Today we mark the 15 year anniversary of the September 11 attacks in the United States.
While it wasn’t the first time terrorists targeted the innocent (it wasn’t even the first time it happened in the U.S.), it stands out as something that forever changed our country and the people who live here. I think that’s because the attackers were so brazen — hijacking a plane with the intention to kill yourself and as many others as possible isn’t something that a sane person can ever understand — but I’ll leave the reasoning and explaining to people who claim to be experts because I’m certainly not.
Most everyone who lived in New York or Washington, D.C. has a 9/11 story. And while none of them are happy, not all of them end in the same tragedy. Mine started and ended at a kitchen table.
Most people from New York or D.C. have a 9/11 story. Mine starts and ends at a kitchen table.
I had that day off, I don’t remember why. I was sitting at my kitchen table talking to my wife who was making breakfast. She’s the cook and I’m the dishwasher because I can burn water. My phone rang and when I answered it was clearly my mother, completely hysterical and trying to tell me about my father. When she realized that nothing she was telling me made any sense, she told me to go turn the TV on. It instantly made sense when I saw a huge hole and burning debris on the lawn of the Pentagon.
My dad worked for the government. He wasn’t a spy or anything glamorous, but he was part of an “essential” team that worked in any of three different intelligence offices in the D.C. area. One of them was the Pentagon, and that’s where he was when the plane hit according to the list with contact numbers he gave us every week.
Like my mother, I instantly believed the very worst thought that one could have — my dad was dead. To make matters worse, my work phone (a Nokia 5190 that I think I might still have somewhere) rang to tell me that we had people “in the air” who were headed west from Boston and we didn’t know the flight numbers. It took a few minutes of digging through papers and making more phone calls to determine that they were on a flight that had left hours earlier and should be safe. It took a few days to find out where they landed and get them home to their own frantic families, but that’s another story.
My mother and I had a phone number we could call and leave a message so my father could call us back if we needed to talk to him. I’m not sure what things are like now, but back then you didn’t just call a receptionist and have someone paged at the Pentagon, or NRO, or Langley. That number didn’t work (of course) nor did the emergency number or the number for anyone else we knew that worked for the Dept. of Defense. My wife went to get my mother and bring her over so she wasn’t alone, and I sat with my face in my hands for 20 minutes absolutely certain that my old man would be counted among the victims when all was said and done. Thankfully, when my wife and my mother walked in an hour later, I found out differently.
My father did come home days later. Many other fathers did not. This is why we remember.
My father’s boss was one of those important people (or thought he was, I can’t tell the difference) and was able to have someone sent to my mother’s house in the suburbs to let her know that dad was OK. The messenger, a nervous young man in an Air Force uniform according to my mother, was leaving just as my wife arrived. He had a long list of other folks who needed to know that their fathers (or sons, or wives, or … ) were safe, too. I wish I had been able to meet him so I could thank him for bringing good news to my family and others exactly when we needed some good news.
It was about 40 hours before dad was able to call us. I was sitting at the same kitchen table with my wife and my mother and I’ll never forget dad’s answer when I asked him if he was OK — “Yeah. These boots are killing my feet. Have your mother put my sneakers and some underwear in a bag so you can drop them off at the Chantilly gate [another intelligence office that was outside the area] for me. Love you boy.” That was so my dad. And I was so happy to hear it. He never got his sneakers or his underwear. But he did get to come home a few days later, when so many others didn’t.
If you lost loved ones in any of the four attacks on 9/11, or any of the senseless war and violence that has happened as a result, I’m truly sorry for your loss. I can’t say I know how you feel, but I can say I know what that kind of despair feels like, even if just for an hour or so.