I wrote an essay a few years back about September 11th, 2001. The day known ’round the world as the day I moved out of my parents house. Actually, some much larger tragedy happened that day but that is what the essay is about. I explore memory, adulthood, childhood, innocence, and a morning when we all came to grips with an uncertain future. Here is part 1.
We never remember the night before, it always disappears into the past like smoke. I must have been out late with friends: exploring abandoned bowling alleys, night swimming in the cool dark canals that slowly flowed into the wide fields surrounding our town, or perhaps we just sat by the railroad tracks and smoked cigarettes that none of us actually enjoyed.
But I can remember the morning.
Something pulled me out of sleep, probably my father clanking the dishes in the sink or the faint murmur of NPR coming from the living room radio. I turned over and pulled the blanket closer, trying to ease back into whatever dream I had been having. My room was empty, I slept with the mattress on the floor. The rest of my things were boxed up and piled in the corner. I was 21 and moving out later that day, forced out by kind parents hoping to push me into self-sufficiency and maturity. As I slowly blinked awake and stared at the blank spaces on the walls where posters had hung, the empty desk and the duct-taped bed frame leaning in the corner, I caught a bits of panic in the voice on the radio. The sound of it echoed down the hall and through the gap at the bottom of my bedroom door. 1
We are not sure how the plane lost its course…
the emergency crews are now arriving…
a huge amount of smoke is covering the area as the surrounding buildings are evacuated…
the streets have been closed down but are full of onlookers, many trying to understand what is happening…
The voice spit our quick sentences and the paused for long moments as if she was covering her microphone and leaning over to ask someone, anyone, “What in the hell is going on?”, to come back with some snippet of data before covering and leaning away to ask again. I got up and walked in my underwear down the hall to the living room. We had no television but the radio hammered out report after report on the horrible, and then still possibly accidental, plane crash. I looked around the corner for my Dad but he was not in his usual place, lying on the floor with the newspaper spread all around him, propped up on folded pillows.2 Where was he? I looked out the screen door and there he was, standing in the road talking with our elderly neighbor. The man who never invited you past the front step but always met you on the stoop in some strange suburban no-mans land, not negotiating for Christmas eve cease-fires but gossiping about another neighbor’s noisy dog.
What was happening, I asked? The voice from the radio didn’t seem to know. So I walked into the den and turned on the computer, waiting through the long process of booting up.
I became aware of the hijacked plane and it’s intention to be a missile with everyone in it, and to bomb the Twin Towers of New York, while I was drinking my first cup of coffee and reading the news headlines on my big desktop computer. We had no TV hook-up into commercial channels. What was it? Maybe 8:30 a.m.? I don’t remember the initial Google News. I only remember that whatever it was, it was sparse and with such a vague detail and picture, after ten minutes or so, while moving on to other web pages of other interests and then returning to the news page, I realized that this needed much more detail.
September mornings are fresh in the Central Valley of CA. The afternoons are a fever, regularly reaching over 100 degrees, so the calmness of the mornings, their coolness and quietness were my favorite time of day. That morning I didn’t know what was going on until after I got to work. I stopped and chatted, talked to another teacher that morning on my way to my own classroom, but she never mentioned it. Finally, (still before school) a different teacher came into my classroom crying, saying we were being attacked. I went with her back to her own classroom and saw it on the news. It was on every station. I knew my kindergarteners would soon be at school and I knew they would be coming with fears of the events. We planned to have as normal a day as possible for the children’s sake; yet we didn’t know at that time this was something that would spread to the west coast or not. It was before the days of wide-spread cell phone use so it was not possible to grab a phone and call you or dad. I don’t have memories of when we were able to make that connection. I think I called home but can’t be sure.
I moved out on September 11th.
My parents had not kicked me out but forcefully (and lovingly) recommended I find a place with some friends. Now I know they were
pushing me from the nest, motivating me to fly (at least that was the hope)3. A friend was out-of-town for a few months on a church mission trip to some poor African country that needed imported pity, and she said I could crash in her room until she returned. It was not a long-term solution but she shared the house with a cool group of friends and it was known to be a gathering place. My boxes were to be stacked in the garage and all I really needed was a bed, they weren’t even charging me rent. In the weeks and days before the move I had been excited to move out. I would finally have a place of my own where parents didn’t sleep in the room next door, the sound of my father’s breathing sneaking through the walls not to mention the demand for tip toes and whispers as a night owl like myself came home late.
I remember you were a restless young man who wanted to change the world yet you didn’t seem to know where to begin. You were always so emotionally engaged with ‘the present’ that things like planning, scheduling, paying bills on time, etc. were a constant frustration. I think you were aware of the straight, routine, ‘boring’ part of life but the emotions of wanting to be known for making some kind of social change were BIG! I think moving out was a scary thing for you. It was always hard to get you to try new things; however once you tried things they often consumed you (going to camp the first time in 4th working in/moving to [summer camp] the first time). In Turlock (our home in California) you were not working regularly, you were not going to school regularly, you were not driving, yet had GREAT ideas, great plans, great hopes, a great groups of friends, … You needed help trying one more new thing. We told you to try it and then move back home if it didn’t work (I said that but I knew it would work). Like all the other times you just lacked confidence, you couldn’t see what I saw: capability, creativity, passion. I still see it in you today! But today I also see the confidence alongside your creativity and passion.
Finally, the computer had loaded and I started the modem which even at that time was an antiquated and constant source of frustration. I sat as the screeching clicks and beeps came from the box, watching my Dad talk in the street. He hadn’t put in any shoes on and his hair was wet from his washing routine. Something must have stopped him mid routine to leave the house with wet hair 4.
Finally, Yahoo loaded on the home page and I typed in some vague request for news pulled from the bits of facts I heard from the voice on the radio.
Plane + New York + Building + Crash
The page started to load, the line of resolution worked its slow but steady way down the page revealing each tiny line of color. Impatiently I reloaded the page hoping it would load faster but it just started over at the top.
It now revealed a skinny field of blue across the top of the photograph.
So far, so good. Nothing bad happens on a sunny blue day.
Some dark haze jumped onto the screen.
Was that smoke from a fire? Dust from a crash? Where was it coming from?
The top of a building came into view.
The voice said, “We now have reports the plane was hijacked…”
More building. More Smoke. Both revealing themselves in long lines down opposite sides of the screen.
Click. The smoke started to angle towards the building.
The voice: “We now see a second place flying low over head.”
I looked out the window and saw my Dad walking back towards the house, our neighbor already gone, into the dark of his open front door.
The smoke and the building and the voice and my father all came together. The computer revealed a gaping hole in the side of the World Trade Center, smoke pouring out like pollution; the voice went quiet in a gasp; my father walked into the room and stood in the doorway as we saw the image and heard the cries of another explosion.
So I went to my suburban neighbor’s house, across the street, a retired older guy who I guessed was at home and had a TV. I figured this was worth it, as I maybe had an hour or so until I had to go to my job. Not sure how long I stayed, or what we even talked about, just remember a vague but huge sense of STUN.
Unfortunately, I have no recollection of talking to either of you. I don’t know if I called home, no cells in those days, at least not for us. I don’t remember feeling an urgency of HAVING to connect in that instance. During breaks, lunch, etc. I would go into the principal’s office and watch the news with others. Wow! I don’t think I understood the significance of it all at the time. I remember many of the kids coming in, 4 and 5 year olds who had already seen too much on television and had heard too many conversations and comments from parents. We tried to minimize it and make it seem far away to ease their minds and fears.
The streets had been empty as I drove over to the new house, I don’t remember how I got there. I must have gotten a ride from a friend or maybe my Dad. The towers fell during that short drive, I saw the replay when I flipped on the TV at my new house. And now, I was alone in a new place. I threw my duffel bag into Kim’s empty room, mine for the next few weeks, and flopped onto the 1970’s couch with the natty red cushions. The other roommates were gone, probably at work or at their girlfriend’s houses. Wandering around, I opened the fridge and stole a slice of cheese. I peeked into the other bedrooms. I folded my clothes and stacked them on the floor, Kim still had her own things in the dressers. Back to the couch with the incessant replays. Back to the fridge for another slice of cheese 5.
It sucks to be alone on a day like that. So I called Jimmy and Jason and Jared, hoping they had not gone to work and had the day off like I did 6. They quickly showed up under the guide of seeing the new house and then we all stood in silence. Should we talk about what was happening or avoid it in some fantasy world of safety? What could we do on a day like that? The TV just showed the same scenes over and over again. The voices speculated wildly about motivations, origins and those responsible. Jimmy said, “I don’t want to sit here all day.” Jason nodded in agreement but offered no suggestions. Jared came up with the idea, “Let’s rent Red Dawn. It’s about all of this,” he gestured in the air with his hands, like the terror was circling around him, “We might as well be prepared7 .”
So we all walked to the video store, right up empty Geer Avenue, the main road through Turlock. It was a silent ghost town. We rented the film, an ‘80’s B-movie about a Soviet/Cuban/Nicaraguan invasion of a small farm town in rural Colorado. Watching a movie about the start of World War Three didn’t seem to macabre and watching Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen kick some invader ass probably provided some deep catharsis in that recently post-adolescent ways 8.
What a strange way to spend that day. Surrounded by violence on the news, anything else would have seemed trivial so why not just give a cinematic and sub-conscious surrender? We sat and laughed at the kitsch of the movie. We winced at the stilted acting and the special effects but we also gave in to the clear and present danger on the screen. In our heads and on the TV news that we checked every hour or so, there was no clarity. No one knew what the hell was going on. So we watched a world with clear enemies, though swarthy with Tom Selleck mustaches, and who eventually lost to a rag-tag gang of kids much like ourselves.
1 Technically, now my parent’s spare room as I had just spent my last night in it.
2 I now find myself doing this very thing always thinking, “Holy #$@*! I am my father!” Which is not so bad.
3 And look at me now!
4 It is possible that he still had shampoo in his hair. My father washes his hair in the sink, lathering a thick layer of shampoo before he walks around the house letting it work into his scalp for a good 15 minutes, reading the paper under a mound of suds and towel around his shoulders. His hair routine was set in stone and to see him with it out of whack was a more telling harbinger than the spotty reports on the radio.
5 I owe you some cheese Scott.
6 All of the J names are purely coincidental, they are just the ones who answered my calls. Scott was at work, Trevor didn’t answer and Matt was still mad at me for dating his ex-girlfriend, though she had just recently dumped me for the bass player of a hardcore band.
7 Jared has always been the pessimist, but on 9/11 I don’t think any glasses were half full.
8 Red Dawn, released in 1984, is the first film to receive a PG-13 rating from the MPAA and was cited as the most violent film in the Guinness Book of World Records. “With a rate of 134 acts of violence per hour, or 2.23 per minute.” It may also be important (most likely trivial) to note that while on my bachelor party my friends and I played a drinking game to the “carnage counter” feature on the DVD, taking a shot with every tick. Huge shots if the scene involved a bazooka in anyways. Needless to say, I don’t remember much past the opening scene.
Part 2 will come soon. While you wait check out this amazing memorial to 9/11 from my favorite composer, John Adams.