Today, I decided to replace our American flag. This wish was a surprisingly urgent feeling. I’ve felt our home seems naked without our old glory, somehow. It comforts me to see it fly out our front window. It wasn’t until tonight that I realized tomorrow is 9/11.
My father-in-law confronted me about the flag, not long after I decided it needed to be retired and unfurled.
“Why do you keep that flag up?” he asked, genuinely perplexed. “I like it,” I replied. Not really sure why. I hadn’t grown up with a flag flying outside my home, but somehow, here, it feels right.
“You know that famous quote about patriotism,” he stated.
‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’
This afternoon, I found a flag. But his words echo in my mind.
Last year, I wrote about September 11th.
I didn’t tell MY story, because I wondered if it was my story to tell. And I still wonder that today.
Every year, I read “For Thou Art With Us,” still the definitive essay of the event for me.
The morning of September 11th 2001, I flew into London on a red-eye flight from San Diego. A great friend had gotten married in Mission Bay, and I had risked jet lag hell by flying from London to San Diego and back in four days. I remember not being able to attend the beachside rehearsal dinner because I had SUCH a headache. I took a black cab from the airport to my flat early in the morning, and ever the workaholic, I was worried about missing any emails or phone calls from my important clients. So I took the tube to my office in Piccadilly Circus just as soon as I showered and changed. Darcy was in the South of France for a conference.
Around 1:50 PM, I went to CNN.COM, and before I could click on the technology tag (keeping on top of that news was part of my job) I noticed there was a headline that said “Small Plane Crashes Into World Trade Center” in a very straight foward manner. There was an accompanying picture of a hole with smoke (but not flames) in the midst of the famous building’s pinstriped facade.
I blinked at my computer screen, unable to compute this message.
Then I went to a local newsstand and bought a Dr. Pepper and a package of Starburst. I remember that, well. I remember thinking I was going to need some sugar to withstand such awful news, especially given my jet lag. It was one of many odd things I did that day.
One thing to explain about my office is that I was the only American who worked there, other than an intern who was out that day. The office was staffed, appropriately, mostly by Brits, but there were small packs of Aussies and Kiwis too.
When I returned, almost everyone in the office was standing and staring at one of the many TVs populated throughout the office. (It was the firm’s job to monitor broadcast media, too.) I saw the image of the enormous firestorm consuming the North Tower. And as I watched, still unable to compute and perplexed that I was listening to Katie Couric instead of a British talking head as usual (BBC had cut to live American TV), the second plane hit the South Tower. “Bloody HELL!” exclaimed one man. Bloody was not a word that was normally acceptable (as I had found out painfully, early on) in the office setting. That exclamation was about the only signpost I had the rest of the afternoon that what was going on was extraordinary in any way.
Phones began ringing. Our Business division of course had many ties to New York. Guys would calmly run in and say stuff like: “Ten planes are unaccounted for!” Then they ran back to their phones.
Suddenly, I realized my parents might be on an airplane: they were scheduled to fly from New Orleans to Salt Lake City then Montana that day. I tried to dial information for their hotel in New Orleans. But I couldn’t get through to America. “Circuits are busy at this time,” was the message I kept receiving.
Right about then, the jokes began. That “Keep Calm and Carry On” business is for real in Britain. One guy kept making the remark, “Where is Charlton Heston when you need him?” Referring, I think now, to The Towering Inferno. At that point, I started to have difficulty breathing. My parents were unaccounted for. Darcy was in another country. Why wasn’t anyone taking this very scary situation seriously? It was a cultural divide that seemed unconquerable at that moment.
I finally reached Darcy by calling his hotel and asking for his room. “Are you SEEING this?” I asked him. “What?” he replied. And at that moment, the South Tower fell, crushing itself into dust as it began its slow descent into nothingness and ash. “My God, one of the World Trade Center Towers has just collapsed!” I shouted into the receiver. “I don’t believe you,” he said.
He didn’t know. He’d been writing a story in his hotel room with his cell phone turned off.
“The Pentagon has been hit!” politely yelled a Business group person, shortly thereafter, in the same manner he would report that one of our clients was on BBC, and we might want to pay attention to the TV.
A co-worker came up to me and asked quietly: “Are you familiar with New York City?”
“Sort of,” I replied.
“Is Greenwich Village near the World Trade Center? My son is staying there.”
I blurted out in an ugly stream of words: “I think so! You should try to call him! This is serious! Really serious! My parents are supposed to be flying! I can’t reach them!”
“Right,” she said, and politely stepped away.
I regret now that I hadn’t said something more reassuring to her. I guess I was trying to wake her up to the severity of the situation. Everyone seemed to be walking and talking, and yes, laughing (gallows humor) with ice water running through their veins.
“A plane is suspected to be heading towards London!” called out one of the business guys, matter-a-fact.
At that point I approached my boss. “My parents may be flying, I can’t reach them and I just want to go home and try to find out where they are.”
She told me: “The clients need us. You need to stay at your desk and…”
Just then, the North Tower fell.
I guess this kind of response to crisis is what allowed the Brits to hold up so well during the Blitz. It’s admirable no one lost their shit like I did. They had friends and relatives in NY and maybe they even knew people who were on airplanes too. They kept their cool.
Finally, I called Darcy again, even though my boss was giving me the stink-eye and probably was wondering why I wasn’t writing a press release or something. “The Second Tower has fallen,” I screeched.
“I saw that,” he replied hollowly.
I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. I silently stood with strands of wetness running down my cheeks, fully aware that I was the only one who was giving into the instinct to cry, as the footage of the crash in Shanksville was shown. I knew I had seen thousands of people die. It was beyond my comprehension and the tears were the only release my body could find. And then I quietly made my way to the door, and for the first and last time I worked there, I left promptly at 5 PM. And because I couldn’t be alone, I went to a friend’s house and we stayed up all night watching the footage over and over and over.
I didn’t find out that my parents were safe until that night.
Later I found out that my building housed the conference firm which had handled the “Windows on the World” event. Several people in our very office had died in the awful attacks. Tony Blair visited, and we weren’t allowed to leave our offices for security reasons. I saw him out our window stepping back into his Jaguar.
I may have been the American, but so many people suffered that day. It’s important to remember that. And we all responded in our different ways.
Even today, I remember the horrible, abruptly assembled footage of photographs on BBC of 9/11. I remember in particular Adagio, by Samuel Barber, playing in the background. I have to change the radio each time that song plays. I detest that composition, now, and will probably for the rest of my life.
For my children, 9/11 will be history. There will be a few pages dedicated to the event in their American History primer.
This is the music I prefer to play, to honor all those who lost loved ones during 9/11.
Go here for more Time Warps about 9/11.