It was a lovely morning. I remember that clearly.
I was driving to work. As is typical of me to this day, I was running a few minutes late, and the bright sunshine caused the standard delays at certain key points on the highway as solar glare becomes an issue.
On Interstate 93 South, just south of the weigh station and just north of Exit 3, is one of those two points. And it was there when the talk show I was listening to came on with a special bulletin: a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
I was surprised, as was nearly everyone. And as is my mind’s wont, I started searching for historical precedents. When I was younger, I’d had a copy of a book called “The Sky Is Falling” that told the true tale of a B-25 Mitchell bomber (the type that was used for the 1942 Doolittle raid on Tokyo) that crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945, and it came rushing back to me.
When I arrived at work, I immediately jumped on a computer and started searching for details on that accident. It wasn’t overly relevant, but I latched on to that prior accident as a lifeline, a way to focus on something manageable, something not too bad.
The boss had set up a TV in the main work area, and we all watched while pretending to do our jobs. I glanced over on occasion, but I was busy trying to find those utterly-irrelevant accounts.
Then I heard one of my colleagues utter a shocked profanity. When I looked up, he said: “another plane just hit the second tower.”
My frantic attempts to mitigate what was going on, to cast it in a historical context and diminish the horror I saw unfolding before my very eyes, shattered into a million pieces and was cast to the winds. The old saying that “once can be an accident, twice a coincidence, but three times is enemy action” was forever proven wrong.
All I could speak were five words, repeated several times.
“Holy shit. We’re at war.”
Almost nothing got done that day at work. I recall that I had to do almost everything twice, going back to each task to finish the details I had neglected the first time. And all day the TV sat out in the open as events unfolded.
I was horrified when the firs tower collapsed. All my hopes and frantic denials came crashing down with it, and I knew, with a sickening feeling, that its brother would follow. Less than half an hour later, it did.
I remember even the erroneous reports of that day. The explosion outside the Capitol Building. The astonishing tale of one World Trade Center survivor who “rode the rubble” as the building collapsed, escaping only with broken legs when he finally reached the ground.
I remember calling a friend of mine who worked 3rd shift. I woke him at around 11:30 and told him to turn on his TV. He was barely coherent, but did so when I said “we’re at war.”
I remember my boss sending me to the local Red Cross offices and asking what we could do to help. The following day, we gave them about $1,000 worth of goods and services, and he spent all afternoon as a volunteer as they were flooded with volunteers. I remember notifying my boss’s boss about how much he’d given away of the company’s assets on his own authority, and how damned proud I was to work for him. The day after that, I was sent on a tour of several other of our locations, collecting more items, and delivering them to the Red Cross, probably in excess of $10,000 worth (retail). Nobody cared to total it up — we did all we could, and all that mattered was that we couldn’t do more.
I remember thinking that this was a Tom Clancy novel brought to chilling life. He’d ended a book with an airliner being used as a flying bomb. He’d opened the next one with the president standing at the rubble of the crash, talking with firefighters.
I remember the staggering thought that every single airport in the country was shut down. That air travel was non-existent, for at least a short time.
I remember hearing how Canada had cast restraint to the winds and took in literally tens of thousands of air travelers suddenly denied their destinations. It reminded me of another time America has attacked by Islamic militants, and our embassy was overrun in Tehran. Six Americans were caught outside the embassy, and they turned to the Canadian embassy. They were kept safe and secret there until faked Canadian passports could be ginned up, and the Americans flown out to safety. Thanks yet again, Canada. It’s been said before, but it cannot be said enough.
I remember my boss was absolutely no fan of President Bush. He called him “President Quayle,” and I had a hard time arguing with him. I wasn’t overly impressed with him, either. I saw him as a caretaker president, a seat-filler like Ford, someone elected as a way of cleansing the national palate after a distasteful previous administration. He didn’t strike me as having any real goals or mission or vision of why he was president, just that he felt he ought to be there. But on that day, a man I saw lacking a purpose found one — or, rather, a purpose found him. And I was relieved that Bill Clinton’s hand-chosen successor would not be in charge of the aftermath of this horrific day, because this was not a tragedy, this was not a disaster, and most of all this was not a crime.
This was war.
And when war finds you, you fight or you lose. You fight or you die. Or you fight and you die.
You don’t call the cops. You call out the Army. You send in the Marines. You order the Navy to sail in harm’s way. And you tell the Air Force to take wing.
I didn’t know who the enemy was. No, that’s not quite true — I knew who a lot of our enemies were, but I didn’t know which had scored this lucky sucker-punch on us. But I had faith that we would find out, and our vengeance would be awesome to behold.
But no amount of revenge, of “reprisals” and “retaliations” and “deterrence” would alter one instant of that terrible day, when 19 men armed with items you can pick up at your average dollar store forever changed the world.