After walking across Capitol Hill on errands this morning, seeing the greatly enhanced security that has been brought out in light of a potential terrorist threat this weekend, I sat at my computer and started reading through the news. A 5-minute video on Yahoo went through the events of that terrible day, starting with the carefree news on the early morning about Michael Jordan rumors and other things, and then the belief that this plane crash was an accident, and then the horror in the newscasters' voices upon learning that it was not. I felt that heart-wrenching feeling, that labored breathing, that welling up in my eyes that has been common ever since the creation of YouTube allowed such clips of that day to be replayed over and over again. One of the main pictures at the Los Angeles Times
page remembering the attacks was an image that has been burned in my mind for ten years, flashing on those difficult nights of sleeping--a lone man, white shirt and black pants, falling from the towers. Tears well up in my eyes. Another picture of the crowds gathered at the windows in the tower above the burning hole, fighting desperately for air-- I choke and remember the confusion I felt watching that in my classroom before the teacher shut it off. A video, next, of reactions to the attack from around the world-- screaming of an old woman in New York as she sees the tower collapses, our noble friends in Britain playing our anthem at their palace as weeping crowds stand at the gate, people in Poland and Russia and Vietnam and Australia and Brazil and France weeping on their knees, holding our flag, and placing flowers outside of our embassies. I begin to weep, and just sit in my room and do that for a short while, reliving that day as most others are.
As the stories often start, it was a beautiful day. Normally I watched television when I ate my breakfast, but for whatever reason--I can't remember it--I did not turn it on that morning. I ate my breakfast and got ready for school; my brother and I always had to be there extra early because Mom worked in the school office. We pull out and begin driving down the road; I flip on the radio-- there was a show we usually listened to in the mornings that played good music and had funny hosts, a man and a woman. Today, though, they were not that funny. I frowned and turned it up; they were talking about planes crashing into the Twin Towers. My first thoughts were of disappointment; only a few weeks prior, I had seen a preview for the upcoming Spiderman movie that had a helicopter trapped in a giant web between the two towers, and I had thought it looked cool and eagerly added them to a list I kept of buildings around the country I wanted to see some day.
When heading past the train tracks, we see two students walking along-- Jill, in my brother's class, and Kate, in mine. We pick them up; I'm too distracted to say hello, because the radio said they think a plane had hit the Pentagon too. This is when I start to worry, and look at my mother. "That's where the military is run from, isn't it?" She nods, a frown on face. The female host starts to cry, as the man tells us that one of the towers had just collapsed. We pull into the school parking lot. It is a small, Catholic school; 120 students total. A third of them were Air Force brats; most of the small town, Lompoc, was tied to nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base. My mom goes into the office, my brother and I to our respective classrooms. My teacher is sitting there, staring at the television with wide eyes as it replays a tower falling; as usual, I'm the only student there yet, and I sit with him and watch. They confirm the Pentagon was hit. My teacher heads to join the other teachers and staff in the office; I stare at the running masses and clouds of dust. Suddenly, I get worried; my father was on business in Australia, and due to be coming back today or tomorrow. I go into the office and peak my head inside the teacher's lounge, looking for my mom; I listen to their conversation a while. They are worried. Are we under attack? Should we cancel school? If this were an attack, Vandenberg--which controls most missile defenses on the West Coast--is said to be one of the primary targets to attack. No, we'll not cancel classes yet. Let's see what people say. I get my mom and tell her my father is supposed to be coming back today. She says he'll be okay, we'll get in contact. I am about to insist I talk to him immediately when a 1st-grader walks in, quiet and slow. She comes over to my mother, tears in her eyes, and whispers that her mother--in the Air Force--is in Washington, D.C. this week. I sit with her a while and we hold hands.
The teachers tried to keep to routine, but especially among us older students they just let us watch, turning it off when the images became too brutal. At the end of the day I remember getting home and flipping through every TV channel, shocked at how many had coverage--even the ones that normally don't show news. I stay up late as firemen and other people are trying to get people out, and they talk about people stuck in the rubble using their cellphones to call for help. It is well past my bedtime, and I'm just standing in front of the TV; why aren't they getting people out? They need to be getting more people out. There has to be more than that who are getting out. My mother sends me to bed. Teachers try to talk about it during the next week, but they can't. A few days later we are sitting at dinner, the television on the country music channel in the other room-- a patriotic song comes on, my mother suddenly stands and runs into the other room; my stepfather chases after her as she sobs and asks why they did that to all those people. My brother and I look at each other and keep eating in silence. At Mass that weekend, I sit with my mother, brother, and some of the other teachers. We end mass by singing the National Anthem; on the walk back to the parking lot, I remember Mrs. Ofstead remarking on how much more real the anthem seems now. Rocket's red glare, bombs bursting in air-- and our flag still there.
I pick up on that and look up the full lyrics of the song about a week later. It is the first time I ever read any of the additional verses to our song. I read the startling line-- "Then conquer we must, when our cause is just, and this be our motto: in God is our trust." It is the first time in my life I ever really looked at that word, justice, and tried to figure out what it meant. I had a sense of it; I knew that what had been done was not justice--and thought that, maybe, justice was the opposite of what had happened. The people around the world crying with us, the groups of Americans going there to help find people and clean up, the food and clothing and money drive my school did, the trying to find out and stop those people who did it. Maybe that was it. I would not seriously consider the subject until college, of course, but for the first time I looked at it.
Life did become somewhat different after that; or, rather, I became more aware of things in life, perhaps. I'm still not sure. It is hard to remember, and even harder to describe, what childhood in the 1990s was like-- the only thing to note is that it ended on that day. Seeing those people jumping to their deaths changed it all, and our responses altered seemingly simple things. The only time I had ever seen men with large machine guns standing alongside the road was in Mexico; now I had to pass by such men and other fortifications every morning outside of Vandenberg's main gate on my way to high school. I flied a lot as a kid, and now when I flew they treated everyone as suspicious; I used to love airports-- they were fun and happy places. More military planes seemed to fly in and out of the base after that; loud and rattling our windows. As I grew up, friends and classmates of mine, and my brother's, would join the military and be sent to fight in places I couldn't even find on a map that morning. Few have been hurt, thank God. But the idea when we were riding our bikes around town as children that they would be getting shot at later in life was so, so foreign. I am grateful to them and their bravery, and pray for them, and pray that their work may help make it so that my nieces and nephew and their classmates, born after the attacks, will not have to do the same thing.
This week, there is another reminder of some change. I was sitting and watching the president's speech the other night with a group of students from Hillsdale College, and afterwards the news came of this car bomb threat in Washington and New York this weekend. Briefly, concerned looks were exchanged by some--should we ride the Metro or go to any of the monuments or memorials this weekend? Such concern never existed ten years ago. Neither, though, I think, did such resolve-- the consensus was no, we aren't going to let these puny men keep us in fear. "Triumph we must when our cause is just." And the American cause surely is. We will mourn the dead, reaffirm our belief in justice, and cheer the demise of the beasts who did this to us. We will cry, sit in somber silence, and then continue to live with the memory of those who perished. The image that most stood out to me today when looking at these pictures was taken on the dusty streets of New York after the attacks: Liberty remains unscathed
, and it is the only way forward. Thus be it ever