I finally got in touch with my wife not long after. She was out having breakfast with her aunt at the time and was totally clueless about what had transpired up to that point. By that time, I had found out about Flight 93 which had crashed about one hundred miles away, by air just mere minutes from where I was located. I would learn later that it tracked right over my hometown when it made its turn back towards Washington D.C.
We decided that she would go home and wait. Monitor what was going on and keep me informed. As for our daughters who were in elementary school at the time, we would leave them in place but be ready to scoop them up immediately if the situation called for it. We didn’t want to alarm them unnecessarily if we did not have to at that point.
As the morning turned to afternoon things began to come into focus. The attacks stopped. The government took what steps it could by then to give us some semblance of safety by shutting down air travel nationwide, a true Herculean effort considering the logistics of landing thousands of planes safely and expeditiously.
I made it home from work before the girls got home from school. I sat there on the floor in front of the television, by now in seething anger of what happened. Knowing that the world would never be the same from then on. Wondering how we could fight against people who are willing to use their own bodies as weapons. That type of dedication or fanaticism, the will to give up your life for a cause, to callously murder innocent people in the process of supporting that cause, how will we combat that? How will we defeat that? Can we defeat that? I know I was not the only American at that very moment contemplating the very same things.
Soon after, my daughters made it home. The school did a good job shielding them from what had happened. As they should have, they left it up to the parents to find a way to explain it. I thought about it long and hard. I knew they would be confused and upset about it. I needed to find a way to make them feel comforted to know that it will be okay, even though I was not sure at the moment things were going to be okay. They were very young, eleven and five, young enough not to completely understand the ramifications of it all but old enough to question what happened and why.
While thinking of how to approach the subject with them I thought back to January 28, 1986. The day I sat in school as a junior in high school and watched the Challenger explode right before my eyes. My “Kennedy Moment” up until 9/11. While the subject matter of the Challenger Explosion was not even close to what happened on 9/11, the feelings of shock, confusion and sadness were very similar.
I came home from school that day harboring all those feelings. It would not be until later that evening while laying on my parent’s living room floor in front of the television that I would be comforted. It was not my mother or father who made me feel that way. It was the President of the United States of America who would. President Ronald Reagan was supposed to give The State of the Union Address that evening. Instead, he gave a speech written by Peggy Noonan that made me feel like he was talking directly to me. The words and the way he delivered them reached me in such a profound way that I felt better, comforted by him in a time when I needed to be.
“I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff,” Reagan said. “I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”
These words helped me to cope with what I was feeling that day. So when it came time to talk to my daughters about 9/11, I leaned heavily on my experiences dealing with the aftermath of the Challenger Explosion and how President Reagan reached me as a one of those schoolchildren he mentioned. He delivered the message to me with his calm, reassuring demeanor and simplicity, and from that I knew what I needed to do. I had to set aside the anger I was feeling at the time to comfort them. To make them feel like Reagan did for me fifteen years earlier.
Of course, I had to speak to them individually due to their difference in age. My youngest was easier, being only five. I did not have to go into as much detail as I did with my eleven year old but by the time I was done with them I knew they were okay. In a way I was ok too, no longer angry but content. Of course I had no idea what the future was bringing my way that evening but my wife and I made sure to keep things as normal as possible for our girls.
That evening, the oldest had recreational league soccer practice. After checking if it was still a go we decided to take her. My wife stayed home with the youngest and I went along with the oldest to practice. She bolted from my truck over to her teammates and coach. I found a spot on the bleachers. The sun was beginning to set by then. The bleachers faced due west and that made for a perfect view of the sky and its splendorous shades blue, not one cloud or contrail in the sky. My hometown is in the flight path of Pittsburgh International Airport, so planes overhead are a common occurrence. To see the sky without any evidence of plane traffic was something very out of the ordinary.
As the children ran up and down the field, doing their thing, laughing, chasing each other around the field, I noticed that the parents sitting around me were sullen and silent. We were all in our own thoughts, probably trying to make sense of what happened that day. None of us ever spoke. We watched our children play with the backdrop of a sublime sunset unfolding before our eyes on that clear fall evening, unsure of what the future held for us all.
We parted ways with half-hearted nods and waves once the sun set and practice was called. The day was over. Life had changed forever. We just couldn’t fathom how much.
In the days following 9/11, patriotism reigned. The country was united in their grief. No one could have contemplated that what happened that day would spawn twenty years of war. Objectives shifted. Trillions were spent, thousands of lives were lost. A whole generation of warriors who served in the “War on Terror” are left now to question whether their efforts fighting it were indeed worth it in the end. American Citizens might be questioning that now also. The finger-pointing has already begun. There is a lot to unpack going back through five presidential administrations. Defining their successes and failures along the way, dealing with an open-ended war against an unconventional enemy that is just as committed today to the demise of western civilization as they were twenty years ago.
We can only hope that the lessons learned during the last twenty-plus years when it comes to dealing with terrorism will teach those in the corridors of power that their decisions come with accountability and will be viewed through the lens of history, which will define whether their actions were just and in the best interest of freedom for our nation.
Even with the current division we are experiencing in the United States — some of it legitimate, most of it not — I have faith in our nation and its ability to heal, to overcome, to persevere. We are the greatest nation the world has even known. We are not perfect and never will be but when we are united there is nothing we cannot accomplish. Think back to the days following that terrible day, dear reader. We were truly the United States of America. It was not the first time we came together, it will not be the last.
E Pluribus Unum