Sunday, September 11, 2011

9-11: Our Day

Many years ago, Mike and I sat in a dark theater watching the harrowing first long minutes of "Saving Private Ryan," a Tom Hanks film set in World War II. If you've seen the movie, you likely remember the emotionally staggering depiction of troops making landfall on beaches and being mercilessly slaughtered. Those opening scenes went on and on...and on.

As we sat there, I kept hearing sharp intakes of breath coming from behind me. It was evident whoever it was was trying to stifle the noises, but the gasps kept coming. I don't know that gasps can really have an undertone, but there was something of anguish and pent-up emotion in each one. I glanced over my shoulder and saw two white-haired men sitting there. The drawn expressions on their faces; the sense that they were at once riveted and unable to move, but wishing they were anywhere but in that theater; the grief that was fresh, while at the same time etched into their faces from years of wear, was evident in just the briefest glimpse. I turned away because, while they were in a public place, it was obvious they were reliving something very personal and I didn't want to intrude. I knew without question they were veterans of that war. I didn't verify it; I just felt it to be true.

They were reliving those decades-old scenes as if they were just in that war yesterday.

Today, we are reliving decade-old scenes that feel as if they just happened yesterday.

Those old men in the theater had Normandy. My babysitter Oma and my Mom and Dad's generation have JFK.

I have 9-11.

In today's Arizona Republic, writer John Flaherty spoke of "flashbulb" memories - pictures etched in our memories of an event that had a strong emotional impact on us. There are so many pictures in my mind from that day in 2001: the roiling smoke and dust filling Manhattan and eventually obscuring the iconic New York skyline; the second tower seeming to melt and buckle as it rumbled its way to the ground; the numb expressions on Matt Laurer's and Katie Couric's faces as they listened intently to Pentagon correspondent Jim "Mik" Miklaszewski, as an explosion boomed in the background and he said something had just happened and he was being told he had to get out of there. The image, played time after time, after time of that second plane heading for the second tower as the first tower smoked and shimmered in the morning sun.

But my flashbulb memory?

That image that is seared into my mind - the one that made me gasp like those old men in the movie theater, then erupt into spontaneous sobs the moment I witnessed it? The one that brings immediate tears to my eyes every time I think of it, no matter what I'm doing, even if I haven't thought of 9-11 in months?

It was the image of a young Wall Street-looking guy. He probably had a sharp haircut, he certainly had on a white shirt and tie, he may have had on a suit coat - some of those details are fuzzy in what is an otherwise remarkably sharp image in my mind. What is unforgettable is the look of abject, open-mouthed terror on his face as he ran for his life ahead of the wall of dust and debris barreling down the New York street behind him.

I saw him on the news that day and something inside me broke. I was watching a man running for his life...running for his life. I was watching a man running in terror. In America.

I cried because he was scared. I cried because I'd never seen someone running for their life on the streets of America on a beautiful fall day. I cried because I didn't know if this marked the beginning of an era in our country when people were going to have to start running for their lives.

That man's face is etched in my heart.

My remembrances of that day and the weeks and years following I'm sure are like so many others.

I had little ones at home; they were 1, 2, 3 and almost 10. I remember standing there with my hands on both of Adam's shoulders, his backpack already on his back, staring into his eyes while cradling the phone on my shoulder in the kitchen as I heard my colleague on the other end of the phone saying, "Teri, it's OK to send him to school. Nobody cares about Phoenix, Arizona. They're not sending anybody here. He'll be safe."

I sent Adam to school that day but I fought every mother's instinct screaming inside of me in doing so. Intellectually, I knew his school was exactly one mile from our home and I could run there in minutes, and drive there faster, if I had to. It didn't matter...everything in me cried out to keep him safe at home, under my wings. One mile felt like half a world away on a day when the world had just tipped upside down, causing people to fall from buildings and run for their lives.

I couldn't move from in front of the TV as the news kept unfolding. Planes hitting the towers. A plane hitting the Pentagon. Planes unaccounted for that controllers couldn't reach. I called my Mom and told her what was happening...that we were under attack and no one knew what was coming next.

Like the pragmatic person she is, Mom stayed at work, as did Dad, Lynda and Mike. I was the one working from home. I was the one who could load up the kiddos in the minivan and head to Wal Mart or Target for provisions. Just in case. Mom and I discussed a list of what I should pick up.

I was numb - literally, it felt as if my arms and legs were asleep - but my mind was racing. I walked into Wal Mart and their television monitors were tuned to the news. I started at them thinking, "Huh, I thought those were just internal monitors, only for Wal Mart videos." I was looking at a monitor, just inside the door, when I caught motion to my left.

I looked and there were two women of Middle East descent, heading with a loaded shopping cart quickly to the exit. The expression on their faces stopped me - they looked terrified. Their eyes were darting around them, even as they tried to keep their eyes and heads low, heading for the doors. My heart twisted. These women were terrified, fearing reprisal or worse. In America.  Their fears, it turns out, were well founded. It was in the days following 9-11 that the Valley was shamefully the place where a man was murdered because an angry man thought he was Muslim because he wore a turban. He wasn't Muslim, he was Sikh. But even if he had been Muslim, the attack was no less heinous and disgraceful.

I don't remember anything else about that Wal Mart trip. I just remember being back at home, calling Mike and Mom with updates, unable to move away from the TV. Then, later in the day, Dad calling and gently telling me to turn off the news and take care of my babies. I usually do what Dad tells me to do, and I might have turned the TV off; but if I did, it must have only been for a few minutes.

I remained glued to the television for two weeks. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't work. I would get up in the middle of the night and turn on CNN and Fox News in the living room and sit in the dark watching reruns of the same images and hearing new voices rehash all the same questions. I expected my clients to understand that I simply couldn't work. There were much more important things going on. I don't know how they actually felt about my absence, but I didn't lose any clients, so I don't suppose my behavior was necessarily out of the realm of ordinary in those extraordinary days.

I remember that first Friday evening, days after the attacks, when across the country millions of people stepped outside at 7 p.m. in their neighborhoods and communities and lit candles and said a prayer. I remember standing with my neighbor and all of our children; and Adam, days away from his 10th birthday, uttering a sweet prayer for all of us. I opened my eyes to find my neighbor crying because she didn't know a 9-yr-old could talk to God like that.

I say I didn't work for two weeks, but I remember I did have a meeting in Tucson on Thursday, two days after the attacks, that I didn't feel I could cancel. The trip from Phoenix to Tucson was chilling and dreamlike. On that busy national roadway - Interstate 10 - I passed one solitary vehicle on the way to Tucson. One lonely car heading the opposite way on the lanes of the divided highway. There were no planes in the sky, no one else on the road. The landscape was eerily empty and I have never felt so alone and vulnerable.

When I got to Tucson, I headed to my meeting, which of course, was next to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Of course it was.

Here, I did see planes in the sky, only they were fighter jets circling the base, vigilantly protecting the military installation. My meeting was at Tucson Electric. Nothing like placing yourself in the safest possible locations when your country is on high-alert for terrorists: on site at a major utility, adjacent to a military base. Fantastic. If my Dad was unhappy with me when I would hang out of helicopters to film forest fires, he probably wasn't going to be very happy with my choice of travel spots this day, either.

Chilling as that trip was, it was also rife with that quirky little phenomenon that arose within hours of the attacks: high-octane patriotism. That morning, the Arizona Republic had printed an American flag in the centerfold of the paper. Not a typical move for a newspaper in this day and age, to say the least. As I drove through Tucson, the scene was amazing. There was a man standing in the median, holding up the newspaper flag. People honked and waved as they passed him. I honked and waved. I'm not much of a honker. It was a different time and it called for atypical behavior. A man drove by in his pickup truck while another guy stood in the back holding a huge American flag, which billowed and whipped around as more people honked. It was a surreal scene.

Speaking of surreal, remember the flag decal that roughly every vehicle in America sported within months of 9-11?

My parents had them on either side of their vehicles.

I realize you may not know how tremendously significant that is. Let me explain.

My parents do not do bumper stickers; I mean they do not do them. Consequently, we girls don't either. My children don't understand why I have never sported their "gifted artist" and "honor roll" bumper stickers on our cars. I have no good explanation for them except, "We're Fraleys, we don't do bumper stickers."

I'm telling you, it meant something huge that Mom and Dad had those decals. Huge.

I eventually got past the abject horror of 9-11. I had to. It had stopped me dead in my tracks but I had four little children, a husband and my little PR operation that needed me. I had to keep moving.

But I was sad.

I was sad for the innocence that my children didn't even know they'd lost.

I was sad for the innocence our country had lost.

I was sad the first time I went to an airport and saw armed guards.

I was sad when my former boss told me she had been on the last plane allowed to leave Sky Harbor Airport when the air lanes were shut down. She was on a military craft, though she worked for the Forest Service, and she was flying to New York with an incident command team. She worked for FEMA during the days following 9-11. She said they ordered all of the supplies needed in the aftermath and clean up operations. She spoke of the thousands of body bags they'd ordered, that lay empty because there were no bodies to fill them. There was only dust.

I felt so guilty that our brothers and sisters in New York and D.C. and Pennsylvania were bearing the brunt of the disaster while the rest of us were across the country, "safe" and unable to do anything real to help their plight. In my faith, we're big on service. Someone is having a baby? Take in a dinner. Someone died? Take in a dinner. Someone in the hospital? Take in a dinner. And mow the lawn.

It was heart wrenching to know that our fellow countrymen were dealing with so much and the sun was still shining where we were, and the buildings were all still intact, and we knew where our loved ones were, and we could do nothing to help. Nothing important like making sure they were eating right, anyway. Somehow, giving blood just didn't have the feeling as whipping up a nice casserole and giving a hug.

I remember, in the years following 9-11, a gal came to work at the agency where I was working at the time. She was this little tiny person that I just wanted to put in my pocket, but she was a tough little nut. She'd lived in New York, after all. As the 9-11 anniversary rolled around the first year she was there, she became edgy and emotional.

She told me her story.

She and her future husband lived in New York. Her Adam worked in Tower 7 at the World Trade Center. After the planes hit, Karin was out of her building and running down the street in her high heels, trying to get to where Adam was.  She was running along, she said, when she was suddenly thrown to the ground, flattened from behind by the wall of debris and smoke from the collapsing towers. Dust-encrusted and struggling to stand, she couldn't get to Adam. She was helped to her feet by a couple of big guys (so she said; bless her little pointed head, she's wee - I'd imagine they're all "big guys" to her), who remained with her as she walked the eight hours it took her to wend her way through all of the chaos and roadblocks to the ferry docks. Eventually, she got word that her family was OK. I don't know how long it took for her to confirm he was OK, but eventually she and Adam found their way to each other.

She wore an engagement band that was a popular configuration in that time - the three stones depicting yesterday, today and forever. The ring had particular significance to she and Adam - they vowed to never forget that yesterday.

My younger children, (now 11, 12 and 13) know of September 11, 2001. It's made its way into history books and is certainly discussed at school. My Adam, who will be 20 this week, has some vague recollections of that day.

For me it's not history. It doesn't live in memory. It is my JFK. My Martin Luther King. My Normandy.

The day-to-day trauma of 9-11 is long in the past for me, though I know it isn't for so many. I'd imagine though, if I were to sit in a movie theater some day, decades from now, watching a movie about these fateful events, I'd be like those old men behind me all those years ago. I imagine I'd take in some quick breaths, trying to be quiet, but unprepared for how sharply those images could still bring it all back. A need for dignity might pin me to my seat, but most likely I'd realize that in spite of being in my sunset, some experiences will never fade into the horizon.

I'm sorry 9-11 happened. I'm sorry for the people and the innocence we lost. I'm glad it's not sharp for me anymore, but I'm sorry it will always be sharp for so many.

I'm glad the sun is shining this bright September day. I'm glad for joy and children's laughter and so much more. I hope those most deeply affected by our modern-day "day of infamy" have moments full of sunshine, children's laughter and joy of their own that lifts their spirits and helps the pain recede.

Love from the farm,

1 comment:

  1. Very beautiful. There is such power in hearing a person's very individual story of how 9/11 made an impact upon their psyche. You seeing the young man running for his life is a powerful story. I guess we all have images that struck a chord within ourselves and those stories are, within themselves, so critical to the history of this tragic time.