Saturday, September 11, 2004

 

A Personal Remembrance of September 11th.

It’s hard to believe that it has been three years since September 11th, 2001. At times, it feels like yesterday. At others, it feels like a lifetime.

My story of that day is a twisty one, but really, not a very interesting one-- but it is my own.

Before I begin, let me set the stage for how I feel today, living here in Arlington. You see, to most anyone here in DC, or New York, 9/11 has become such a part of our lives that we now talk about it fairly easily. Any time old friends get together, whether at a Christmas party or a birthday lunch, the conversation will inevitably touch on the events of that day.

“How ya been?”
“How’s the job?”
“Where were you on September 11th?”
I’ve had that conversation easily a hundred times, in a hundred different places. So often, in fact, I joked with friends that we should all print up our stories on cards, so we can just hand them to others when they ask and thus cut straight to the point. Anyways, these conversations must fulfill a basic human need to connect, to share how you felt that day, the day when everything turned upside down.

Now, I live in Arlington, but my story isn’t about Arlington. Or New York. It’s about sunny Los Angeles, California.

See, I’ve called Virginia home ever since I showed up at college, but in the summer of 2000 I was bitten by the wanderlust bug. Given how I work in national security matters, it’s not like I have many good-paying job opportunities outside of this area. However, in May 2000 an opening at Los Angeles Air Force Base popped up and I grabbed it, figuring that it was as good a time as any to “see the country” and live somewhere else for a while. I left knowing that I’d probably return to Washington, DC, at some point, but I didn't know when.

Alas, it didn’t take too long for me to reach that point. By the spring of 2001 I was really homesick—I loved L.A., but I loved Washington more. All my friends are here, and better jobs as well. To scratch that itch as soon as possible, I worked out a temporary duty assignment to an office near the Pentagon. So I came back to DC to work for the summer of 2001, with the hopes of finding something more permanent back here.

Although I lived out of a hotel room for five months, I really enjoyed that summer. It was great to see all my friends again, and earning five months of government per diem ain't a bad deal at all. I also managed to find that new job in DC. I still had to go back to L.A. for a few months, in order to outprocess, pack up and move. I flew out of Dulles to Los Angeles on the morning of Saturday, September.8th.

About 6:00 AM on September 11th, I got a phone call from my friend Mike, who works in downtown DC. In that tone normally reseved to announce the death of a relative, Mike told me to turn on the TV. Now.

My L.A. apartment was a studio, so I all I had to do was roll over in the futon and grab the remote. After turning on the TV, I’m pretty sure I cursed a few times before I hung up on Mike.

NBC. The Today Show. Matt Lauer. The first plane had already hit.

Before I could really absorb what was going on, I watched the second plane come into view and crash into the South Tower.

Now I was definitely cursing.

I started calling everybody I knew. Mike, Polak, A.J., Coover, my brother Thom. Thom lived in New York City-- Manhattan, in fact-- but on the 11th he was actually in L.A. for a business meeting. I got through to everybody a few times, mostly just to collectively say our "Holy Shits," but as the hour wore on I began getting the busy signals that would become a hallmark of that day.

I then saw people beginning to jump.

Flipping channels, I hit Jim Miklaszewski saying something had just hit the Pentagon.

I had worked in the Pentagon for three years before I moved out to L.A. It was a building I had friends in, friends I had just seen less than a week before. Friends like Lori, and Mary Anne, and many others.

Obviously, by this point in the morning I couldn’t get a hold of anyone on the phone, let alone my friends in the Pentagon.

I remember being oddly detached during that hour. Unlike some, I didn’t think I was watching a movie; I definitely knew this was all painfully real. Yet, it still felt somewhat removed from reality, as if it was all a dream that would simply disappear the moment I woke up.

I then remembered that my co-worker Brian was driving me to the base that morning, and would arrive at my apartment at any moment. I quickly called his cel phone, and luckily I got through. Brian hadn’t turned on the TV or radio that morning, so I was the first person to tell him what was happening. I told him to just park his car and come inside to watch the TV for a little while, just to get up to speed.

As Brian and I stood—I remember standing, not sitting—in front of my television, we kept turning to face each other as we talked. We were both pretty nervously excited. Because of that I didn’t actually see the South Tower go down—when I turned back to the TV, all I saw was the giant cloud of debris rising over Lower Manhattan. It took a while for me to realize what had just happened.

A tower had come down. Countless people had just died as I watched in my living room. I was a bit in shock, but still on my feet.

Brian said we had to get to work. I tried to convince him that there was no way anybody was going to be doing any work at the base today, that we should just call in and stay home. But Brian insisted, and so we got in his car and off we went.

The radio station in the car was simulcasting ABC’s television feed, so we listened to Peter Jennings on the way to work. We had barely pulled away from my apartment building when Jennings announced that the North Tower had just fallen to the ground.

I cried a lot when I was a small child, but by my teenage years I seemed to have lost the ability to shed tears. I get choked up here and there, but it never hits the spigot anymore. Hell, I even buried my own mother with bone-dry eyes. It’s not that I don’t feel the emotion, and it’s certainly not macho posturing. It’s just that I don’t cry.

When the North Tower came down, I began to cry.

It was a bit awkward, as I was in the car with Brian, and he's not all that emotional, not even on that day. At that moment, however, I became unhinged.

Good Lord, we just lost all those people.

Who the hell did this to us?

We are at war. We are going to kill lots of people for what happened today.

The rest of the day is a blur. Like I figured, we weren’t at work thirty minutes before we were told to go home. The base didn’t open for two days (unlike the Pentagon, which was famously “open for business” the very next day). I eventually got through to Lori, who was okay, if understandably shaken up. I mercifully didn’t lose anyone I knew personally, and for that I am grateful.

My brother showed up later that evening, after his meeting concluded. Good man that he is, he brought a six-pack with him. Thom had spoken with his roommate, who worked near the World Trade Center. When the towers came down, Thom’s roommate was able to duck into a store off to the side and thus avoided the debris cloud. We spent a long time just sitting there watching the TV, barely speaking at all. There was simply nothing to say. I remember Thom getting so upset at one point that his grip nearly broke the armrest on my futon. I wasn't far behind.

I remember Guiliani. I remember Bush, and the earliest criticisms leveled against him by the likes of Jennings, who, unlike the President, didn’t have to concern himself with being the leader of the free world at that particular point in time. I remember the endless lines of fire and dump trucks going into Ground Zero, and everyone’s hope that people would still be alive underneath the rubble.

I remember that day, and suddenly, it does not feel like so long ago.

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