Confronting the Past and Future on 9/11
Like every other American that was alive and old enough to remember, I know exactly where I was when I first heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center, and Pentagon, and the downing of Flight 93 in Shanksville, PA. It was just a month and three days after the birth of my youngest child, and I was pacing in our living room, with him in my arms, as I watched the news reports. Years before, in the dining room just a few feet away, my father would roll out blueprints and schematic drawings of instruments that he developed for the U.S. Department of the Navy, and NASA. That room had been his “home office” for years, and I had spent many hours diligently line-editing almost every report he had ever written for the government. I was a safe editor, because I didn’t fully comprehend what he was writing about, and since I started doing it when I was about 13-years-old, it never occurred to me to speak of the content to anyone – because that would mean I would make my father angry, and that would only lead to being grounded, or worse. As I watched the second plane hit the South Tower, I remember my thoughts going to my father, and being thankful that he wasn’t alive to see what was in front of me.
While my father wasn’t in the military when I was growing up, I was raised almost like a military brat – we just didn’t move around the country. When dad left the Army in the 1960’s, he went to work for a company that built safety equipment for the military. He worked closely with many people in the military for his entire life, so he never really let go of his “military state of mind” from his years in the Army. So, when I was watching the news coverage that day, it was with the immediate understanding that the U.S. would be going to war very soon. The only question was with whom. By the time the Pentagon had been hit, and the South Tower had collapsed, my mind was racing, wondering what would be next. Little did I know that the disaster would hit as close to home as it did.
When the news reported that Flight 93 had crashed in Shanksville, just about an hour away from where I was standing, my phone had already been ringing for some time. There were a few calls from my father’s old friends in Washington that my mother and I had kept talking with periodically – they just let us know that they were safe, and rang off. Because I’d worked with hazardous materials management previously, I ended up getting a call asking if I was available to report to an incident. The news just started talking about reports of a plane going down in the next county as I was on the line, and I nearly dropped the phone. I initially said I could, as soon as I could find someone to care for my son, so once they realized I’d given birth only about a month before, they said they would call back only if they really needed me. That call never came, and I’ve been both thankful and guilt-ridden for that. When I finally did set foot near that field, when visiting the memorial last year, sadly it wasn’t difficult for me to picture it as it must have been after the crash. I’d heard stories about it, because a few of my husband’s friends had been there immediately after, and during the clean-up. One of the men that was in our wedding was the first officer on the scene.
What I didn’t hear about was the clean-up effort in New York, even though I knew at least a handful of firefighters and rescue workers that went north to help in the hours and days after the disaster. I know better than to ask, so there is a very good chance that I will never know what they faced there. All I do know is that each one left as one person, and came back as another. It’s been 12 years, and the events of that day, and the weeks that followed remain an off-limits topic with many people I know, and honestly, I don’t deal well with it myself either.
On September 9th, my father’s oldest brother passed away, so on September 11th, my mother and I had to travel to the city to pay our respects. By the time we were leaving, things were beginning to settle down, and there were no longer requests from the police that people stay off the roads. But, that didn’t mean that everyone decided to go out. As we traveled through the center of Pittsburgh during what should have been rush hour, there was no one on the road, or on the sidewalks below the overpasses we traveled. We saw less than a handful of cars, and as we’d travel along, those cars would stick with us, until they reached their exits, as though the drivers were intentionally gravitating to anyone else they came across along the way. It was the most eerie situation I’ve ever dealt with, and hope that I never see the city I love that silent ever again. By the end of the night, once I’d returned home, and everyone else had gone to sleep, I found myself sorting through my father’s old record albums, and placing one of Robert Schumann on the turntable. I quietly drank a small glass of whiskey as “Träumerei” played in the background, and I sat in my father’s office chair. The record was very scratchy, because it was played so many times – every time my father would have a tough problem to face, he would put it on the turntable while he thought. If I was awake, I would quickly pick up the arm, and start it over for him, as he sat and thought. No one was there to do that for me that night.
My son was a very young witness to history that day, but eleven years later, when the attack on Benghazi happened, he was old enough to sincerely question what was happening. When the news started breaking, I initially thought I would be covering it on one site or another as news, but quickly realized that I probably wouldn’t write a word on the incident until much later. This would be something that would require research, and at least a little after-the-fact analysis of what was being said by the administration. As it turned out, the more important issue would be about what wasn’t being said, and that remains the case to this day. There still are no real answers, and I suspect that I will have to instruct my politically precocious 12-year-old son to make sure that he doesn’t let this atrocity disappear into obscurity, when it comes time to recount the history of this time. He’ll also have instructions to make sure that he honors the memory of Lt. Col. Christopher “Otis” Raible, who died a few days after Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, during an attack on Fort Bastion in Afghanistan.
As for my son, he was quick to question the concept that the attack on Benghazi could be caused by a video, regardless of what the content was in it. He may very well have questioned that before I did. As for the death of Lt. Col. Raible, he also questioned the situation there, and got into a small argument with a teacher over it. Raible was a local “boy” that I can only remember as being the scrawny little brother of a classmate, so his death was discussed in schools here. The kids in town couldn’t avoid seeing local business marquees with messages of condolences for his family. So, between Benghazi, and Fort Bastion, I was inundated with questions, not only from readers and editors, but also from my son. I’d pulled out “Träumerei” after word of Benghazi had gotten out, and that song could be heard nightly in my house until well after the attack on Fort Bastion last year.
Now, we’re sorting through yet another diplomatic mess in that same region, only this time, it’s Syria. Perhaps we’ll end up with a relatively easy way out thanks to the Russians, but no matter what, we still have to face the fact that this administration is continuing to do severe damage to the reputation of our country in the eyes of the world. While I hate saying it, I’m only hoping to make it through this week, particularly the 11th itself, without another incident. It’s a thin hope, but it is still there. As for the evenings here now, while I don’t pull out the record anymore, a digital version of “Träumerei” is readily available on Spotify for me. At least that version is easier for me to put on repeat.