When I got the news about the 9/11 attacks, I was having coffee with my friend Joe at the Panera’s in Westfield, New Jersey. Raoul, the busboy (who later became a great friend and babysitter to our boys), came to our table and said, “An airplane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”
An accident? Of course at first everyone thought so, but Raoul already knew it was an attack.
“This country has needed a wakeup call for a long, long time,” I said to Joe — we were still coming out of the long Clinton snooze, remember. And the two of us got up and left, probably no more sure of what we were doing than anyone else that glorious late summer morning.
My wife had taken the train into New York City that morning, and had, indeed, debarked at the station right under the World Trade Center. If you have never been there, you have never seen a full-sized shopping mall underground, right above the trains and below the twin towers, an amazing and amazingly claustrophobic spectacle. I wonder if we will ever see anything like it again.
THE FIRST THING I TRIED TO DO, like thousands of other people, was to find my wife. Area code 212 was just plain out. I sent off e-mail messages to Sally’s work and home e-mail addresses — I knew she was carrying a computer. And that was all I could do.
Next, I called my older son’s school and spoke to the principal, whom I knew well.
“You had better start calling backup numbers for all the kids,” I said. “We might have to deal with some mothers and dads not coming home.” By which I meant that both parents might have died in the attacks. The principal seemed stupefied.
Luckily, it didn’t happen in our school. But in many schools, in many New York suburbs, it did. Westfield lost seven people. Middletown lost 37.
After that, till it was time to pick up my boys, I did what I thought made sense. Get gas in the car, in case supplies were interrupted. Get cash from the ATM, in case the banking system broke down.
BY THE TIME I GOT THE BOYS FROM SCHOOL, Sally had reached me by e-mail, which proved more reliable than the phones. Later in the day, we managed to talk. She had walked away from the disaster scene — she had been on Exchange Place at the time of the first crash — all the way up to mid-town, where she met up with one of her bosses. She slept on the floor of his apartment and came back the next day.
But at the time I picked up the boys, I had received only short e-mail messages, and I knew only that Sally was fine, and that she would try to get home when she could. Train service, of course, had been stopped entirely that morning, but, by afternoon, a few trains had begun to leave Manhattan.
So we drove by the train station, in hopes of meeting her there. The first train to Westwood had just unloaded. Passengers, most of them male, staggered off the platform, coats, ties, and shirts awry, hair wild, eyes staring.
TO REMEMBER 9/11 THAT WAY, strictly for how I felt and what I did, seems to trivialize it. For thousands, it was much, much worse. Ten thousand children lost one or more parent that day. Untold scores of people leaped to their deaths rather than be burned alive. In New York alone, almost 3,000 people will never be seen again, not in any bodily form. They were pulverized.
Look, I have thought about this often, maybe because I’m old enough that, in my boyhood, World War II was still a vivid memory. My father, all my friends’ fathers, had served in that war. Army convoys still plied the highways. We had action comic books portraying evil Nazis and Japanese.
A friend of mine back then — we were no more than ten — once asked me, as we read over ancient stacks of comic books, “If you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you do it? Even if it meant you’d get killed, too?”
Oh, yeah. We’d both do it, we agreed.
At ten years old, we had better global and historical sense than large cohorts of today’s supposed deep thinkers.
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