“Not long after I first came to the anchor chair I briefly signed off using the word ‘courage.’ I want to return to it now, in a different way, to a nation still nursing a broken heart for what happened here in 2001, and especially those who found themselves closest to the events of Sept. 11.”
~ Dan Rather
In September of 2001 I had gone through what I thought was the worst of what my life had to offer. I was sure that really, from here on out, things would pale in comparison to the personal armageddon I had dealt with in 2000. In hindsight (and perhaps even at the time) I know this to be one of the more ridunculous thoughts I have ever harbored, but there you are.
I was still working at the epicenter of my personal demise, and I was living in the heartland of the intellectual and artistic apocalypse in the Western World: Carson City. In spite of the short-term of my locational sentence I still bear the scars. One thing about this geographical situation that I recall with fondness was the drive to work. I would go to work really early because, well, because it was how I did things. I drove up the dry eastern slope of the Carson Range – totally resplendent in the aridity of its rainshadow – silvers, blues, greys: and crystalline air. Coming around the bend of Spooner Summit, Lake Tahoe would come into view, and for those who have never seen the color of the eastern side of Tahoe, it is a palette of greens and blues that are evident even in black and white photography. For real. My drive would continue around the east shore, with the more verdant, but still uniquely harsh Sierra wilderness to the right and Tahoe to the right. It was the best part of my day, everyday, for at least a year.
That Tuesday morning in September, 2001, I found myself listening to the radio for some reason. I am not sure I remember listening to the radio on any other day, ever, during that drive – why would I with my own CDs to score my ride? But that morning I was listening to NPR. They were replaying some taped interview with a school administrator in DC who was discussing the plight of education in America and the significance of good teaching. I was feeling validated and important. As I passed Sand Harbor I looked at the lake and felt happy for a moment, a rarity that year. The world seemed pretty.
The interview with the school administrator was interrupted by an announcement:
“We interrupt our regularly scheduled broadcast for this important announcement,” came the simultaneously redundant and ominous words. “We are getting reports that something – a plane – has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. At this point there is speculation of mechanical failure, but it is clear that the plane. has. hit. the. building.” There was an irregular pregnant pause. “We will be updating you with more information as it becomes available.”
A plane hitting the World Trade Center? What? Come on.
I followed the road as it moved away from the shore and into Incline Village and headed up Village Boulevard to 499, Incline High School. I parked. Only a couple of other cars were there. I listened to the radio. Like some kind of bad cartoon it seemed like it was answering the questions in my head: Yes, a plane has hit the tower. And now it appeared another plane had hit the other tower. It did not appear to be coincidental. [They actually said that… “not coincidental.”]
What the fuck? It was barely six in the morning, I was unsure I was clear about what was actually happening. I called my friend KB in New York, did her husband work down there? Were they okay? I got her answering machine. I called T, then living in NYC as well. She was out but her husband at the time had no idea what I was on about. “Dude. Turn on the news. What is going on out there?” He was confused (a testament to the true nature of this young man, I would suggest.) I got off the phone and went into work, ran up to my classroom and turned on the TV.
The live video feed looked like a B-movie. You know, not even creative. Too predictable. I sat and watched. Another teacher came into my room. Her family was from the East Coast and her dad had just called her to tell her he was heading into the City by train. “Uh, dad, I think you should stay out of the City,” she told him. “Dad. Turn on the TV.” I just looked at the two buildings. Smoke. Fire. Surreal.
Kids had begun to come in by 6:30 and it was quiet. Everything seemed muted. Muffled. If you have spent much time in a high school, there is no need for me to tell you that this exceeded the surreal. The only vaguely familiar element was a hanging sense of confusion, incomprehension. We sat. We watched.
Dan Rather came on and told us that now another plane had hit the Pentagon. The Pentagon? That was like, I don’t know, how the FUCK could that happen? Seriously? Had the mighty American Military just been discovered to be no more than the little man behind the curtain manipulating an imaginary Great and Terrible Oz? Dan Rather had no words. He stuck to script.
The TV went back to the scene in New York.
At this point Ex #4 came into my classroom. “That building is going to go down.” He asserted with a knowing tone that I generally dismissed, as he was prone to assertions and proclamations that made me think of Chicken Little, or that I generally classified as a serious case of M.A.S.
“What? No it is not, they engineer those buildings to withstand impacts. Don’t they?”
“Watch. It is going to come down.” He walked back out to do whatever abstract busy-ness he kept himself up to in those days. I looked back at the TV with the growing group of kids in my room.
Come down? But how? The people… the streets… if it came down, then what?
Looking back at the TV we watched. The camera was on Tower Two. We looked at the building, the fire and smoke. We stared. And then we saw it collapse. Right there. On TV. In front of our wondering eyes. It fell.
I looked at the clock. It was 7:00. Class would start in about a half an hour. What do you do on a day like this?
I sat down at my desk.
Silence continued to pervade the school.
I thought about what I would do when the bell rang.
The bell rang.
Tower One came down.
Dan Rather cried.
I remember the morning perfectly. I remember all of the sentient facts: the smell of the classroom, the surreal silence, the looks on the faces of a group of teenagers who in so many ways embodied precisely the characteristics that would later be revealed to be the target of this attack: entitlement, privilege, wealth, optimism, abundance, choice, freedom. There was something they lacked though. They lacked the schema to comprehend what they had just witnessed on TV – a medium they inherently believed in.
In the aftermath I was horrified by the photos in the NY Post depicting jumpers and raw horror. In the aftermath I was amazed at the fierceness with which I wanted to defend the right of these teenagers to remain entitled, privileged, wealthy, optimistic, in abundance, free to choose. In the aftermath I swore that no other newsman could have conveyed the way I felt than Dan Rather, and his ‘non-renewal’ is something I will never forgive CBS for. Ever. In the aftermath I was embarrassed by the behavior of everyone around me with their cries for war – war against who you stupid morons? Can you find your Fear on a map? In the aftermath I wondered if this was the way that people all over the world felt on a daily basis as their nations came under attack from my country or the friends of my country. In the aftermath I hoped that people would see how something like this could happen. In the aftermath I listened to Ex#4’s family rage on about the events and I realized, I was no longer among my tribe, I felt lost.
In the aftermath, I was shocked, devastated, sad, awakened and I realized that the belief that I, that we, were all that different from the rest of the world was really an illusion allowed to exist in my mind only as long as it existed in the minds of everyone around the world.
This event changed the world, there is no doubt about that. It is the ways in which it engendered change that are worth considering now. Especially as I look out at a perfect, bright day in San Francisco, or across the sparkling tourmaline colors of Lake Tahoe, or into the faces of 125 high school freshman who were in kindergarten when the planes hit the Towers and can only remember it in terms of the attendant reactions around them, and for whom I hope a kind of understanding develops that allows for a skill set to prevent the manifestation of such deep seeded rage from rising to action again.
Much love to everyone on this day of remembrance.