Without thinking about it much, I said to my wife the other day, "I'm glad we were here for September 11." We think of lots of things now that we're leaving Westfield, New Jersey.
"Why?" she asked.
"Because it was real."
It still is. In an elbow of land between the train station and the railroad bridge over the traffic circle, right across the intersection from the World War I plynthe, the town is building a memorial to the eight Westfielders killed on September 11. In the memorial, eight gray waist-high obelisks rim a little grassy section of park and bricked walk. It isn't done yet. It's likely I'll never see it complete.
On that day, I was having coffee in the local bakery with my friend Joe Shukis, when Raul, the busboy (who eventually became our sons' babysitter and dear friend), came over and said, "Did you hear? An airplane just crashed into the World Trade Center."
And we thought, as everyone first did, of a small single-engine plane. Indeed, I had taken Bud on a demonstration flight in a Cessna out of Linden airport only weeks before, north across Staten Island for the spectacular view of bridges and buildings. We flew at 800 feet -- the designated altitude, and significantly lower than the WTC towers -- up the Hudson, and banked and turned around and headed home.
My last view of the World Trade Center was up close, below the tops, from an airplane.
Sally was standing on Exchange Place when the first plane hit. She didn't hear anything. "Suddenly, the air was full of paper," she said.
All these stories have been told before, but we experienced them here, in the neighborhood, connected to New York City by the umbilicus of the commuter train. Throughout that day, three trains arrived in Westfield. I can still see the people staggering off, stumping toward home on numb legs, all expression blasted from their faces, ties pulled askew, clothing wrinkled.
Remembering that day, for some reason, makes me remember the 2000 elections, which we also marked here, and another moment I won't forget.
Sally and I had engaged a babysitter and gone out to dinner. After dinner, we stopped in what was then a cigar bar for coffee and dessert. The big screen TV was on, and we were the only patrons. There was supposed to be some sort of announcement from Florida, so we asked the bartender to turn the TV to CNN.
And Katherine Harris appeared in that now famous press conference where she certified the election for George W. Bush.
Sally and I laughed and laughed.
"Would you look at that babe?" Sally exclaimed, and she wasn't making fun, not at all. Instead, she was admiring a nice-looking, well-educated woman like herself, working for state government (which Sally had done), sticking out her chin, talking calmly, and doing the right thing -- just as Sally would have done.
Westfield's votes broke interestingly in that election. Gore edged Bush, just barely. Bob Franks handily bested Jon Corzine, this in a town known as "the place where the CEOs live," where many, many people knew both candidates personally. And conservative Republican Mike Ferguson won the House seat.
At the time of that election, I was working for the local paper. That fall, in an editorial, I complimented Westfield on "an extraordinarily high level of civic virtue." That characteristic can be interpreted in other ways, as pompousness or pushy ambition, for example.
But on balmy fall nights after school board meetings, I took a rosy view, maybe even a naïve one. After watching Superintendent Bill Foley and School Board Chairman Darielle Walsh run those meetings, I would drive home through the near-empty town and think thoughts that self-respecting newspapermen are not supposed to think. I would think of Bill's and Darielle's beautiful faces, and I would feel like everything was going to be all right.
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