Based on the header, you will know that I am back in London where coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is non-stop. I feel as though I’ve over-eaten. It is too much for me, so it isn’t much of a stretch to think that it is also too much for you. Nevertheless, I will share my personal 9/11 experience. I was flying from London to the States when I heard the news. The following is a recollection column that I wrote some nine years ago for the Wet Mountain Tribune.
Extreme turbulence had me on the edge of queasy. The beverage carts and the flightattendants who manned them were both locked down.
Tightening my seatbelt, I assumed a studied attitude of nonchalance. Surreptitiously, without removing the instructions from the pocket, I tried to read the plastic coated card that told me how to act “In the Event of Emergency.” I wished that I could remember the details regarding flotation devices. Was the device under the seat or was the cushion itself the device?
And then the pilot’s voice came over the intercom. “I have some” (his voice cracked) “I have some very bad news.”
My first thought was “We are going down and my affairs are not in order. This is not a good time for me to go.”
The pilot continued, “We have just been notified of terrorist attacks in New York. Our destination is St. John’s, Newfoundland. When I know more, you will know more.” Moments later, he turned on the radio in the cabin so the passengers could hear the news as it was breaking.
My first response was one of relief. Other people might be dying, but the good news was I was not. My relief was primitive and not flattering.
While the Twin Towers burned and ultimately consumed nearly 3,000 people… while one plane flew into the Pentagon… while another plane crashed in a Pennsylvania cornfield… while thousands of work-a-day people showed courage under fire… my fellow passengers and I on Delta flight 11 were about to join other international travelers on Fantasy Island. Within six hours, 27 planes landed in an airport that normally received only four trans-Atlantic flights per week.
Security demanded that we de-plane with only our passports. My flight was assigned to Mary’s Sacred Heart Regional High School. Once there, teachers, students and the community lavished us with food, favors and their undivided attention.
We slept Spartan: four strangers to each wrestling mat, but the townsfolk brought us with sheets, pillows and blankets torn warm from their very own beds. Donated towels, toiletries and clothing made life without luggage more pleasant.
Live music, free manicures, sight-seeing, hiking, art therapy, games and pub crawls distracted us from the outside world. Under the supervision of teachers and students, young passengers spent their four days in “camp.”
Yes, we watched television, but watching was limited. The staff and students kept us occupied. Every time I sought solitude, an eager student would try to engage me in a group activity.
If I ever needed reminding that our perceptions are framed by our experiences, this was it. While the world-at-large shuddered at man’s inhumanity to man, I basked in the loving arms of community.
If you had asked me at the time… if you asked me yesterday… I would have said that the events of 9/11 did not affect me personally. But that was yesterday.
Today, as I was walking back from the market to the flat, I thought a picture of a long line of Regency-style houses would make a good header. So I raised my camera and took a couple of shots.
Only to hear an irate, Middle Eastern woman scream at me: “Are you taking pictures of my children!”
My goodness I was shocked. I lowered the camera and answered, “I didn’t see your children. I was photographing the houses.”
She looked at me hard. Time passed while she decided. I gave her my best grandmother look. Finally she said, “You can’t be too careful these days.” And then she turned and entered her house.
My response was to think, “I need to write about this!” And I walked away framing the story in my head. And then I got to the part where she was a Middle Eastern woman. And I stopped short. Yes, she was Middle Eastern, but any careful, wary London mother could have confronted me. Mentioning that she was Middle Eastern would be unfair to her… and yet… and yet a part of me wanted to add the Middle Eastern bit. Why was that? Perhaps 9/11 touched me more than I thought.
My husband says our basest instincts are tribal. I think he may be right.
Rising above the tribal: that’s the thing.
Write about 9/11. Consider your thoughts on the day and then move to the present. Has time changed you and your thoughts? How so?
If you haven’t read Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, you should give it a look. Based on the tightrope walker who frolicked between the Twin Towers in 1974, McCann’s book focuses on the walker (not named in the novel but in actuality, Philippe Petit) but surrounds him with a wide range of New Yorkers whose lives interconnect that day. The drawing below is by Andre Da Loba. It accompanied a review by Jonathan Mahler of McCann’s book and ran in the 7/29/09 issue of the New York Times Magazine.
Read the book. It is that sense of connectedness that buffers us from tribalism.