There’s so much about that day in my life I remember, or I think I remember.
I was a housewife, living in the country. I was a good person, I guess, and there’s nothing wrong with staying home and raising children. I cleaned the house and baked lasagna–the epitome of white bread south. Looking back now, I realize how naïve I was, like many others– how trusting of the government and our leaders, so willing to be lead as a country into a war I didn’t understand with a cost we could have never calculated.
There was so much I didn’t comprehend–so much of it I probably never will.
I had initially heard the news that the first plane had crashed into the World Trade Center by seeing the footage on the small television at the University of Arkansas bookstore. The footage repeated, the confusion of what we were seeing, voices over voices…I didn’t understand at first. Nobody did.
Because, at first, it seemed like an accident, a tragic misfortune. Perhaps, I speculated, the captain on board of that 747 had a stroke or heart attack, and this was the fiery result.
I did not hear about the second plane until after my job interview, on the way home in my car. The radio reflected the pandemonium, the sheer panic of the spectators…for once, it seemed, the journalists covering the story did not sound stoic, speaking each word with a measured accuracy. The people being interviewed were breathless, terrified.
That was the moment when I knew this event was no accident. Two planes had been the unwilling weapons of terrorists, essentially bombs with humans as ammunition. It was too horrific for words.
When I returned home, my husband was plastered in front of the television; my dad had called him a few minutes earlier. On TV, people were screaming, sobbing, running through the streets, covered in white dust as if they were victims of a nuclear holocaust. The old women bleeding, leaning on you women, trying to get away from what was now being called “Ground Zero,” they could have been anyone. Images of fire, chaos and terror played over and over. Police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances were everywhere at once.
I never really knew why they called that place Ground Zero. When I tried to research it, Google comes up with some pretty outrageous stuff. There are so many pages devoted to conspiracy theories–a few of these use “Why do they call it Ground Zero” in their titles. The hypotheses are as numerous as the conspiracies themselves. One guy says that they call it Ground Zero because “they” knew it was an inside demolition job. USA Today has an article about businesses that, before 9/11, were called Ground Zero and the fallout that have occurred since–how they had to change their names, etc. Other articles talk about the workers around the site who helped rescue others from the steaming rubble, and their increased risk of cancer because of it. But as far as anything credible, there’s nothing I could point to.
On that day, my husband and I had not eaten yet, so I went to cook pancakes. Lee worked the night shift at a factory that made diaper wipes, and should have been in bed resting, but of course he couldn’t. My daughters were both at school, and Nathan was playing quietly with some blocks.
On the surface, at least for us, everything seemed eerily normal. At least, for a moment, I could pretend.
I could try to block out what this meant to me personally. There was a comfort there in the center of my kitchen, as I mixed the pancake mix and water with a whisk, as I had done a thousand times before. There was a rhythm to the way I heated the old iron skillet to just the right temperature. The buttery smell of the pancakes filled the kitchen, but it wasn’t enough to work on my worry for long. I began thinking of how, at age 30, the kind of world I was raising my children in. Jordanne was eleven, Sarah was eight, and Nate was two.
I can remember pouring the batter, watching the bubbles build in the center and spread to the edges. Then the panic set in. I pictured my sister’s face, blond and gorgeous, and wondered what pandemonium must have been at play at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska where she was stationed. If I’m honest, I knew everything was not “okay.” Not with our country, and not with me.
“A plane just hit the Pentagon!” Lee shouted from the living room.
So America was at war, but with whom? The words Al Qaeda had been mentioned dozens of times, and the blame was being placed there, at least for the moment .
“There are some planes missing! Flight 93 is one of them!”
The pancake turned a golden brown.
“What do you mean, missing?”
“They know because the planes are not on their assigned paths. hey think one of them is headed toward D.C.–maybe the White House.”
“Oh my God…what will we do?” A chill stole across my arms.
“If they find out the pilot has been killed, they will have to shoot it down.”
“Shoot it down?” I repeated numbly, stupidly. I began sobbing. The pancake burned and smoke-filled the kitchen.
“Tina, your pancake…”Lee said, but I stood there, looking at it curiously, as if I had never seen such a thing. When I didn’t move, Lee shoved in front of me and turned off the burner.
“Where is our president?” It seemed he was being very quiet during this whole thing. Later, I would find out that he had been flown to the very Air Force Base my sister was working.
I had a feeling that she would know all about it, and possibly be a part of the planning it took to get him there.
On TV, the broken wreckage of flight 93 carved a cavernous ditch into the Pennsylvania countryside, looking like burning, torn flesh.
Suddenly I was struck with panic. All I could think of was my kids. I wanted to go to the school and pick them up, hold them close. I began to ramble incoherently.
Lee put his arms around me.
“The girls are o.k. I don’t think the terrorists are planning to attach the schools. They don’t need to be picked up.” He was right, I knew. It was unlikely that the terrorists were interested in small town Arkansas. We were hardly a symbol of American arrogance. If New York City was “Ground Zero” then what did that make us?
The rest of the day, I spent watching TV and trying to call my sister. Not surprisingly, the line to her office stayed busy. Frustrated, I hung the phone up harder than I needed to.
On TV, after President Bush announced that this was in fact an “act of terror and war,” people were even more scared, if that was possible. The news depicted aimless wanderers, shuffling through stacks of paper that littered the ground. Why was there so much paper everywhere? Of course it makes sense; it was a shrine to the “old way of life.” But the images of people wading through that paper still haunts me.
At home, the grocery stores were empty. I learned that many of my friends bought large amounts of ammunition, fearing the worst. Many of my friends who did not own guns bought them for the first time. Such a time of fear and chaos was upon us.
On TV, camera angles showed piles of concrete, several stories high. Fire fighters, covered in ashes and blood, dug out bodies with shovels. The rubble was covered in shredded, barely deliverable human artifacts: bits of clothing, portions of walls,shards of glass–it reminded me of human tokens: an archaeological dig.
I also remember hearing of the beating of Muslims, the political cartoons, the everlasting rhetoric of war. On campus at the University of Arkansas, an announcement was made that we were to be especially sensitive to Muslim students, and any threats made against them would be taken very seriously.
It was around six that evening before I was able to reach my sister.
“Hey,” I said, softly.
“Hey.” The background noise was indescribable. Phones rang and tons of conversations went on at once.
“Are you okay? Are you safe?” I asked her.
“Yes, I’m safe, but I’m going to be deployed, probably tomorrow.”
It seems crazy now that she would already have orders. To the rest of us, it seemed like the government drug its feet, letting the frenzied cry for revenge of American blood rise to its fever pitch.
My sister talked later about the fact that she did not even had time to sew on the stripes demonstrating her newly decorated promotion. Instead, she hurriedly sewed them on by hand, late into the night.
I caught my breath, trying to steady it. She didn’t like it when I freaked out about her deployments–and I had in the past. “I figured,” I whispered, swallowing a lump in my throat, trying to clear it away. She had enough to worry about.
“Oh, happy birthday,” I said.
“Right,” she said, with a sigh.
The fragile link between us, even though she was over 1000 miles away, seemed strong. On TV, the American flag flew high. In town, the flag was everywhere.
Now that I’m a teacher, I see lots of veterans returning to school. Sometimes, I can tell the veterans from civilians without even checking their paperwork. Sometimes, I can see the haunted look in their eyes. I see their struggle to make sense of civilian life and college classes. Sometimes, it’s almost tangible–the great effort it takes for some of them to attach importance to something as trivial as English homework when all they can think of is the sense of mission that seems missing and those they left behind. I see them, sitting in the back of the classroom, watching the door. Some of them come to my class physically broken, but most of the scars they bear are nothing less than a symbol of the mutilation of a nation, the castration of a once proud super power.
It’s possible to be patriotic, to support our military, but to still be wary of war. I was a Navy wife for 4 years, and my father and grandfather were also military. I’ve always believed that we should be respectful of those who serve.
Now that Nathan is almost grown, he’s talked once or twice about joining the Air Force or Marines himself. The thought makes my blood run cold. Not because I don’t love my country, but because I’ve seen firsthand the damage done to those who serve.
And I remember.