Memory is a funny thing. So many moments of life go by without much, if anything, to recall about them. Then there are those moments that are frozen in memory, as clear as the minute they happened. I’m sure someone could explain the biological reasoning for this. Maybe the impact of the moment causes part of our brain to store the memory differently. Maybe it’s an association with a sound or smell. Whatever it is everyone has moments like this in their lives. Maybe it’s the birth of a child or the death of a loved one. Maybe it’s moment of happiness. For Americans who are old enough 9/11/2001 is one of those days, a series of shocking moments throughout a terrible day that will never be forgotten.
I wasn’t in New York City, or Washington D.C., or Shanksville, PA. that day. I wasn’t close to any of them, I was at home in the Chicago suburbs getting ready to go to work. My wife had already gone that morning to get to her job in downtown Chicago. I had turned on the TV that morning to watch Good Morning America. I wanted to see the local weather and traffic report because I had a long drive to work and wanted to see what I was in for. What came on was a picture of the North Tower of the World Trade Center on fire. Nobody knew what was going on and the speculation was that this was a terrible accident. Still getting ready for work I pulled out the things I needed to iron a shirt and set them up.
I never ironed a shirt because at 9:03, while I was watching the TV, a large plane crossed the screen and flew into the South Tower. I still remember that moment as clear as when it happened. The shock and horror in the voices of the people on television. You could even hear the anguish of the TV crew. It was obvious that this was intentional and I knew at that point that going in to work was going to be pointless. I quickly called my boss and let him know I wasn’t going to be in. Given that we were in the Chicago area I knew that all hell was going to break loose with people trying to get out of the city and get home. I didn’t need to be on the roads at that point.
I called Melita to ask her if she had heard what was going on and of course she had. She was already in her office at that point and people there were watching the same things unfold on TV. Not knowing the extent of what was going on, and if Chicago was a target or not, people started streaming out of Chicago by any method they could. Thankfully Melita worked right down the street from the train station and was able to get there safely. It was a “load-and-go” policy that day for the trains. As soon as they filled up they were gone.
I watched as the horror of that day unfolded on TV. The announcement of the plane hitting the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The reports of another plane having gone down in a field in Pennsylvania. The collapse of the WTC towers. On and on over several hours. I don’t think I’ve ever felt a sense of confusion and fear like that before or since that day. I’m very glad I wasn’t in New York that day. The terror experienced by those in the direct path and aftermath of the towers falling must have been overwhelming. It was bad enough watching it on TV.
The days after were strange. Returning to work the next day all everyone talked about was the day before. At lunch I went for a walk at a nearby forest preserve as I always did. I always went there to get a few moments to myself and I really needed it that day. The thing I remember most about that walk was the deafening silence. The preserve was in the flight path of planes landing at O’Hare Airport so the noise of airplanes was a constant part of my walks there. For several days there was no air traffic in the US. I hadn’t ever known a moment without airplanes in the sky and those days would have been nice had the reason not been so horrible.
I also remember being depressed in the weeks that followed and questioning the reasons for anything, big or small. I distinctly remember going shopping at Target about a week later and wondering what the point of all the stuff there really meant. The store was almost deserted and I walked up and down the aisles. I stopped in the area that had the Halloween decorations. Rows and rows of things stared back at me. I didn’t have kids yet and I wondered if this was all necessary. President Bush wanted us to get back out and shop and support the economy. Was it all about buying garbage made in China? Is that what people died for?
10 years on I’m sorry to say that we aren’t better off as a country. We have had a ridiculous “security theater” reaction which has done nothing more than make travel by airplane inconvenient at best and an invasion of personal privacy at worst (do we really need to pat down 2-year olds and do bomb residue testing on them?). American society has become politically divided to a degree I have never seen in my lifetime with fringe groups getting the most traction with our political parties. I’d have hoped that as a society we’d have become better after being brought together over such an event but we’ve only become nastier. It certainly was a day that changed everything, just not in the way I think most people would have hoped.