Memories   6 comments

So this week’s topic for the Blog Hop is Remember 911. Where was I when it happened? What was I doing? Thinking … Feeling …? Did I know anyone who died?

I think we who were adults during that time all have memories of what occurred that day, just as my parents could tell you exactly where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor and my older brother remembers the color of shirt he was wearing when he heard that Kennedy had been shot.

Before we get started, you should check out Patti Fiala’s blog to read about her memories of 911 and take a look at her great romance books featuring chicks who ride motorbikes.

My overriding memory of 9-11 was the empty skies over Fairbanks. Eighty percent of Alaska communities have no road access to the rest of the state. There’s always a plane in the skies of every photo or memory. But I’ll get back to that later in the article.

Alaska is, of course, several hours later than New York. The first plane hit the towers just before 5 am our time, while most Alaskans were still asleep. My husband Brad was working in Allakaket, a small Alaska village north of Fairbanks. At 5 am, my husband’s coworker John got up to get ready for work and turned on Fox News. John was one of those annoying people who gets up two hours before he has to be to work, so he can watch the news, drink coffee and make breakfast. My husband is not a morning person. They had compromised in that John would leave the volume down while he took his shower. Brad was staring at the television from his cot thinking mean thoughts about his coworker when he recognized the scene as the World Trade Center on fire. He grew up in New York City, so that interested him enough to sit up and start reading the ticker at the bottom of the screen. He then witnessed the second jet fly into the other tower, live. He originally thought it was some sort of movie trailer, so he turned up the sound and watched while the whole scene played again.

I was getting ready for work when the phone rang. I don’t watch television in the morning because it’s distracting and might make me late to work and I don’t answer the phone for the same reason, but the answering machine picked up and my husband’s voice spoke.

“Pick up. It’s important! Pick up. Pick up. Pick up.”

So, I did, handing over dressing the 2-year-old to the 8-year-old. I had sent him a box of food via the mail plane the day before, on my day off, with a 2-year-old in tow, and I figured it had gotten lost and he wanted me to straighten it out. He started talking as soon as I picked up.

First words out of his mouth?

“Are you watching television?” I think I got something intelligent like “Uh, no …” Before he said “Turn it on. Your boss will understand.”

So at 5:45 am on a workday, I turned it on while he directed me to tune it to CNN or Fox. By this time the 8-year-old, who was usually a crab in the morning, was offering her brother toast, which the dog thought was for her. So I was fending off the big lovable Lab with a bare foot while I stared at the video footage of a building on fire. It looked like something out of “The Towering Inferno”. I didn’t get it.

“I’m going to be late, Brad. What’s the point?”

“Wait for it.” I sighed and thought, okay, it’s the World Trade Center and he grew up in New York and a plane has apparently hit one of the towers, so … why should my boss care about this?

And then a jet aircraft came into the frame and hit the second tower. My mouth fell open, I let the kid defend his own toast and I sat down to remember how to breathe. While we were watching and Brad said some things in a foreign language, the ticker started to say that a third plane might have hit the Pentagon.

“Have they said it’s terrorism yet?”

But just then Fox News was playing President Bush’s statement about it might be terrorism. Brad had forgotten I used to be a reporter and my minor was political science.

“What does that mean if it’s terrorism?” Brad asked, then started talking to his coworker about what he’d just said.

“It’s not good,” I said, as I got a tone in my ear that I knew was call waiting. Phone calls at 6 am are generally not good. I told Brad to call me at lunch if he could and switched to the other line where my boss asked how quickly could I get my kids to where they needed to be and get to work. “It’s a crisis,” he said. “Have you seen the news yet?”

I worked for community mental health at the time and events like this tend to send Medicaid patients into a tizzy. Traffic was eerily light as I drove to the babysitter’s. Thinking back, everyone turned on the news and was now late because they were watching it. The sitter’s husband was Army Reserve and he was on the phone with his CO when I got there. Our sitter was studying for her citizenship test. Already in tears for her adopted country, she had just watched the South Tower collapse. She assured me that she could watch kids while crying and I continued on my transportation route. At our daughter’s school the teachers were standing in the parking lot talking to some of the parents — very much not the norm. The principal engaged in some impromptu polling to see if we were all right with our kids knowing what was going on. I remember staring at one of the mothers who wanted her kids protected from the news while I could hear her car radio tuned to it. I remembered being three and having a vague understanding of the events of the Kennedy assassination.

There was no way any of us were going to be able to protect our children from this. Our daughter, because her mother was in shock, had seen the television news, watched people throw themselves out of windows (and had the good sense to cover her brother’s innocent eyes), and asked me questions all during the morning drive. Avoidance would be impossible, so it was how we presented this tragedy that mattered.

Traffic had picked up as people remembered they had jobs. While I waited for a flagger to wave me through a construction project, I watched as Army fighters screamed across the sky to circle general aviation planes. By the time I reached work, the news was all about the National Operations Center for the FAA closing down air traffic nationwide.

At work, everybody was numb. This is a huge military town, so 10% of the staff was stuck on the base since they’d closed the gates. The ones who had left for work early were now unable to go home. The therapeutic clients were lighting up the phones wanting more medication while local governments were calling to ask us to conduct grief seminars at the local high schools. One of our psychiatrists was in a panic because her brother worked in the Trade Center. One of our social workers was trying to get her brother on the phone — he worked at the Pentagon. (The psych’s brother had taken the day off; the social worker’s brother was fortunately in an unplanned meeting down the hall when his office was destroyed). Our chronically mentally ill clients were oddly well-behaved and supportive as the staff struggled to cope.

There was a message from Brad on my office phone assuring me that he’d gotten his box of food the afternoon before.

“I can eat for a week. Hope the planes are flying by then. Boy, am I glad I was nice to the villagers! Some of my coworkers are going to get very hungry.”

My boss brought a television from home so we could check in with the news throughout the day (remember, the Internet was not what it is today). Our lone Muslim worker burst into tears when she saw video footage of Palestinians dancing in joy over the news of the attack and I ended up kneeling in the bathroom praying with her. She got a serious case of the giggles when I ended the prayer “in Jesus name.”, but overall, I tried to represent the forgiving loving Christian community before the armies started to roll.

My coworkers speculated about whether we’d go to war and what that meant for those of us who had boys in high school. Little did we know that we’d still be at war in Afghanistan when my then-toddler is now a junior in high school. Our daughter’s Christian school called to say they were not canceling classes, but that the bus barn had canceled the buses, so we would need to pick them up ourselves. My daughter reported that they’d listened to the radio all day while doing their work. At 8 years old, she was angry at the thought that men had killed people they didn’t even know and she wanted me to pray with her for the people grieving for their loved ones, which we did right there in the parking lot. We decided to stop at the local ice cream stand which was not far from the school because neither of us could stand the idea of going home. Several other families from the school were coincidentally gathered at the park next door. We all sat around numb, staring at the empty skies as it slowly grew dark on that oddly warm September evening.

I don’t know that any non-Alaskan can fully appreciate the oddity of empty skies. There is always an airplane in the sky when you drive around Fairbanks. Alaska has more general aviation aircraft than any other state — and that is real numbers, not per capita. Shutting down air traffic here is the equivalent of closing the Interstates and all State highways in the Lower 48. It was a gorgeous hunting season and much warmer than usual. There should have been planes everywhere, but the skies were empty. Had the weather not been unseasonably warm, the situation in Alaska could have been deadly. Many Alaskans hire GA pilots to fly them into hunting camps. They generally only bring enough food for their planned days out. Some have shelter, many just rely on tents that are inadequate if it snows. While we ate ice cream and watched our children play on the equipment, some of the people in the park were trying to figure out how to get to hunters who had been left in the field and now were waiting for a plane pick-up that wasn’t going to come. Radio contact is spotty in Alaska. Hunters would just have to wait and wonder, unless their wives knew an owner of an air boat who could go get them. I know some GA pilots who flew the rivers at tree top level to avoid radar to pick up folks, risking being shot down because they were terrified that the weather would turn and their parties would freeze to death out there in the wilderness. One friend waited three days for the plane, wondering if World War 3 or a pandemic had occurred while making meals of his moose. I know a couple of hunters who owned their own planes who had flown into moose camp and had jets scrambled when they innocently went to fly out. Isolated villages ran out of fuel and food. Some of Brad’s coworkers were out of food with no resupply in sight while they watched Brad being invited to go hunting.

And all that was just backdrop to this huge monumental THING that had happened. It was Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy Assassination. And for me, it is the empty skies that always resonate in my memory. Somehow, more than the video footage of jets flying into buildings that played over and over, the silence of the skies over Fairbanks is my memory of 911.

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6 responses to “Memories

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  1. Thanks for sharing your story.

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  2. Reblogged this on aurorawatcherak.

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  3. I understand the oddity of silent skies. We lived under a major air traffic route and normally there were always planes overhead. It was weird not seeing any for so long.

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    • My husband notes that I was very detached in this writing and I want to explain that to folks. At the time, like everyone else, I was a mixture of angry and sad and, like most everyone else, over time I grew more angry. There was absolutely no excuse for what the terrorists did or for the Palestinians who danced at the news. And I still don’t disagree with the decision of the US Army to go into Afghanistan.

      But ….

      My views have matured over the years. I’ve passed from merely conservative to libertarian (little l intended) and adopted some voluntaryist-anarchist views along the way. A part of that is a lessening of the affection I once had for the American flag, so that when I see it lowered to half-mast in honor of 911, I actually feel oppressed. It reminds me of all the freedoms we lost in this country because of 911 … or because our government uses the memory of 911 to get us to agree to giving up our rights. We’ve set aside huge chunks of the Constitution in the name of protecting us from terrorism, which begs the question — who is terrorizing us now? It sure looks like it’s our own government.

      Today when I remember the events of 911, I don’t particularly want to remember the anger that fueled a (now) generation-long war that has destabilized the Middle East. We could have done it differently – bombed the heck out of every terrorist camp we had intelligence for, sent Seal Teams after bin Laden immediately, and gotten out of the region to let it decide for itself what it wanted to do The fact is that the United States gave birth to ISIS just as the Soviets gave birth to Al Qaeda. While there is validity to the argument that you want to break china on someone else’s turf and not on Main Street Peoria, we could have dealt with the terrorism threat in a less soul- sucking way. Instead we decided to nation-build like the imperial power we have become. There are those who think the US is funding ISIS and I’m not sure that I don’t agree. I do know that when Obama tries to paint al Qaeda as the lesser-of-two-evils now, I want to hit reset on our entire nation.

      So there you have it. Not the warm friendly novelist view of 911. Not even the I-grew-up-in-a-military-town view. I’m not a pacifist. I think war is sometimes necessary. But I can’t shake the realization that this war has fundamentally changed the United States and not for the better and I am way more angry at what WE have chosen to do than I am at the terrorists.

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  4. Pingback: Can We Stop Fighting Yet? | aurorawatcherak

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