Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Fifteen Years Later

If you're old enough, of course you remember where you were when you found out about the attack on the World Trade Center, 15 years ago tomorrow morning. I'm old enough. I mean, I was 35 at the time, in another existence, so it now seems, from that which I lead now.

Five years ago, in another place, I told my own story. Here it is once more, lightly edited with corrections and changes to reflect my memory as it stands now:

I was working, at that time, at a small Long Island law firm, and we had a office in the WTC. Fortunately, there was a whole-office meeting out in Nassau County, so that nobody reported to our Trade Center offices that day. Everyone was at the Long Island office.

Except me. But I was not at the WTC either; I had just completed a two day meeting with clients in DC, laying the groundwork for a First Amendment case that would preoccupy for nearly 5 years, do some good for free speech, but fall short of the sweeping victory for which I had hoped.

So, I was at the then-relatively-newly renamed Reagan National Airport, about to fly home. Did you know that RNA is quite close to the Pentagon? Neither did I, then.

About to board my flight, I saw the first plane strike the Tower, on a television screen in the airport. I thought it was an accident--an unbelievable accident. I even called home, and left a message asking if I had actually seen that. Then, a woman in an airline uniform ran out from behind the baggage area waving her arms and yelling "GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!"

As far as I could tell, that was the evacuation protocol. Straightforward, at least.

I went to the main concourse. That's when I saw the second plane, and realized this was big. And deliberate. Another guy, about my age now, maybe a few years older, said to me, "Damn. We'd better try to get a train before they get closed down, too." We walked back to the abandoned baggage area, got our bags, and began to head back to the concourse. All of the people in the airport were out on the tarmac, trying to work non-functioning cell phones. A low, dense black smoke rolled toward us--word of mouth had it that the airport had been bombed. And so, with no clear idea where we were headed, we walked across the grass, down a hill, across a highway, and then into the nearest town. My companion was taken ill on the way down-started feeling his chest tighten--so I helped with his bag. And a bunch of Americans streamed into an American town like refugees.

A nearby hotel (a Marriott) let us in, and started handing out water. My companion (forgot his name after all these years) was taken to a doctor, and I was on my own. I hate to admit it, but I immediately flashed on the Flashman Papers, especially Flashy's dicta that if you look like you belong, and carry yourself with a high enough hand, people will assume you do belong. Rather than fold up my best suit for the trip home, I was wearing it. I closed my shirt collar, jacked up my tie, and hid my bag behind a chair. The, walking in a swift but unhurried manner into the manager's office, with a cool nod to the secretary, I closed the door behind me and made calls--I couldn't reach my parents, but I did reach my client's Executive Director, and she and her husband offered me a bed for as long as needed one.

From there, it became simple--a short ride on the Metro--up again after only an hour or so, a walk from the station, and a refuge.

I had it incredibly easy.

My friends didn't all have it so easy. I knew several people, good friends, who had damned close calls that day, and one former work acquaintance who died. My own experience was nothing like that--yet I got a taste of something most Americans haven't--a loss of security at the most basic level. I understand the anger the attacks caused at a visceral level, because I experienced first hand the "this cannot be bloody happening" feeling that underlines it so often. Fifteen years ago, we learned what it was like to be vulnerable. We also learned that there were heroes among us--the passengers of Flight 93, the firefighters who ran in, the police officers who shepherded people to safety, or died trying. The clergy at St. Paul's and Trinity, and St. Peter's, who provided succor and hope. And we saw good in each other--the testy mayor rose to the occasion, and President Bush (not a favorite of mine, shall we say) gave a speech in which he refused the poisonous bait Bin Laden proffered, and rejected the framing of the attack as one done by Islam as a whole against the West, thus denying Bin Laden his dream of a clash of civilizations.

***

I'd be lying if I said I was sanguine about where we are as a Nation, as a people. But tomorrow, I will participate as a deacon in the liturgy, surrounded by mentors and friends, and by many of the first responders. I will read the Gospel. We will mark the occasion with prayer and music, and the presence of God in the Eucharist. We will celebrate our sacred dead.

And that will be enough.

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