It’s funny the events that change your life. I always point to the day in 2004 that Caroline was born as the turning point in our lives. Yes, Jayme and I were joined together by marriage, but I didn’t really consider us a family in the traditional sense. Then, Care came. All of a sudden, I was a dad. Jayme was a mom. And we were a family. In any and all senses of the word.
So, looking back to September 11, 2001, it really does seem like a lifetime ago. I was still mired in college classes at Georgia Tech and Jayme was researching 19th century French medicine for her dissertation, of which she would finish years later. We were newly married (literally for less than a month) and still getting used to the whole husband and wife moniker.
Recently, in the lead up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, there have been countless tributes and memorials and specials on television, radio, and in print. Some of it’s poignant. Some of it’s pointless. And some of it, as one commenter correctly explained on Twitter, borders on tragedy porn. Whatever the memory of that day was, we can certainly point to that day as a pivotal day in the history of the United States. Luckily for you (and my own blood pressure), I’m not going to go in to the political and cultural fallout from that tragedy. There’s plenty of that going on. I’m pointing to you, Fox News and MSNBC.
What I am going to do is tell you my story from that day. There’s certainly nothing heroic about this story. There’s nothing even interesting in the grand scheme of the day. But it is my story. And it’s a story that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
September 11, 2011
8am classes in college suck. There, I said it. They especially suck when you don’t live on or near campus. In the fall of 2001, I was somewhere in between my sophomore and junior years, thanks to weird rules in dealing with transfer credits. To get “caught up” with everyone else, I was trying to pack one more class than normal into my schedule. That way, I could hopefully graduate by 2003 (a five-year plan with co-op included in there) and not get stuck in college forever. Hence, my 8am class.
That class, as a I remember, was a programming class. I don’t really remember what the class was called, but I remember it was the Squeak class. (Squeak was a programming language, the second object-oriented language we were exposed to besides Java. I think it was there to open our eyes to the fact that other languages did exist outside of Java and C.) It was one of the more difficult concept classes I remember, made all the more difficult given the fact that it was at 8am on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
That particular Tuesday morning, I remember arriving at our classroom about 30 minutes before class started. The classroom itself was being used by a group of students before us, so we all kind of sat against the wall and waited. Once 8 o’clock rolled around, we all filed in and took our seats. This particular class session was supposed to be a showcase of what could be achieved using the media libraries in Squeak. Our professor, Mark Guzdial, was one of the inventors of the Squeak language and was working on using Squeak to teach children about computers and programming. Given that charge, he took advantage of the multimedia capabilities of Squeak, and wanted to show us the possibilities. Laid back session, in all respects.
After class announcements and the like, he fired up his computer (attached to the overhead), and started his presentation. He went through a couple of projects and was moving on to the internet-based one. He fired up Netscape. Yes, you read that right…Netscape. It was 2001, after all. His homepage happened to be Yahoo.com, so when it rendered the day’s headlines, it had a very blurry picture of smoke coming from a building. The headline was something to the effect of “Plane crashes into North Tower”. He stopped and read the blurb, and commented on how someone could have crashed their little plane into such a large edifice. That was it. The collective thought in the classroom was some random pilot had veered off course, lost control of the plane, and accidentally crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. A big deal, yes, but at a very local level.
We sat through the rest of the class, enjoying some of the other projects he had been working on. It was a nice little break from the normal taking notes and trying to wrap our brains around a brand new concept habit. Class ended, and I headed off to the little snack shop outside the bookstore to get a morning pick-me-up, as was my normal routine back then. Once I finished that, I sat down at the coffee shop to study for my 11am Sociology exam.
Thinking back, it’s amazing how this could have happened. By that time, it was about 10:00. Both towers had been hit (North at 8:46am and South at 9:03am) and the South Tower had just started to collapse at 9:59am. Yet, no one said anything. I’m not sure anyone (who had joined me in the coffee shop) even knew what was going on. They were probably doing the same kind of thing I was doing: studying, reading, or just enjoying some precious downtime. You have to remember, this was before Facebook. Before Twitter. Before smartphones. Before texting was commonplace. There were no televisions in the coffee shop. No televisions in the snack shop. No televisions in the bookstore. How would we have known?
About 10:55, I finally gathered my stuff and got ready to slog through another exam. Yay team. I walked out of the building with the coffee shop and noticed that the student population walking to and from class had grown significantly since I went in. Not surprising though, considering it was right before 11am. I merged into the human traffic and set course for the classroom where I was to take my exam. About halfway between the Student Center and my class, I happened to notice my cousin, Chris Revell, walking in the opposite direction. He looked at me curiously. I stopped.
“What’s up, man?” I said.
“Didn’t you hear?” Chris asked.
“Hear what?” I responded.
“The towers have fallen.” he said. Keep in mind, I was attending Georgia Tech. One of Tech’s famous buildings is called Tech Tower. Even though he said the plural word “towers”, I instinctively turned in the direction of Tech Tower. Realizing what I was doing, he stopped me.
“No, the World Trade Center towers. Two planes crashed into them and they have fallen down. Campus is closed. They don’t know what’s going on. Has Jayme not called you?”
I felt in my pocket for my phone (an old-school Nokia, if I’m remembering correctly). I pulled it out and realized it wasn’t turned on. I had either forgotten to turn it on that morning or had turned it off for class. At the time, I couldn’t remember why. It didn’t matter. I turned it on. When it finally connected to the cell tower, my phone buzzed. There were 8 voicemails.
I looked at Chris. There was anticipation, dread, and worry in his eyes. As I looked around at everyone else, I realized they all had that same look. I must have adapted the same look because he realized that it had finally sunk in. I honestly don’t remember how we separated right then. I’m assuming we said something to the effect of “be careful” or “see you later”, but it’s a blur in my mind now.
As I walked to my car (a 15-minute walk from where I was), I listened to the “unread” voicemails. Six were from Jayme, 1 from dad, and 1 from mom. All of them had the same type of message. They were all checking in to see if I was okay and urged me to get home. I remember vividly the fear in Jayme’s voice, growing in scale as the message count went on. No one knew what was going on. No one knew what the scale of this attack was or would be. Was Atlanta going to be a target? What was still planned for the day by the attackers? It was the closest thing in my lifetime (as of this writing, of course) to a panic situation.
Once I reached my car, I immediately turned on the radio and set it to the news station. One of the (local) reports stated that the interstates coming in and out of downtown Atlanta were completely packed. Knowing this, I tried my hand at going “the back way”. Unfortunately, many others decided this as well. It took me about 60-70 minutes to get home from Tech. I must admit, I got lost a couple of times, as I was a little unfamiliar with the back roads getting back to Smyrna.
When I finally walked in the apartment and saw Jayme, her eyes were puffy and I saw fear in them that I have never seen before. Or since. She had been watching CNN and I finally was able to see what had happened with my own eyes. Up until this point, it was all by word of mouth via other people and the radio. I was stunned. Utterly and completely stunned. I could not believe what I was seeing. Of course, by this point, they were all replays as events had taken place hours beforehand. Didn’t matter. The same horror that had befallen all others who had watched this live those 3-4 hours before hit me like a train. I sat down on the couch and cried. We sat on that couch for the rest of the day. We didn’t say much. Didn’t need to. We simply held each other. And we didn’t let go.
I’ve always been a collector. As a kid, and my parents can attest to this, I collected baseball cards. As I grew up, I stopped collecting cards in general and focused on cards of my favorite baseball player at the time, David Justice. It didn’t stop with the cards, though. I would cut out newspaper stories, look for those plaque things that local stores would sell, and beg my mom to buy me a Justice #23 Braves jersey. All the stuff you do as a kid when you become obsessed (yes, it was an obsession) with your favorite player. I had it all.
Unfortunately, and a little depressingly, I did the same thing when it came to the aftermath of 9/11. Every article I could get my hands on, I read and kept. Every picture I saw on the Internet, I saved to my computer. Every documentary and special on television, I watched and taped. I was obsessed. Obsessed with what, I don’t know. The tragedy? The “eventness” of it? I don’t know what it was. I think it finally hit me when I bought a television special on DVD of the tragedy. It was by A&E or the History Channel or something like that. I bought it, but couldn’t bring myself to watch it. Not the day I bought it. Not a month from then. Not even 3 months from that time. In fact, I never watched it. I never even took the plastic wrapping off of it. It sat on our DVD shelf until years later when we finally started to sell off our DVDs. Still wrapped in that plastic.
I just couldn’t bring myself to re-live that day. It was too horrific. It was too monstrous. It was too sad. Normally, I fight through the horror and sadness of certain events when watching documentaries or specials. But this one I couldn’t shake. Maybe it was the fact that this was the only one that I actually lived through. Tragic events of the past are easier to watch for me because there’s a separation inherent between me and the event. I wasn’t part of it. I wasn’t cognizant (or alive, for that matter) of the happenings in and around World War II or Vietnam. I was only 6 years old when the Challenger exploded. These events are simply history to me. 9/11 was real. Like no other world event I’ve ever known. The only one that comes close is probably the Holocaust.
Like I said before, I will never forget what happened that day. And neither will anyone else who lived through it. Even though I was nowhere near NY, Pennsylvania, or DC, the ripple effect of 9/11 still rings true within all of us. It is this generation’s “Where were you when…” question, much like the Challenger explosion and the Kennedy assassination was for the generations before. My wish, on this 10th anniversary of 09/11/2001, is that my kids’ generation will never require their own “Where were you when…” question. My hope is that they will never have to witness an event that so stuns an entire nation. And even an entire world.