Hearing the solemn bell tolling for the 9/11 commemoration today made me suddenly recall that I wrote an essay about that day once. It was a wrenching experience for those of us old enough to remember it and one that still can get a group conversing. It’s not easy to turn that kind of anguish into art but it does a service to your psyche, to the cause of general knowledge, and, sometimes, to the hearts of others to try.
Here is what I made of that moment in its entirety:
Just a Movie
I never saw the planes crash into the towers until after it happened. I burst into the babysitter’s house and offered my apology for the unusual midday intrusion.
“Just had to come get him,” I said.
She stood with her bare feet spread apart in the middle of her living room, her long blond hair falling down her muscular back, a baby in her arms, entranced by the image on the widescreen television before her. The children normally stayed back in the parlor of the old farmhouse but some had strayed across the kitchen and stood watching as well. My son stood there too, blond curls rioting around his head. He was just a couple weeks from four and only a few days away from the early morning visit to the ER that would thankfully make us forget everything in the wide world for the weekend.
We reached one-third of the way home before the lump in my throat cleared enough for me to ask, “Son, were you scared by what you saw on that television?”
“It was just a movie,” he replied. “How can a movie scare you?”
For a long moment, I was sorely tempted to indulge myself in that logic. It did look just like something a special effects crew dreamed up. Maybe my son would be better off not knowing right now.
“It is real and true. They really did crash into the towers.”
“Oh. It was just an accident then.”
I thought so too at first. The first plane sounded like a colossal glitch. The second one told us there was a lot more than met the eye. We grown-ups tasted a lot of fear that day. Kids, like my son, who might experience outlandish terror at the sight of an open closet door at night, just shrugged. They would grow up with this story (assuming it was just the one feeble stroke of bizarre luck that a low-tech terrorist syndicate could muster). This would be to them as JFK’s death was to me, born a few weeks before it happened and unable to share in the stories people tell of that day.
For those of us who remember it, however, that day would be a touchstone. We would remember certain things about it with biting clarity. I remember the morning sky as the bluest I’d seen since the high desert. I actually thought, “What a great day!” Later, I thought “What a price you pay for such thoughts.” A deeper part of me just responded, “Jinxed you!”
The worst parts are those that cut close to the bone. I remember the sorrowful tone of the meeting moderator as she said, “Meeting adjourned due to national emergency. Make sure that’s in the minutes.” I recall the wild look in our director’s eye as she suddenly rose and reeled away from the table without a word. Later the word was passed that she had friends in the towers. I have a mental picture of my officemate and I desperately trying to get a radio signal in the musty old fortress of a building where we worked and finding the Internet too crammed with traffic to respond. I can easily return to the tension that rose in my veins as one of my workmates darted into the room declaring, “They’re going to bomb every fifteen minutes until they get what they want!” No one knew what that was or who they were. The thought popped into my head that if I could just hug my son and take him home, I would feel okay, no matter what else happened.
“I have to leave,” I said to my supervisor.
“Go if you like. Someone’s gotta stay,” she said, with a resigned sigh.
“This is a federal building, you know. It’s a target.”
She had a son too.
Looking out into my woods from my deck that afternoon, I thought it was like the ice storm that ravaged our property when my son was a baby. He would never know the trees that were felled and still lay crumpled on our land. He wouldn’t know the patches of forest across the state that got cleared out, making them tidy and ripe for building. He couldn’t relate to the sounds of the trees exploding under the weight of the ice with a gunshot-like report. I may never tell him how I cried when I poured out the frozen breast milk after the electricity had been gone for a few days. Anything but that! Now he wouldn’t know a world where you couldn’t imagine people crashing planes into busy cities. At least he’ll not remember the crazy, silly things that were done as a result, the peculiar expressions of hate and fear that blossomed in every place they threw things at people who “looked Muslim” or made people take off certain t-shirts.
He will, however, have to live with the security measures that day spawned.
Somebody finally made a movie about that day. The local movie critic remarked that he would never have gone to it if he weren’t paid to and was still tempted to walk out. It was not that it was a bad movie, just that it still hurt to look at it. There may be a day when 9/11 can become “just a movie” but, judging from my own repulsion and the way the mere mention of this day can still throw a conversation right off track, that day is not here.