Before Sept. 11, 2001, the single shaping historical event in my life was the assassination of President Kennedy. My first-grade class had assembled in the school gym, when our principal announced the president’s death over the p.a. system on a raw, rainy Friday afternoon.
I thought I would never again witness such an uninhibited, almost innocent outpouring of grief in my lifetime. We had become too cynical, too polarized and fragmented.
Thirty-eight years later, on a beautiful, late summer morning in September, I was hitting the snooze alarm, listening to WGN when Spike Odell announced that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City.
“The pictures are just amazing,” Odell said, or something to that effect.
My interest piqued, I got up and turned on Good Morning, America. My first thought was that maybe a Cessna plane had flown into the World Trade Center, but when I saw the size of the hole I adjusted my thinking that a distressed courier jet had flown into north tower.
Then, at the corner of my TV screen, I saw another plane fly into view. It disappeared behind the towers and nanoseconds later plunged into the side of the second tower like a spear. I remember gasping along with the crew on Good Morning, America.
Tearing myself away from the TV, I got ready for work with both the TV and radio blasting. By the time I brought the dog in from her morning constitutional, the third plane had flown into the Pentagon.
I’ll never forget the 10-mile drive to work that morning, looking at other drivers with their mouths gaping open in horror. We were all probably listening to the same news report of the first tower falling.
A reporter was in the field describing the tower folding in on itself to Peter Jennings.
“You mean part of the tower fell?” Jennings asked.
“No, the whole building,” the reporter replied.
I was late to work, as usual, back in the days when I still worked in an office. At that time, I was working in the communications department at Underwriters Laboratories in Northbrook. My supervisor arrived to work the same time I did. She was doubled over in pain. She had lost a cousin to a suicide bomber in Israel.
“I feel ill,” she said.
“Let’s go downstairs to the studio,” I told her.
My supervisor and I hurried downstairs to the studio where there was a projection TV. Expecting to see just a few colleagues, the studio was packed with co-workers. We arrived just as the second tower was falling in a plume of asbestos dust. We had just watched thousands of people die.
For the rest of that day not a whole lot of work got done. Some people were too distraught to work and went home. Updates flew over the cubicles. The planes had been hijacked. We couldn’t figure out how the terrorists smuggled guns on board the planes. We were stunned later to learn that the hijackers commandeered the planes using box cutters.
There were rumors that another plane was headed to Chicago and the Sears Tower. Later we learned that a fourth hijacked plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. We were glued to the Internet. A TV was wheeled into the cafeteria and we watched President Bush address the nation from a bunker in Nebraska.
By the early afternoon, the president of UL sent an email telling us we could go home if we wanted too. I hung in there until 4 p.m. I wrote a meaningless article about wind turbines. No terrorist was going to disrupt my life.
I stopped at the 7-Eleven near my house to buy the newspapers. Both the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times were wrapped in a special afternoon edition with pictures of burning towers and dust covered survivors.
Cars were lined up at the gas pumps. I couldn’t figure out why everyone suddenly wanted gas.
It wasn’t until I got home that my mother called to tell me to fill up my gas tank and withdraw some cash. I figured I’d take her take her advice since she lived through World War II.
I’m not a church-going person, but that night I went to church. I needed to pay my respects and quell my own fear and anger.
This time I wasn’t a kid watching a flag-draped coffin being pulled by horses through the streets of Washington, D.C., trying to wrap my 6-year-old’s mind around death and violence and history. I was a middle-aged adult, experiencing the same feelings of grief and sadness that my parents probably felt in 1963.
Is the world safer now that bin Laden is gone? Maybe not. But I feel a hell of lot better tonight than I did on Sept. 11, 2001.