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Vapor Trails
Chris Pace

It was a day like any other day.

I don't often stop to watch the morning news while getting ready for work, and this was the case on the morning of September 11, 2001. By the time I left the house, around 9:00 a.m., early reports were coming in on the cable news channels about the first plane that hit the WTC, but I was completely oblivious to the fact that something had gone horribly wrong that day.

I drove along, happy in my blissful ignorance, listening to a CD and thinking about the coming weeks. My employer at the time was in dire financial straits, and we were less than three weeks away from shutting our doors. I had already prepared a resume and sent it out to a few places and gotten some positive responses, and even though I was nervous about entering the job market again, I wasn't really stressed out about it yet. I was more sad that something as interesting and fulfilling as that company was going away.

About halfway to work, I got tired of the CD I was listening to and decided to turn on the radio. The FM station was tuned to Howard Stern, and the first thing I heard was something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. I later learned that, at this point, the second plane had just hit the second tower, but at the time, I thought it was just another bit, or one of his semi-political rants about the state of the nation. Stern and his crew seemed to be unsure if it was for real, so they kind of joked about it and moved on to other topics. Because of their reaction, I wasn't sure if they were really serious, so I switched to a news station and got immediate confirmation of the seemingly impossible: two separate commercial airliners had hit each of the twin towers of the WTC.

While I was trying to absorb the shock of this information and still stay on the road, a reporter for the news station I was tuned into, a local AM station out of DC, called in from his cell phone with a live report, saying that while he was sitting in traffic another commercial jet had flown directly over his car and into the Pentagon. At this point I was stopped at a stoplight only a couple of blocks from work, and I started to pound the steering wheel in frustration. This wasn't a random occurrence; this was an attack. An attack on our nation. An attack on us. Like most people, I had no idea who would want to do this to us, or why they would choose a civilian target like the World Trade Center.

When I got to the office, my boss Max had already set up one of the office televisions on a desk downstairs and had tuned it to CNN, where they were cutting back and forth between video of the two WTC crashes, the view from the streets of NYC around the WTC, and the fires raging at the Pentagon. He and I sat silent for a while, watching in disbelief at the images on the screen. Word slowly began to spread throughout our building that we had a television set up in our office, and one by one a silent crowd of similarly stunned onlookers began to gather. Except for the occasional "Oh my god" or "Unbelievable", no one said anything. How could they?

I don't know why stayed at work that day as long as I did. We didn't have any actual work to do, and even if we had, I can't imagine any of our clients being pushy about deadlines under the circumstances. I'm not even sure that my other boss, Jeff, came in at all even though he lived only five minutes away. I don't remember what time I left, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't much past lunch. I remember talking to my wife on the phone and trying to convince her to come home early (she works in Baltimore, only 15 blocks from the waterfront area where another World Trade Center stands).

That afternoon driving home, and for the few days after that, the skies were eerily empty. All flights had been grounded while the government tried to figure out what went wrong, and the skies, normally cut with the thin white slashes of exhaust left behind planes going in and out of Dulles, BWI, and National, were now a perfect clear blue, the kind of blue that you only get on cool fall days. The silence in the empty sky was almost deafening; I found myself looking at the ground when I had to be outdoors.

I don't remember many specifics from the days following the attacks, just vague impressions of the world around me. There were confirmations from friends who lived and worked in the affected areas (no one I knew directly was hurt). I remember the palpable sense of tension on my street as my neighbors, several of whom are in the reserves, wondered if they were about to have their lives disrupted by a ground war in god knows where. I remember the American flags that sprouted like dandelions after a spring rain, attached to almost every vehicle, building, and highway overpass that I drove by on the way to work.

The first time I saw a plane in the sky after the attacks, I was struck with an intense, visceral sense of fear. The plane shouldn't have been in the sky; it just didn't belong there anymore. I couldn't take my eyes off it, glancing furtively between its track and the road, almost running off the road to keep it in view, trying to make sure it wasn't moving towards me.

But after a few weeks, the planes and the artificial clouds that came with them became almost comforting to me: life was going on, and a sense of normalcy was returning, however slowly and imperceptibly. The vapor trails meant that the universe didn't collapse with the towers, the world didn't end, the sky didn't fall. We were going to be okay, eventually. We still got to wake up every now and then and have a day like any other day.
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