Driving to the doctor’s this morning, Richmond’s morning talk radio host ended his program with audioclips from 9/11, and then the Star Spangled Banner, because that’s what Jimmy Barrett does every morning–ends his show with the national anthem.
Of course it sent me back in time twelve years, to when I lived in Montclair, NJ, where you could see the Manhattan skyline from almost any hill in town. That’s where I grew up: Northeastern NJ, Essex and Union counties. I used to work near the Meadowlands, and saw the skyline as I drove in and out of work. My favorite time of year was when the sun rose as I was leaving the night shift at 6:30 a.m. and I could see a huge red ball over the Manhattan skyline, reflecting in the many windows of the various towers, turning the Chrysler building crimson. You have to understand that millions of people in the tri-state area grew up with the view of the Manhattan skyline imprinted in their brains. I remember the towers of the World Trade Center going up in the 1970s, and I remember thinking they were among the ugliest buildings I’d ever seen. I never honestly believed they improved the skyline, but still, they were–and are–imprinted in my brain. I can close my eyes and still see them.
I was twelve miles west of New York on September 11, 2001. I worked at Montclair State University, my alma mater, as a web contractor. That morning, just as the first plane was hitting the World Trade Center, I was walking across campus to pick up a copy of Dreamweaver from the campus bookstore. It was a lovely walk on a gorgeous day, a familiar walk, one that I had done hundreds of times as a student. Inside the bookstore, the loudspeakers weren’t playing music. Instead, a pair of New York DJs were talking about a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers. “That’s a really awful joke,” I told the cashier as I was checking out. “I don’t think it’s funny at all.”
“It’s not a joke,” he said. “Another plane just hit.”
I hurried back to my office. One of the administrators had brought out a small TV. We crowded around it. I watched in horror as smoke poured from the tower, and then was astonished to realize there was only one tower. The other had fallen. As we continued watching, the second tower fell.
I stayed until lunchtime. Then I gave up even trying to work, and went home. Tried to, anyway. I lived near Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange. That’s a park with a phenomenal view of the Manhattan skyline. Twenty thousand people had crowded into it to watch the towers burn. I had to show ID to get past a police car blocking the street I needed to drive down to get home. And when I finally got to my apartment complex, all of my neighbors were standing or sitting outside. All of them. Doors were open, televisions were on. We exchanged news, rumors, hugs. We were terrified, angry, shocked. My upstairs neighbor worked on the upper floor of one of the towers. He was alive and safe because he never, ever went to work on time. But his coworkers who did–well.
The skies of New Jersey were always filled with air traffic. Newark Airport was about twenty minutes from my home, and air traffic crossed New Jersey on the way to JFK and LaGuardia airports, or to points north and south. The sound of airplanes was a sound that was as common to me as the sound of frogs are to those of you who live in more rural areas. As a matter of fact, my apartment was on what I call a “windy day” route. Every time the wind was intense in one direction or other, the planes flew low over my home, making conversation impossible until they passed.
Not on 9/11. The planes were grounded for three days. The silence was eerie. The empty skies were unsettling. Even worse were the military jets flying over, because they seemed to emphasize both the empty skies and the feeling we were at war. Three days of silence. Three days.
You would think that twelve years has dulled the remembrance. It has not. When I heard on the radio the words of terrified broadcasters, and the sounds of the towers coming down, it brought back those days of fear, worry, and uncertainty. It reminded me that we still face a despicable enemy that would do the same in a heartbeat if it could. And it made me realize that the terrorists are far from through with us. But we have friends in this fight.
The Enemy is someone who is willing to die in order to kill you. And while it is true that the Enemy always hates us for a reason — it is his reason, and not ours.