I had just finished breakfast upstairs in the cafeteria at King College, and had come downstairs to check my mail. The mail person always left the radio on in the office behind the boxes, so you could hear the news or music playing all the time. This morning, I opened my box to hear an echo ricocheting that a plane had hit the World Trade Center tower. I glanced towards my boyfriend (and now husband, James) as we both ran towards the lounge, a few steps away. We watched in horror as the second plane slammed into the second tower, gritty, grainy, super-zoomed, so far away, the camera panned at an odd angle. James and I had been one of the first people in the room that day. It would eventually fill past capacity as the entire college pressed into the one little room on campus that had a tv. James and I kept getting pushed closer and closer to the big screen tv.
I had been frantically calling my father (who was at the time serving in the Navy, at work, stationed at NAS Norfolk) and not getting through. The cell phones weren’t working. When the plane slammed into the Pentagon, I ran out to the porch just off the lounge, literally gasping for air. I remember glancing across the Appalachians resplendent in their autumn finery off that porch and measuring the surreal nature of it. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing out on that porch, any more than what I was seeing on the screen.
The attitude in the room grew more and more frantic as us young-adults suddenly turned daughters-and-sons again couldn’t get ahold of anyone on the Eastern Seaboard. There were two groups: the students from NY, and the military kids. We were terrified for the girl who had walked those very streets, for her brother who was a firefighter—it would take almost 36 hours before she would hear from her family and find out that he had made it out alive, but many of his company had not. She was only 19, but in those thirty six hours, she was 91, her face drawn and aged. I’ll never forget the look in her eyes.
As a military child, I knew with the first plane we were at war. In my mind played out the procedures and steps the military was taking at that very moment, what the bases were doing, how they were shutting down to civilians…I could almost see it playing out like a slow motion movie in my head. The military kids had this immense level of both fear and conviction that could not be matched in the room. We knew everything was at risk. Once the Pentagon was hit, the question for us was whether or not this was a military attack or a civilian attack. A military attack meant that all the assets were fair game. That meant where my dad and thousands of others worked in the military/industrial complex of Hampton Roads….
It was so weird to be in that position. Calm. Explaining to others what to do. For those few terrifying hours until all the planes were grounded, we had no idea what would happen next. But us military kids–we had been trained, we knew. It was strange to realize that others were looking to us to calm their fears, soldiers of a different sort.
That whole day, all I could see, juxtaposed over all the other images that were burned into my consciousness that day—my dad, at attention, saluting. The only thing I understood on that terrible day was that we were at war- and that thousands of soldiers would answer the Piper, and walk to their deaths. For me, it wasn’t just the thousands that died that day. It was the thousands I knew would die because of it.
Just two days earlier, on Sept 9th, I had celebrated my first birthday away from my parents. I had been slightly homesick, but mostly, I was happy to be growing up, stretching long towards life. I would end up driving home that weekend just to see my parents, to see the base, to see the military gearing up, as if to reassure myself that some things had not changed. The opposite was true. Everything had changed. September 11 forever marks the day of my adulthood for me. It was that day that the veil tore away and I realized evil was walking in the world. I had a choice before me that day. I had to lift my head up to the horror before me and decide how to live.
Ten years later, I’m not sure I’ve made the right decisions. The life before me is not the life I promised to live on that fated day- but that is the horrible, weighted glory of it- I get to live. Breathe. Make mistakes.
It is strange now, to be a mother of six. My eldest, at nine years old, has never known peace. He has always lived in a world where America isn’t so safe anymore and soldiers go overseas and don’t come back. We have been at war for ten years. We have lived whole lifetimes since then. But yet- there is a part of us that lives forever on that ordinary day, September 11, 2001, gazing up at the towers, across the field at the cratered Pentagon, at the plane scarred in the eastern meadow mere feet away from an elementary school–at the television screens, our ears tuned to the radio, gazing up at a clear blue sky, this beautiful, beautiful autumn morning, in total misbelief at the visions we’ve seen.
We will never forget.