We were checking out of the motel in Caribou that morning. My wife was sitting in the car, listening to the radio, as I paid the bill and chatted with the manager. She asked me if I had heard about the plane hitting a building in New York, and I told her I had not. "Come into the office," she offered, "I have the TV on." We walked into the room behind the reception desk, and there on the small TV, I saw the first pictures. I remembered another plane hitting the Empire State building sometime after the war, and mentioned that, but the young woman didn’t know about it. I thanked her for letting me see the accident (as we were sure it was), and I left, rejoining my wife in the car. "A plane flew into the World Trade Center," I said. She said she had just heard that on NPR, and as we drove away, heard about the second plane and the second building.
I think about that morning ten years ago today, and I think about other tragic days I remember.
The earliest I recall was a sunny Sunday afternoon in December. Our house was full of college girls and boys (yes, that’s what they were called then), and my sister and I and our parents had just returned from that American institution, the Sunday Drive. As we got out of the car and walked into the house the young people were all quietly talking (unusual for such a young group). They told of the interruption to the radio program announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor. My sister and I (she was ten, I was six) understood, without really understanding, that something momentous, terrible, exciting had happened to our nation.
Then there is the day in April, four years later. I can still see myself standing outside our house (another house by then), considering what the death (sudden, unexpected) of our president really meant. Thinking about the changes my world had already witnessed in such a short time.
And a day in November. I was in an editing room with my director and the editor. We were working on a first-cut of a short film our boss wanted "soon." The phone rang, and I answered it, heard my wife saying what I thought was the beginning of a joke: "The president’s been shot." I walked home to Georgetown, going by my boss’s office there in the White House, but not stopping, only taking in the quiet crowd gathering outside the fence on Pennsylvania Avenue.
And September 11, 2001. As we headed back to Virginia, through the lovely New England fall, I was torn between getting my wife home to the safety of our farm, and diverting to New York or perhaps Washington, where my training and skills as an EMT, and the jump bag in the trunk, might be needed. We stopped for the night in New Hampshire, saving the longest leg for the next day.
Finally, I remember September 12, 2001. Car after car, from New Hampshire to Virginia, seemed magically to have sprouted American flags: on windows, on trunk lids, from radio antennae. Any anxiety I might have felt, for my family, for my country, for my world, began to recede. It wasn’t just the flags, of course, but they marked a determination, a resistance, a strength I knew we, as a people, had. It was something I knew from December 7, from November 22, from September 11. America, standing tallest among nations, would always be a target for those grasping ideologies that would suppress and destroy what only America could offer. And they, regardless of who and where they lived, would themselves be overcome. Our flag will still be up long after they have fallen.