Sunday, September 11, 2011

My 9/11 Story

Here on the tenth anniversary of Sept 11th, 2011 my 9/11 story seems hardly remarkable compared to what so many went through. And yet, if my singular perspective is worth setting down, then today might as well be the day to do so. Ten years ago the world changed for my generation. We had no Pearl Harbor, no JFK assassination to remember. The Cold War had been over since before I was a teenager. 9/11 was a shocking wake up call from what now seems like one of the most peaceful and prosperous times in American history. Ten years later it's hard to remember what that time was like, looking through the lens of the divisive and cynical America we live in now.

As well as I can remember it, this was my experience on that day and the time that followed.

I was 19 years old. A sophomore attending Ball State University. That Tuesday, of course, started like any other. I woke and headed from my dorm room in Dehority hall to Noyer for breakfast. Entering the lobby I remember finding it odd that the usual pop radio station was not playing. Instead, there was some kind of serious news program on the loudspeaker. I didn't catch what was going on and headed into the cafeteria. I ate breakfast alone. I remember the room was quiet, but I didn't think anything was particularly unusual. After breakfast I headed out through the opposite lobby. This time catching those important words from the radio newscast: "Attack on America" and something about the World Trade Center collapsing.

Crossing from Noyer to the theater building my head was swimming. My world was already different. We didn't even know who the enemy was, but I remember thinking America is going to war and I was ready to fight for my country if I had to. This was important.

I went to my theater lighting class to find that the professor had the news projected on a big screen. The order of the news events that day has, for me, always been sketchy. It was already past noon in NYC, and most of the big shocks had already occurred before I started watching the news. But I made it to class just in time to watch the second tower collapse live on TV. By that time we knew two planes hit NYC, one hit the Pentagon, and another crashed in Pennsylvania. This was huge.

I had a presentation to give that day. Some kind of lighting analysis. The prof turned off the news so I could give my quick presentation. A couple other students followed. Then we were dismissed early. I headed back to my dorm room to start watching the new like everyone else seemed to be doing.

So many people comment on how eerily clear the skies were that day. But it's true. In central Indiana, seven hundred miles away from the tragedy, the weather was beautiful. Solid blue skies with hardly a cloud. And everyone was looking up to see if something else was going to happen. But there was nothing. Not a vapor trail to be seen since all the planes were grounded.

Many classes were canceled that day, but I went to my next class just to make sure. This was an American Government class. If anyone knew what was going on a government professor would, right? Government class consisted of some speculation about who was responsible for the attacks. I remember strong suggestions about China being responsible. The idea being if we were to go head to head with China in an old-school war, America would be terribly out-manned. We just didn't have the numbers.

This seems so naive to me today. While China may be an economic adversary of sorts to the US, modern nations aren't in the business of physically attacking each other anymore. We just can't be. But that's how we thought about wars back then. Nation states attacking each other. Borderless terrorist organizations just weren't in the cultural consciousness at the time. This professor also dismissed class early, and it was back to the dorm room for more news.

Eventually I got on the phone with my mom. I don't remember who called who. But I remember her crying. She was certain there would be a war and she was afraid I'd be drafted. It's funny remembering that I was ready to go to war, but that my mom obviously didn't want that for her son.

I got antsy watching the news in my own room, and headed to a hall where my friends lived. The behavior in the dorms was usually silly, crazy, crass. But this afternoon it was somber. Wandering from room to room it was more news. More speculation about who was responsible. Waiting for more towers to fall. Who knew there were more than two towers in the World Trade Center complex? Guesses about how many casualties there would be. I remember early guesses that it could be tens of thousands of people killed. Eventually the number was lowered to less than 4000.

Even back then, before each of us had a camera on our phone, it seemed remarkable how many camera angles came flooding into the news stations. Countless videos of the same events. People running through the streets away from clouds of smoke. It's remarkable how earlier disaster movies got that sort of scene right. Then there were the people who jumped out of the towers. That was somehow the most awful sight because there was no fire or steel to hide the death. Even that first day we were asking how many times are they going to show this footage?

By the evening we just wanted to know what was going to happen? What we were supposed to do? But there wasn't an answer. I guess we had to go on as usual. It was my friend Lynn Downey's birthday. We decided to get out of the dorms, unglue ourselves from the TV, and go out for her birthday as planned. We went to the Mezza Luna in downtown Muncie, which is one of the nicer joints in town and sort of like stepping out for young college kids. There were about eight of us there that night. We ordered Italian food, drank coffee, and tried to act like grown ups. We tried to act like this was a normal night even though the only certain thing was the common feeling of uncertainty.

I don't remember when the details of how the perpetrators carried out the attacks was first reported. Despite the reports that this was a sophisticated, complex, and highly-orchestrated attack, I couldn't help thinking how perfectly simple it was. I mean, a few razor blades and a few guys who knew how to fly a plane. That's all it took. And they got us. They in spectacular fashion. And whatever the government is or isn't doing to protect us since 9/11, clearly the enemy hasn't pulled of anything like this again. Bombs on trains and subways across Europe haven't had the scope or impact of what happened that day.

Over the following decade, a feeling has crept in that America is involved in some ideological war with Islam. Or course, politicians try to color that notion by saying that we at war with radical Islam, or better yet, just ideological extremists. The current feeling is that it's been that way ever since 9/11. But I don't remember that feeling cropping up right away. At the time it seemed unclear who these attackers were, let alone what they were. Our enemy was the groups that supported these terrorists, who just happened to be Muslim, not the so-called "Muslim world" as the sentiment seems to be today. Maybe other people remember America turning against Muslims that day, but I don't. As a boy from Indiana, interaction with the Muslim faith or actual Muslims was so far from my personal experience, it hardly seemed like part of this equation to me.

In the days and weeks that followed there was a pervasive spirit of solidarity with New York city. Groups from all over the world were making banners to show their support for NYC. These banners got hung on the sides of skyscapers all over the city. Ball State got in on the act, and I remember painting my name on a giant banner being made outside Pruis Hall. Coincidentally, I hitched a ride on the truck that would carry the banner to NYC. The truck dropped me off at the remote football stadium parking lot where I kept my car at the time. The truck then presumably went on to NYC. Although I heard our banner never actual got displayed anywhere. There was just too much support, I guess.

Six months later, during spring break, three friends and I took a whirlwind tour of Washington D.C. and NYC. We visited the Pentagon on the six month anniversary of the actual day of the attacks. The wounds were still fresh and everyone was still on edge. Cameras were not allowed (and still probably aren't) in the immediate proximity of the Pentagon. I got yelled at for carrying a video camera by some guys in cammo with automatic riffles. Lynn snapped a few photos in defiance of the "no camera" signs. You had to stand across the freeway if you wanted to take pictures with permission. There was still a lot of construction equipment outside the Pentagon. The wall that had been struck, I believe, had been mostly rebuilt. Lynn was interviewed by news cameras about why college students had decided to visit the Pentagon on this day.

Ground Zero in New York was even more dramatic for me. Looking into the giant holes that were still being excavated. The cross that was erected from two steel beams. The charred and mangled globe that had once stood at the WTC, but was moved to Battery Park as a monument. And mostly strikingly, the fences near Ground Zero, which were layered with notices of missing persons, pictures of lost loved ones, and letters of support for the victims and their families. Six months had passed, and even late at night it was difficult to make it through the crowds that surrounded these fences praying, singing, and showing respect for the tragedy that took place there.

In the aftermath of 9/11 and as the facts became known, I clearly never enlisted in the military. Obviously there was no draft. The wars that followed were not the type we had known before or were expecting. This never-ending and objective-less "War on Terror" was not the sort that the masses were eager to enlist in, like they did after Pearl Harbor. Certainly many thousands did enlist as a result of 9/11, but the reasons for war and who the enemy is was often less than explicit.

How my life is now "different" is not as clear for me as it is for so many who were direct victims of the attacks. I didn't know anyone on the planes, in the Trade Center, or at the Pentagon. I haven't lost anyone close to me in the wars that have followed. I've had cousins and old friends from school who have fought, but to my knowledge, they've all made it home in tact.

I've experienced the same changes as everyone else. The increased security at airports, museums, and other public places. As the inevitable government surveillance has increased, I've been part of the somewhat ironic public reaction. As fears of cameras monitoring us everywhere we go increases, so has everyone started to carry cameras on themselves at all times, making their own photos and videos public. As we fear that our personal details will be tracked by the government, so we all willingly make every detail of our lives public through social media.

For me, the "spirit of the nation" has changed. We are less optimistic. We are more divided. More spiteful of ourselves, of our fellow citizens, and of the rest of the world. This is not all a direct result of 9/11. There are political, cultural, financial, and technological shifts that have contributed to this "post-9/11" world.

It's perhaps most ironic that America was never more beloved by the rest of the world than immediately following 9/11. But ten years later we are perhaps more hated than ever. In the time after the attacks there was more unity in our country than any time in my lifetime. But how quickly that turned to become a more divided and ideologically entrenched country than ever.

Those are my memories of the events of 9/11. Somehow both remote and dramatic. And this is how I've experience the world changing since then. In ways both meaningful and ephemeral.

1 comment:

manthy said...

Nice story, I guess we all will remember 9-11 forever.
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