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Thursday, September 11, 2008

September 11th: Who were you?

It's a day like any other, really. The morning air is a little crisp. The school buses are running. Traffic flows like there is not a care in the world. It's hard to believe it has been seven years. If you were born in late 70's or early 80's you only have knowledge of this one event as a definitive moment in your history. I have a few and my parents and grandparents have plenty more. What defines a historical event as having to serve as a marker post in our memory. By that, I mean who decides that something is so important that it requires the question, "Where were you when...?" Does it have to be a tragedy? Can it be a happy occasion? History is more remembered for what went wrong as opposed to what went right. With that as a primer, I figure I might as well relate my 9/11 tale as everyone with an outlet for their thoughts or writing is prone to do these days.

I was living in an apartment about 20 minutes outside of Pittsburgh. My job as a Customer Service Representative kept me at weird hours. I was working 10:00 am to 6:30 pm. My clock radio was set to go off just at 8:30 am just like every weekday. Somehow, I must have bumped the alarm switch over to radio instead of off because the seven minute snooze delay passed and the radio came to life while I was showering. After finishing, I distinctly heard voices in my apartment. I was still dating my wife at the time and thought she had come over and was watching television. I gave a couple "Hellos" before realizing what had happened. Since it was the morning radio show that I liked, anyways, I left it on while I changed. That's when I heard it. It was right after 9:00 am and one of the guys said a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. I thought it to be a horrendous accident resulting in pilot or mechanical error.

I switched off the radio and headed into the living room to watch the news on CNN. Sure enough, there was the footage of the plane going into the tower. What I didn't realize was that I was watching footage of the second plane hitting and from the angle of the camera, I didn't know the first plane had already hit. At this point, I had still chalked it up to an accident. The crawl told me otherwise as I began to read that it was the second plane. My heart sank. "This was no accident." I thought. Realizing I had been standing there for a half hour, I hurried up and got my ass to work.

By now, I had forgone my normal morning radio station in favor of one that broadcast The Howard Stern show. After all, he was in New York City at the time. With one eye on the road and another in the air, reports started coming in about more planes. I remember thinking it was a rather beautiful day. The sky was so clear and blue. On any other day, I might not have noticed how perfect the weather was or even cared. Today, it was noted and has been forever remembered.

Sometime around 9:30 am and the news of the Pentagon being hit just came over the radio. I was in utter shock. How was this happening? Should I continue going to work? Do I need to make preparations for a war? What are we doing to combat this? All these thoughts raced in my mind while each one of us on that highway drove along a little slower listening to how this all unfolded.

I got to work and began my shift just as Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, PA. Now, it was truly real. When it was New York and the Pentagon there was a feeling of just being a spectator. But when we heard that a plane crashed less than an hour away, by car, from where we were sitting, it took on a whole new meaning. Again, more reports about more planes being hijacked. It was hard to tell which information was real, rumor, or just someone hearing the same story in a different way. In between phone calls I kept trying to get information from the Internet but most news sites were being crashed by the influx of people hitting the sites. In one of the conference rooms, someone had put the projector on CNN and we watched in shifts on a big screen.

I hadn't heard from any of my family or even from my girlfriend by the time the second tower had fallen. Not that I really worried about them. Although, with unconfirmed reports about exactly how many planes had been hijacked and the fact that they had gone from hitting specific buildings to just crashing in fields I began to wonder when the next crash would occur. The day seemed to go in slow motion. I still couldn't get anyone on the phone because of everyone being on the phones. Later I found out my girlfriend was fine. She had been student teaching at a nearby elementary school and they were in lock a down. Parents couldn't even come get their kids and there was a blackout of information in an effort to shield the children from the horrors. My wife tells me that she told people that they should have this on for them. This is a tragedy and it affects us all. These kids need to know that we are not safe, right now.

After work, we both sat in my apartment and just became numb from watching the news coverage. It was at this point that I felt my worst. For whatever reason, whether it be the need to feel something either more horrific or less, I expected there to be more attacks. I thought this was an all out war. It seems rather morbid but I felt like there should have been more destruction and I almost wanted it in a sense. Not that I wanted more people to die, but it was like there should have been more crashes. We decided to take a break and walked outside my apartment. It was dark, now. Usually, when we would look up at the sky, we would see all kinds of air traffic. Being 20 minutes South East of Pittsburgh lent itself to being a thruway for planes on their way into Pittsburgh International Airport. But that moment, the sky was for lack of a better word, silent. The air did not have that familiar sound of jets. There were no little blinking lights with vapor trails streaming across the sky. There was an empty pit where my stomach was and I didn't know how to feel.

As the days came and went, I couldn't seem to get enough news coverage. As they found another survivor or a body in the rubble I wept no matter what. As life began to resemble some form of normalcy I kept waiting for more. Where was it? It was such a sudden attack and then nothing. Why haven't we found these people, yet? As more and more information came out and the complexity of this plan was revealed to the nation, I was in shock. This had been in the works for awhile and I didn't know it. That clip of Mohamed Atta walking through airport security on an endless loop burned into my mind.

Suddenly, that pit in my stomach became filled. It was filled with anger over what had happened. We were attacked. Someone came into our country, hijacked our planes, and killed our friends and family with them. I was all for retaliation at that point. I was an advocate for the use of extreme prejudice against these terrorists and their organization. I was realizing why I wouldn't be a good military man or President. My emotions were ruling in place of good judgement.

Don't get me wrong, I still feel anger and bitterness every year. I still get choked up and nearly breakdown every September, thinking about all the families that lost someone in the attacks. I still can't believe after seven years we still haven't caught the man responsible for propagating these attacks. Sometimes I wish I could just go overseas and look for him myself. I don't want to join the military and fight. I just want to sneak in, find him, and bring him back for justice. Killing him would be too nice and might play into his beliefs. He deserves a lifetime of pain and suffering.

Since 2001, I've been to New York City and seen Ground Zero. With all the hustle and noise of the street, there is a pocket of silence that surrounds that place. I stood there and just wept. It was hard not to completely break down into sobs. I've been to Shanksville, too. It's a long drive and being in the country, the silence is even more pronounced. The wind whips along the field and takes your breath away every so often, which is rough when you have enough trouble breathing from the lump in your throat. It's a somber place and even more so because it's practically in my backyard.

With seven years behind us since that day, I wonder if I will be affected when there is 10 years gone or 20. When the invasion of Kuwait happened in 1991, we began living from news hour to news hour. The 24 hour news cycle was born. Since then, it's grown faster. Our attention span has dwindled to nothing and we absorb sound bites instead of articles. We scan and move on quicker as technology advances the playing field. In 20 years will we even remember what the day was like? The little things that stick in our mind may blend into a tableau of bits and pieces of information that we've committed to memory in order to answer the question, "Where were you?" And then I think we forget to ask the question, "Who were you before?"

9/11 changed the way we live, work, and play. You can't say certain things without coming under observation. Travelling is now a serious thing. Our beliefs have changed. Our trust in the system that is supposed to protect us has been tested. We are different people, now. Those of us with even the greatest of tolerance for those who do not share our views have had that moment where we felt afraid of someone who didn't look like us. We profile. We suspect. We jump to conclusions before all the facts are in place. We are our own 24 hour news cycle. We're more concerned about getting the results before we have a chance to check the facts. Part of it is our Attention Deficit Disorder and maybe part of it is trying to stop another tragedy before it can happen. Sort of an internal Minority Report version of pre-crime.

As we sit and reflect or visit and commemorate, ask yourself, "Who were you before 9/11?" The answer may surprise you when you think about who you are now.

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