||A Half-Step Slip
Does it makes any difference how, or when, or where we each first heard about the event? I was talking with a couple this weekendthey didnt hear for a while because they were on a whale-watching tour, blissfully unaware. Their feelings of security, confidence, perhaps even naïveté preceding the event lasted about four hours longer than mine, and probably yours.
Is the act of revealing (perhaps even reveling in) the minutia of the moment of realization more than just a selfish cathartic undertaking? Or, by revealing in this forum, do we begin to create a mosaic that we can look at from afar and appreciate the subtle patterns that develop, the contrasts based on perspective, or proximity? May we all continue to learn whatever we may from this event.
My story: Part 1
I was in the car, on the way to work. I had just left my wife at the gym where we both work out. I was feeling pretty good, listening to the radio, to the Dee Snider show (former Twisted Sister lead singer) that has an all-talk format. A bit before 9 a.m., the DJs interrupted their usual banter with the announcement that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center, though it was thought to be a small plane at that time. Then the conversation on the radio show became surreal.
"What was that?"
"Did you see that?"
"Did that plane just hit?"
"Folks, we are watching the television and it appears that another plan just hit the other building. That wasn't a small plane."
"No, it wasn't."
"What was it doing there? Was it coming in to look at the first?"
"Why did it hit the building? Couldn't the pilot avoid the World Trade Center?"
"If you can, get to a television to watch this."
And finally to one of the producers, nervous laughter, "Just play something off of the playlist for the stationno one is listening to us anymore anyways." And then the music started, and I got out of the car, having somehow gotten into a space in the parking garage with no memory of the last 8 minutes of the trip.
I think, and it's odd how I can't really remember, but I think I told a few people on the way to the elevator that something had just happened, that planes were hitting buildings. I might have dreamed this, but I do now remember telling two people, a man and a woman, leaving the building in a bit of a hurry, focused on a business matter, and they looked really unfazed by it. Like whatever I was telling them was not as important as their upcoming meeting.
The television was on in the office library. Maybe 40 to 50 people are gathered around its 13" screen, just watching in disbelief. First, the plane striking the building, over and over again. Absolute disbelief. Looks like Hollywood. Then, on ABC, they had a split screen for a while, showing both DC and NY. And then the first tower fell. It almost looked like a similarly shaped column of dust replaced it. So similar that when Peter Jennings came back to look at the NY picture, he commented, "Well it now appears that the South Tower is completely engulfed in smoke." I thought, "No Peter, it's just gone." Apparently a producer told him the same thing. He was quiet for bit.
It was so unbelievable, so inconceivable, that his mind did not process the possibility that the tower could have fallen. So it manufactured a more acceptable reality.
It is hard to describe the ache that I felt as that first tower collapsed. I could almost feel the wave of death start from NY and reach up to us.
Important note: Springfield Massachusetts has two tall buildings. We are on the 27th and 26th (out of 28) floors of one of them. All glass windows looking out of the library. I wondered out loud, "Well I guess we aren't expecting an attack here are we?" Because if we were, we would be gone.
The second tower's collapse was less shocking. It seemed inevitable for the last half hour. We all hoped it would stand, and maybe that collective hope held it together longer, but we knew whatever brought down the first would have the same effect on the second. And as the antennas fell into the could of dust, I could feel something new intermixed with the feelings of sorrow, shock, disbelief, and horrorthe small beat of resolve. The implicit acknowledgement that there was now a task to complete. Start with rescue and recovery efforts in NY and DC. And then?
We didn't know what the task was, and perhaps we still don't know, but the determination to not be beaten, not by ourselves and not by those who wreaked this destruction, that determination became palpable as the second dust cloud lifted those thousands of spirits away from the resting place of their bodies.
For me this resolve, this call to duty (even if not a military duty), is the natural reaction to 9.11. The feelings of resolve remind me of my favorite chapter in the Grapes of Wrath, perhaps my favorite chapter in English literature, Chapter 14. The second half of the first paragraph, slightly edited, follows:
The last clear definite function of manmuscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single needthis is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving. For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. This you may say of manwhen theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back. This you may say and know it and know it. This you may know when the bombs plummet out of the black planes on the market place, when prisoners are stuck like pigs, when the crushed bodies drain filthily in the dust. You may know it in this way. If the step were not being taken, if the stumbling-forward ache were not alive, the bombs would not fall, the throats would not be cut. Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers livefor every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died. [...] And this you can knowfear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.
Thus the resolve. The half-step slip that occurred that morning watching the unthinkable unfold before our eyes. The half-step slip followed by a digging in. Dig in and catch your neighbor about to slip more than a half step. Dig in and steady yourself. And take the next stumbling step forward.