Monday, September 12, 2011

Memories of 9-11

I had hoped to get this posted sooner, but this weekend has been busy and time has just gotten away from me.

10 years ago from today seems almost like a lifetime ago in some ways. I was still a member of the LDS Church; I was still trying very hard to be straight (and was actually going to therapy at LDS Family Services to help me cope with my homosexual feelings – some of it was helpful for other reasons, but it did not help alleviate my homosexual issues); I was still very closeted and feeling very stressed and depressed and angst-ridden by it; I was a non-union actor, meaning I made a lot less money doing the same job; I didn’t have my master’s degree; I didn’t have a house, three cats, and a partner; I hadn’t even met Jonah yet, and it’s weird to think that there was even a time when he didn’t exist in my life; I certainly wasn’t as happy as I feel today.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was sleeping in, as is my custom. My sister had been married two days before in a surprise, rather hastily-put-together wedding (that is, we knew she’d be getting married eventually, but her abrupt (to us) decision to get married that Sunday was a surprise to her family members. To tell you the truth, I was still reeling from it, hoping she’d made the right decision.

I was also planning on going to Pennsylvania that week to attend my ex-girlfriend’s wedding to her now-husband, who was (and still is) also a friend. That Tuesday morning my mom crept into what used to be my bedroom and woke me up. She had to go somewhere (work, I assume) but wanted to let me know what was going on before she left.

“[Cody],” she whispered as she shook my shoulder, “I have to go, but I just wanted you to know what’s happening.”

“Ergg,” I muttered, only half-awake.

My mom stared at me very seriously and said, “Some planes flew into the Twin Towers in New York, and the buildings are gone now.”

I tried to focus. “What?” I asked, looking at her as if she were nuts. I was still half-asleep and couldn’t really hone in on what she was saying.

“This morning some planes flew into the World Trade Center and the buildings were destroyed,” she repeated. “They’re gone.”

What did she mean, “gone”? How could two buildings that had been around for as long as I could remember just be “gone.” I seriously didn’t know if she was kidding or crazy or what, but my mind started coming into focus rather quickly.

I sat up in bed. “What are you talking about, Mom?” I asked. “How can they be gone?”

“They fell. They just collapsed,” she answered. “They’re gone.”

I sincerely didn’t believe her. It just sounded too crazy. Too unreal.

“I don’t understand. Why did the planes fly into the Twin Towers?”

“They don’t know. But they say it’s an attack. The Pentagon was hit, too. Anyway, I have to go, but I just wanted you to know what was going on. It’s on the news. That’s all they’ve been showing.”

I quickly put on some clothes and hurried upstairs. Mom already had the television on, as I recall, and she was still getting ready to leave. I watched the news. There was so much confusion, so many unanswered questions, so much that was still unknown.

Then I saw the footage. I saw a plane hit the second tower. I saw both buildings come tumbling down until there was nothing left but dust. I saw a smoldering Pentagon. I don’t remember seeing footage of the wreckage of United 93 in that field, but I’m sure I must have. I distinctly remember the Towers. And as I watched this footage over and over, ad nauseum, I suddenly became aware of all the people that must be dead – the people in the planes, the people in the buildings, the people on the ground, the brave souls trying to help them escape – and I suddenly felt such a sickening feeling in my stomach and soul. It must be thousands, I thought. Why would someone do this?

It was clear by the time I found out about these events that they were done intentionally. This was no accident. It appeared to be a calculated, organized attack. I was so flabbergasted by this. I couldn’t believe that someone would purposely kill all these innocent people.

I could not stop watching the news. It was depressing and scary and terrifying and confusing, but I could not turn my eyes away. I craved even the smallest bit of new information in the hopes of getting some sort of answer that would make sense of all of this. Mostly, it was all repeat information and, of course, no answers to make sense of the situation ever came.

By the time I had to go to work that night, I felt so sad and drained by the events that had unfolded that day that I just felt numb.

We were in rehearsals for a Halloween show, and we all showed up to rehearsal confused, sad, angry, bewildered, depressed, and befuddled. We spent a good deal of time talking out our feelings, which were still so raw. Our director wondered if we should cancel rehearsal. We all agreed that we needed something to keep our minds off the events of the day, if only for a few hours, and so we all agreed to rehearse, which actually was a nice break from the reality that awaited us outside the theater.

After rehearsal, part of me hoped that what had happened that day hadn’t really happened at all – that it was just a dream or a joke. But of course it wasn’t.

I was concerned about flying to Pennsylvania that week, not because I was afraid of flying or fearful of another terrorist attack, but because the next week was our tech. week and opening for our show and I worried, with planes being grounded and such, that it would be difficult to get back home for those very important rehearsals, if I even got to Pennsylvania at all.

The bride and the groom, who lived in California, and were to fly to Pennsylvania for the wedding, ended up renting a car and driving to get there in time. Other friends who had planned on coming couldn’t get there at all. I was actually lucky. My plane trip was later in the week, and by the time I flew out, planes were operational at about 50%, and mine was one of them.

I remember in those early days before security measures were tightened, security was still halfway between what it was pre-9-11 and what it is now. I remember thinking how easy it still would have been to smuggle a knife on board, and I was surprised by that since the terrorists had managed to take over using box cutters to dispatch those that got in their way.

My flight, which actually left not terribly long after it was scheduled to, was not very full. I guess a lot of people didn’t want to travel that week. I remember the guy next to me (who was on his way back home to Rhode Island) and I talked about how we weren’t afraid to fly, and that if something were to happen and it was our time to go, so be it. I also remember he had been stranded in the airport for several days.

The flight to Pennsylvania (via Minneapolis) was fine, although people were obviously jittery. In Pennsylvania, my ex-girlfriend’s pastor at her Methodist church gave a really great sermon on the events of the week. I remember it was outside because their church building was being remodeled or something, and while I don’t remember all the details of the sermon, I do remember feeling comforted by some of it.

The wedding was great, although I was sad that my ex-girlfriend’s special day was overshadowed by the events of the week and that so many friends who had been planning on coming were unable to.

My flight home was a different matter. My flight from Pittsburgh to Minneapolis was okay, but my flight to Salt Lake City was more problematic.

When the flight arrived, we boarded, and my seat was next to a couple. I wanted a window seat, and as I had done many times prior to 9-11, simply switched seats. In a post-9-11 world, this turned out to be a big mistake. A female flight attendant looked at me warily and asked for my boarding pass. Unfortunately, I had left it in my carry-on in the bin over my original seat. I told her I could grab it.

With panic in her eyes, she said, “Sir, please follow me.” I again repeated that I could get the pass. She said, more firmly, “Just follow me, sir!”

I was taken off the plane into the area right before one boards the plane. The entire crew (captain, co-pilot, attendants, everybody) awaited me. They proceeded to interrogate me. Who was I? Why was I in a seat that wasn’t supposed to have a passenger in it? Why was I traveling? Where was my boarding pass? What did I do for a living? How had I purchased my ticket? These people all had terror in their eyes, and I felt terrible that my unscheduled seat-switch was the cause of their angst and concern. The pilot looked over my driver’s license, front and back, over and over, asked me questions like “how much do you weigh?” and “when is your birthday?”, and looked at me trying to determine whether I was a threat or not. A flight attendant was sent into the pre-boarding area to verify that I had, indeed, purchased my ticket through Orbitz. When it was finally determined 15 minutes later that I was, indeed, who I said I was, I was allowed back on the plane. I felt embarrassed and genuinely remorseful for causing that poor flight crew an unnecessary scare, and I realized that the world had indeed changed from what it had been prior to 9-11. The pilot did apologize to me as I disembarked, simply saying, “We’re sorry about that. But unfortunately this is how we have to do things now.” And indeed it was and is.

What I remember most about the evening of 9-11 and the following days was the spirit of unity and patriotism and camaraderie and selflessness that was evident. I loved seeing people band together and pull together and the national pride that was so much a part of those days. I remember seeing American flags everywhere and signs that said “Honk for America,” which I gladly did. Mostly, I remember the charitable spirit so many people seemed to have – concern for strangers; people donating blood, money, necessities, whatever they could to help; the collective mourning we all shared. If there was a bright side to this terrible tragedy, that was it for me.

I wrote in my journal on September 15: “It’s like so much of the selfishness that I feel has engulfed this country for so long has melted away. Whereas a week ago you saw instances of Republicans vs. Democrats; one religion vs. another; church vs. state; and where it seemed like it was every man for himself, I [now] see such an outpouring of unity and friendship. A week ago budget problems, Olympic scandals, and other minute concerns filled the news; today everyone is band[ing] together towards a common cause. On an average day at an airport, people are impatient and rude. Yet with all these delays and inconveniences now, people in general seem to be very polite and understanding and more concerned with safety of themselves and others than they are in trying to get to a certain destination in time. The value of life seems to take precedence over the minute details of that life. Whereas a cell phone may have annoyed me a week ago, now I think how nice it is that two people can communicate so conveniently to let each other know that the other is okay. It’s like everyone has a different perspective on the meaning of life, and it’s delightful to see people more concerned with each other than they are with themselves.

“…I think God permits these horrible acts to happen to humble us and to unite us.

“I’ve never been as proud to be an American as I have been these last four days. These terrorists don’t know what a failure their mission has been. They may have caused irreparable physical damage, killed countless innocents, and caused economic damage as well; but they can never kill this country’s spirit. If anything, they have made us stronger. I always believed that if this country fell, it would be our own doing (our pride, arrogance, and selfishness), not by an outside enemy. All these terrorists have done is foolishly ‘awakened a sleeping giant’ (a phrase used [after Pearl Habor]). I’d hate to be in their shoes.

“While I mourn the inconceivable losses, I am grateful for the awakening of selflessness and patriotism. I hope it stays that way.

“Yes, there have been instances of hate and narrow-mindedness directed specifically towards our Muslim residents here in America (which is sad because first, I’m sure many (even the majority) feel just as terrible about the events of the last few days as anybody; and secondly, because by directing that hate towards innocent people, the narrow-minded fool illustrates that he is no better than the original terrorists). But, overall, I haven’t seen such a positive effect on our country in a long time.”

How soon we forgot. I was dismayed when that feeling of unity and brotherhood seemed to melt away as the months continued. I remember feeling that the Bush administration squandered and abused that unity for its own selfish purposes when it decided to invade Iraq, a move I, frankly, did not understand at the time when I felt we should be concentrating our resources on finding Osama bin Laden, who it didn’t seem was going to be found. In fact, at the time I really felt that the Iraq War was a diversion to get the American people’s minds off the fact that the hunt for bin Laden seemed to be failing and was dismayed that so many of my fellow Americans seemed to fall for it.

And then I began to see all the old divisions crop up: politicians fighting, people being told they were un-American if they didn’t back the Bush administration’s determination to invade Iraq, the poor French being attacked for disagreeing and that whole “Freedom Fries” bullcrap. It was back to the “same-old, same-old.” And then I saw what I felt were abuses of power and the preying on people’s fear due to the events of 9-11.

I look where we are today. It’s the same, if not worse, than pre-9-11, and I miss and long for those brief months of shared unity and solidarity we experienced in the aftermath of one of the worst tragedies this nation has ever known. Why couldn’t we maintain it? Why did we let it slip through our collective fingers?

I look at much of the pettiness, mean-spiritedness, divisiveness, pridefulness, and polarization that seems to dominate this country, and I feel sad that we lost that precious gift that 9-11 actually gave us. I’m still an optimist at heart. I still believe most people are basically good. I still believe we can achieve that unity and love if we only want it enough. We did it once before because we needed to. I wish we would do it again because we remember how great it was the first time and because we want it badly enough. How often we need to be humbled and reminded. I hope it doesn’t require another tragedy to accomplish that.

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