Terror, Infamy and War

Today classes ended early because of a special schedule.  Restless, I decided to drive to DC to visit the Newseum, a museum dedicated to journalism.  I wanted to take my students there, but after looking at the website, I decided I should plan the visit to help them make the best use of their time.  Rob, slammed with work this weekend, declined my invitation, so I set out on my own, in the rain, my wiper blades slashing as my thoughts fumed along a parallel track.

Suddenly, in the distance, I saw movement on an overpass.  As I approached, I saw a tank and several servicemen in uniform, one of them waving a huge American flag.  All around me, a symphony of horns shouted a greeting, accompanied by flashing lights.  A flood of recognition washed over me: how could I have forgotten?  I wanted to hug those servicemen, or at least to wave to them, but I knew I was moving too fast for them to detect the motion.  So I honked instead, adding to the glorious cacophony.

My memories of that awful day are so intense, so clear, it could have been a week ago and not eight years.  Shock, pain, confusion -- and fear, fear so real it twisted deep into the pit of my stomach, where it would sit for weeks afterward.  We didn't know what was happening.  We didn't know when it would end, or if it would end.  We only knew how fundamentally our existence had been altered.  Nothing would be the same after that day.

I spent most of September 11th in the company of some complete strangers.  I was at school, checking e-mail between classes and trying to piece together a logical proof for the existence of God.  I'm not kidding, I was this close to it when another student ran over to my kiosk and grabbed my arm.  "The President has closed down the school," she said.  "The Twin Towers are down."

Annoyed, I tried to make sense of her words.  So, classes were canceled? And why did it matter to me if lower Manhattan was out of communication?  She ran off to another table, and before I finished my sentence I skeptically opened a new window and clicked to the front page of the New York Times.  That image will never leave me.

They herded us out of the library and into the chapel, where they were starting a mass.  The college of Cardinals had been assembled at the theology school across the street, so the Basilica was packed full of important people.  This frightened me, especially after I had called my friend Tim, the only person I knew in DC, and he didn't mince words: "I think this is an all-out war.  They could be dropping bombs any moment.  We need to get out of here."  The campus was officially locked down, but I slipped away and over to the house of a couple he knew, where we stayed all afternoon watching TV and praying and drinking vodka.  These strangers quickly became friends: sitting on their roof, Colette shyly told me she was pregnant, a tiny miracle amid the ugliness of the day.  We toasted their unborn son.  Three years later, when their newborn daughter was pulled from the waters of baptism, slippery and wriggling and wet, they would put her in my arms, and we were officially family.

There are more memories: hours later, finally getting to talk with my dear friend in New York after a day of lost and busy signals; days later, celebrating my twenty-first birthday in the bleakest of years; weeks later, going out for dinner with a group that included a young man named Rob.  The fear started to fade; the bonds between strangers fell away along with it.

When I began teaching, I used to spend a few minutes at the beginning of each class on the 11th talking about what the day had meant, sharing memories and praying for the lost and the survivors.  But last year I realized my students were too young now to remember much of anything on that day.  They had only been six or seven years old.  They remembered their parents being sad, but they did not feel the earth shudder beneath them as their parents did.  As I did.  It was too far back for them.  And for me, it is still so clear.  It might have happened yesterday.