Tell my grandchildren. Tell them about that late summer day of blue morning skies and a brisk hint of fall, when all of a sudden, out of pristine cerulean, there came crashes, infernos, and collapses, and thousands died.
The twins are seven, in second grade, innocent of bad people and horrific events in world history. On September 11, 2001, they weren’t a hope or a dream; they weren’t even thought of. They were born seven and a half years after 9/11, the attack on America. They don’t know.
It’s like me being born the same stretch of time after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I have no first-hand understanding or compassion of it, except what I learned in a few paragraphs in a history book—and the stories my mother told me. That day she sat with her parents, brothers, and sisters in front of the radio and listened to the news and the president’s declaration of war. She was twenty. She told that story over and over during my growing up years.
So tell my grandchildren. They will only read a half page about it in history class one day.
Tell them that 9/11 is short for September 11, 2001. On that day, 19 men hijacked four commercial airplanes. They flew three of the planes into buildings. Two planes hit the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in New York City. The crashes caused the 110-story Twin Towers, once the tallest buildings in the world, to collapse.
The third plane hit the Pentagon in Washington DC, our nation’s capital. The Pentagon is the headquarters for the armed forces of the United States. The fourth plane, likely headed for the US Capitol building, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania because its passengers and crew fought back and kept it from reaching its target. Nearly 3,000 people died that day—people from 90 different countries. A terrorist group called al-Qaeda did this. The terrorists thought that by attacking famous and important buildings in our country and killing and harming many people, they would frighten Americans and force us into changing our policies and point of view about the Middle East.
Tell them that on the first anniversary of 9/11, their grandmama and Poppy drove to the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home in Brentwood, where nearly 3,000 little wooden crosses had been erected, one for each person who died in the attacks. Tell them the red crosses represented firefighters, the blue crosses represented policemen, the gold crosses represented children, and the white crosses stood for all the others.
Tell my grandchildren what they can bear.
And tell them my story of that day, like my mother told me hers. Because stories help us to feel the moment and picture it and experience it like we were there. Because remembering and telling will help us all to stay alert and vigilant and to take care of America.
My 9/11 Story
I quote from my journal of 9/11/01: This day began like any other day. I woke up at 5:30, let the dog out, and got a cup of coffee. It was cool, in the 50s, and a beautiful morning.
A crew of painters arrived that morning to paint the trim on our house. We decided that Charlie would stay home, give instructions, and get them started, while I went to the office to take care of important details before returning home to exchange places with him.
Driving east on Mack Hatcher Bypass, approaching its intersection with Franklin Road, I heard the news on 92.9 that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I thought a small plane, an accident. So did the deejays, but they also suggested the possibility of a terrorist act. One said, “Oh, gosh, why would anyone do that?” Stopped for the red light, I grabbed my cell phone, punched in the 5-digit code to unlock it, and called Charlie. He would be at his workbench in the garage with a TV just above him.
“You better turn on CNN immediately,” I said. “Something’s going on.”
He had Channel 13’s Breaking News on before I finished my sentence. Then he started a roll . . .
“Oh my God. Oh my God. OH MY GOD.” Accents on different words each time. Short and staccato. Soft and slow. Loud and distinct. Long and drawn out. “OH-H-H MY-Y-Y GOD.”
“What? What? WHA-A-AT?” I pleaded. “What is happening?” He’s an engineer—logical, exact, serious, factual, precise—never emotional or panicky like me.
“Apparently, one plane hit, and now a second.” His voice shook. “I just saw it hit the tower. Oh my God.”
The crew of Mexican painters had gathered behind him, he told me, uttering words in Spanish, shaking their heads in disbelief. He continued, “Get the essentials done quickly at the office, and come home!” And then he uttered the words that still send a chill down my spine: “LIFE AS WE KNOW IT HAS ENDED.”
I was still reeling, my head spinning, trying to achieve a balance with my thoughts, trying to make sense out of all this, not understanding the full implications, the utter horror, the short-term or long-term significance of what had just happened. How could he grasp this concept? How did he know?
Heart thumping hard, I jerked open the office door, bell clanging a B flat above my head, and cried out to our technician, seated at his desk, “What is going on in this world?” He was a part-time employee of the Tennessee Air National Guard. Puzzled at my frenzy, he never took his eyes off me as he switched on the radio. We listened to unfolding, breaking news.
Two planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. A plane hit the Pentagon. The White House was evacuated. Another plane crashed near Pittsburgh. Why Pittsburgh? We learned later that it was headed for the White House or the Capitol.
Hands shaking, I sat down at my computer and typed a quick email to my son. I knew he’d be at his desk, working.
Date: Tue, 11 Sep 2001 08:39:25 –0500
turn on tv–2 planes crashed into world trade center…
No capital letters. I was in a hurry. In a panic. I always use capital letters when appropriate. I’m always careful about my grammar. I’m an English major for godssakes.
I felt scattered. Things were happening that shouldn’t be happening. Gravity did not exist anymore. Everything had gone awry. The whole world had exploded into confusion. Like confetti scattered to the wind. How do you collect it all? I wanted to sweep it all up, to put my world back together. How would we ever restore order again? Where would it end? What other tragedies were lurking, waiting to happen. What else? WHAT ELSE?
Charlie called, “Go do your banking and come home now! I’m going to the store. Going to get some necessities—flour, sugar, bottled water, canned goods. We don’t know what’s going to happen.” I wasn’t sure why we needed flour and sugar, but if that’s what he needed to feel safe and prepared, so be it.
All planes in the United States of America were grounded. All planes were ordered to proceed to the nearest airport and land.
On my way home, I drove across South Berry’s Chapel Road, as I do every day. Over the high hill and down into the beautiful valley, gated community with million dollar homes, green pasture on the hillside, horses grazing, swishing their tails, trees flirting with September yellow, Canada geese on a pond, skies so blue, so beautiful. A plane, an orange Southwest, flew over low, headed to the airport for an unscheduled landing. I slowed and watched it overhead through my sunroof. It would be the last jet I’d see for a long while in normally busy skies. The skies were empty, eerie. And so quiet . . . so damn quiet.
Again, I quote from my journal of 9/11/01: For the first time in my life, I was afraid. I kept looking at the skies—looking for the dreaded long white contrails of nuclear missiles approaching.
I was glued to the TV news the remainder of the day. Watching over and over the plane hitting the second tower. Over and over the towers crashing down, killing thousands of innocent people. Watching gray survivors fleeing, coated with ash. Ashes of victims incinerated. Ashes of powdered concrete. I just stared. I couldn’t comprehend it. I couldn’t process the horror.
I could not react. It was so far away. It was in my living room. It was in my country. America. We live above violence of this nature. Things like this don’t happen here. This is America, for godssakes! We are safe here. We are not safe here. We will never be safe here again. Tears wouldn’t come.
From my journal of 9/11/01: I watched continuous coverage on CNN. CNN’s banner was “ATTACK ON AMERICA.” During the afternoon, I retrieved messages from the office. One message was from the Air National Guard, trying to reach our technician, a navigator. It said, “We are considering this an Act of War.” The guard was on Threatcon Charlie, the second highest alert, with two units on Threatcon bravo. Chilling.
Day in Infamy
Azure skies await.
Three thousand souls march upward.
Birthdays come hard now. I wasn’t expecting this at all. But today (the day before) and tomorrow (the birthday) have expanded meanings and bring an extreme of feelings. So I give in and cry.
One year ago, September 3, at this hour of the morning, I was calling the vet. I knew this was different. I knew it was bad. I took her in. Dr. Dave said, “We can do it now. Or we can do it at close of business. But you can’t let her go through the night.” I’d known this was coming, but no, no, I wasn’t ready. Are we ever? I held my Chaeli, wrapped in a blanket, looked in her eyes, stroked her face. “I’ll bring her back at five.” I took her home and spent the day readying myself, readying her, and fussing at my deceased husband for not coming back to take her naturally. He could have helped me out on this. He held me and we cried together over Molly, our golden retriever, when we had to do it to her. I did not want to go through that again. Alone, this time. I did not want to put this dog down.
But that’s what I did. I went back to the clinic at five and was ushered into the Death Room. I held her and talked to her and told her to go find her daddy (the alpha), as the injection was given. It was quick, so quick, as the dog who would never look at me in the eyes during her entire almost seventeen years, looked at me the whole time. I held her for a long time after life was gone. Then at my request the doctor wrapped her securely in blankets, and I took her home. She spent the night on her favorite vent in my living room.
The next morning, September 4, my birthday, I drove her to the crematory and handed her over.
Now she’s in a box on a shelf over my bed. It feels like everything in my life is in a box. Dead, gone.
Twenty-two days later little Heidi Deering was born. Chaeli and I had planned this together. I was on a waiting list. I picked out my little buff girl with the round head and had eight weeks to heal after the loss of the old girl before I brought a new baby home. Then life got so full, and now I wonder if I fully healed. Because September 3 rolls around again, and I hurt.
I hurt badly. And not simply over her loss, but she was the bottom layer of layers of loss. I won’t go there and name them all, but she was the last thing to go that Charlie and I shared together. And that’s a hard thing.
And Birthday, I don’t know what to do about you. I really don’t. I just really don’t. Birthdays should remind us of good things. There should be cake, there should be laughter, there should be balloons, and maybe sapphires . . . and telephone calls.
Thank you, Neil.