I shouldn’t write my story of that day. I was not in New York; hell, I didn’t really travel anywhere that day except from my house to my office in Cleveland, Mississippi. I did not have any family or friends anywhere close to the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. At that time, my entire family was living within 5 miles of each other in our small Delta town. On the surface, I have no direct connection to that tragedy. I didn’t lose anyone— Not one family member or friend.
Except I have every connection to that day.
We all do.
On September 11, 2011, I lost part of myself.
In late August of 2001, my then-wife and I flew to New York City so she could go to a training seminar on the SEC. That’s the Securities and Exchange Commission, for those who don’t know. I did know the acronym, but I still walked around the seminar’s social hour quizzing unsuspecting accountants on their expectations for Florida’s offense and Auburn’s defense that season. (No one at the meeting appeared to be amused by this behavior but me.) We had a wonderful long weekend in New York. A Mets game. A Broadway play starring Al Pacino. My first trip to the U.S. Open tennis tournament. We did it all as only 26 year old kids full of energy and wonder can do. Saturday night before dinner, we had a driver take us downtown so we could see the Twin Towers. They were so tall that you couldn’t even really see the tops from our car. They dominated the skyline like a steel testament to American strength. We didn’t get out or dwell at the Towers. We saw them, mentally checked the tourist box, and moved on. We had dinner reservations, so we were off to our next stop. Everything was possible, and everyone seemed invincible. I dare say we, and countless others in the City That Never Sleeps, never felt more alive.
A little over a week later, we were back to living our normal Delta lives. Deborah worked about thirty minutes from our home, so she left every day around 7 a.m. every morning, and I had the house to myself for an hour or so before I dressed for work. I typically spent my mornings with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer, and this morning was no different. Around 7:40 a.m., General Electric CEO Jack Welch was next up on the Today Show when the commercial break was suddenly cut short and my television screen was filled with blue skies and the World Trade Center. A small plane had crashed into the first Tower, and Matt and Katie were struggling to give information as they talked to a colleague on the phone. As far as anyone knew, it was an accident. I remember thinking to myself that I had never flown a plane, but how in the hell do you accidently run into one of those Towers? Maybe the pilot just lost control of the plane or there was some malfunction. Around twenty minutes later, although it felt like two seconds, we saw, and the caller confirmed, a second plane just flew into the second Tower. I’m not a military man, but I knew what the second plane meant. The world had changed. The simple life we lived before was forever changed.
America was under attack.
The rest of that day is a blur in my mind. I remember calling Deborah immediately and telling her. I remember my Dad’s sad, wide blue eyes when I saw him at the office. He was 14 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, so he remembered. I remember thinking almost immediately of my friend Andy’s daughter Morgan’s birthday that day, and that it would be linked forever. Most of all, I remember watching the world, my world, my invincibility crack around me. I was raised in the Eighties with Ronald Reagan assuring me we were a superpower. Movies like Iron Eagle and Top Gun and Rambo taught me that we were the baddest motherfuckers on the planet, and no one would ever mess with us. Terrorism was something that happened in those overseas countries without paved streets that I only saw on the news. My college years were the Clinton years, and everyone was making money and enjoying life. We were safe in our country, and the nightly news consisted mainly of anti-government American whack jobs or the latest D.C. blow jobs. Although there were conflicts in the world, those conflicts were always somewhere else. Our military was always present and ready, but they were always on a perpetual road trip. Their games were always played on the other team’s home field, and never on American soil. No one had ever had the audacity to attack us on our own soil so brazenly. I remember thinking this entire surreal scene was like a movie, and I wondered when it would end or if I could change the channel. But honestly, as I watched the news, part of me wondered if, not when, it would end. First the Towers and the Pentagon, I thought. What’s next? Other cities closer to me? Then what? Our small towns? Living in Nowhere, America always brought a sense of comfort when it came to this kind of thing. Attacks seem abstract until they’re not. The greatest terrorism I have ever felt was the destruction of my sense of safety. I felt deep, mind-numbing fear for the first time in my life. What was next?
Everyone knows the rest of the story. Beginning September 12, our country rallied together, one nation under God. The stories of the courage on Flight 93 came forth and reminded us all that bravery does still exist. I had never heard the term “first responder” before September 11, 2001, but I’m damn glad there are such people in this country. Later that fall, George W. threw a strike at the World Series and the American spirit was never more evident. We proudly flew flags, set our collective jaw, and slowly put our world back on its correct axis. We showed moments of national pride not present in my lifetime. But despite the resiliency, my scars remain. My parents taught me to be tolerant and believe in the innate goodness of my fellow man. I should not judge others based on their appearance or beliefs. We should not have a fear of “the other.” I still try to live that way today. But after 9/11, I can’t say I always do as I was taught. I have flown hundreds of times in the last twenty years. Hundreds. But I have not boarded a flight one time in the last twenty years without mentally calculating whether my flight would be attractive for a hijackers. I am momentarily paralyzed every time a person stands up to walk to the bathroom mid-flight. I still scan the faces of my fellow passengers as we prepare to board, as if I could pick out a terrorist by their appearance alone. I do these horrid things, and I curse myself for it. That’s not the person I was raised to be. That’s not the person I want to be. But after September 11th, that’s the person I am. The person I was in September 10 is gone forever and in his place stands a man who felt the cold hand of fear touch his shoulder one Tuesday morning and is forever changed.
My children were not alive on 9/11. Thankfully. Just as Pearl Harbor is only a moment in history to me, 9/11 is just another date to memorize to them. I can educate and I can try my best to explain the tragedy, but it will really only be a “who, what, when and where” event to them. Society will remind them to Never Forget, but thank God they didn’t lose anything that day. They are blessed in that way. I pray every day their lives aren’t ever affected by anything so sinister, and their world remains the Phoenix that rose from the ashes on September 12th.
I read a quote from Gandhi the other day, “Speak only if it improves the silence.” I was very hesitant to write about 9/11 for that very reason. I wasn’t sure that my voice needed to be heard. But as I watched the replays and tributes and memorials this last week on television, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was alone in my experience. We are told to Never Forget, but Jesus Christ, how can you forget something that has never really left you?
20 years later, our personal stories of this day have become memories by now. For our nation, and for the men and women who lost their lives in this real manifestation of evil, please God let them be memories that we survivors Never Forget.
Going to the 9/11 memorial and museum, it’s not the familiar pictures of the tragedy that rip you apart. It’s the little things— the baby clothes for a baby whose Daddy or Mommy didn’t come home from work that day or the mementos like an autographed baseball— that make it all too real. I caught myself looking away because I felt like I was invading someone’s privacy by sifting through their life. Their lives could have easily been my life.
The face of evil is often hidden and the task of fighting against hate is daunting to even the strongest among us. I struggle against it every day even if it is a battle raging within myself. But that fight must continue just as it did on the days after September 11th. Good comes with an unbelievably heavy price tag but defeating evil, whether it be real or the abstract idea, is worth it. Want proof? Then go to New York City and gaze into those two holes in the earth. You might just find part of your soul down there