That Day in September

There are countless stories that begin like mine, particularly those coming from the East Coast. And they usually all start out the same way: It was such a beautiful day...

I was asleep on that Tuesday morning. It may have been well past 9 because my first class of the day wasn't until after noon. Like many a senior at Boston University, I had stayed up late the night before during which I had attended a free screening of Mark Wahlberg's Rock Star down at the new multiplex by Boston Common. I could've sworn I heard the phone ring in my half-awake state. Moments later, a knock at my door startled me. It was my roommate, Steve.

"It's for you," he said from behind the closed door. I got up, took the cordless receiver, and watched him trudge back across the cramped living room to his side of our small Buswell Street apartment.

"Hello?"

It was my mother. I wasn't surprised since Tuesday is one of her days off from work, but it was relatively early, and she didn't sound so good: "Turn on the news." She could probably tell from my voice that I had just woken up and didn't know what was going on. "It's awful," she moaned.

I flicked on the 14-inch Toshiba in my room and tuned in to The Today Show. Instead of seeing Katie Couric and Matt Lauer's smiling faces I was presented with the skyline of downtown Manhattan. One of the Twin Towers was on fire. No, make that both of them. While I became transfixed on the tube, my mom continued to go on in my ear about a plane crash and "that they think it was an attack."

After a few moments we said our goodbyes, promising we'd stay in touch throughout the day (luckily, none of our family or close friends were in harm's way). I went back to Steve and filled him in on what was developing in the world around us. I popped in a VHS cassette tape and started recording the news. Something told me that history was being made and that this day was to become one the world would never forget.

Then, while Matt Lauer was talking to an emergency official - while cameras were fixed on the burning towers - it happened. The collapse of the first building. I let out several Oh-my-Gods. The billowing clouds of smoke enveloped downtown Manhattan, and my Hollywood-trained mind couldn't help but think of the pivotal scene in Independence Day in which a wall of fire swept through the streets. It was like my brain was on a delay. Was this really happening? But weren't there people in those buildings and on the ground? How is this happening?

The shocks continued to deliver their one-two punches. The Penatgon. The crash in Pennsylvania. And all those other planes in the sky. The world as I knew it - the cozy, privileged American life I was given - was threatening to end. This is how it happens, I thought. Not with a bang, but with several of them.

The gorgeous day started out numb. There were the IMs exchanged with friends at NYU (cell phones were useless). There was the hazy walk to That Bullshit Class I Needed To Fulfill a Credit. There were the empty seats of students who had chosen to stay glued to their television sets in the dorms. There were the random students I didn't know crying in the middle of the sidewalks on Commonwealth Avenue. There were those F-16 fighter planes zipping across the sky above campus. There were the mobs of people staring at the TV monitors at the student union. There was the candlelight vigil later that night in front of Marsh Chapel. There was that body count, updated hourly everywhere you turned.

For the first time in my 21 years on this earth I, a relatively peaceful-minded, Catholic-educated only-child from a loving family with no history of war veterans, started to feel what Americans must have felt back in December of 1941 when Japanese bombers surprised U.S. fleets in that quiet section of Hawaii: anger. I now knew what it felt like to witness the opening salvo to a war. My red-blooded American self wanted revenge, wanted to retaliate, wanted justice. The urge to hunt down the mastermind behind this massacre and fight back was sudden. Why was I so quickly consumed by the desire to kick enemy ass? Was it the years of being fed a steady diet of action flicks in which evil-looking men with evil-sounding accents were blown to smithereens by the muscleheaded likes of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Willis? Or was it just a basic, primal need to right one giant wrong?

Without any hesitation, I felt the need to do something to aid my fellow Americans. I couldn't donate money; I was living off savings from my summer job and three student loans. So I decided to donate blood. After waiting over thirty minutes in line to sign up at the Red Cross station that had been set up at the student union, I discovered that my donation couldn't be accepted due to the fact that I had lived in the UK earlier that year when the Mad Cow outbreak crippled the British meat industry. Anyone who had spent a prolonged amount of time in that infected zone was unable to donate blood until further notice. I felt helpless, useless.

Throughout the next two months, I collected magazines and newspaper articles, kept an ear open for updates on this newly coined War on Terror, and listened to all the stories that started to emerge from the physical and emotional rubble, one of which involved BU alum and recent graduate Lisa Frost, who had been on one of those fateful flights that was supposed to carry her to a new life in California (I was to take a similar trip after my own graduation nine months later). Nothing else mattered. My mix CD became one dark ode to despair. Linkin Park's "In The End" became my theme song. That day in September, in a way, defined my senior year of college. I was a member of the First Post-9/11 Class, one of many young hopefuls sent out into a world that was different from the world we knew when we first went in.

When I traveled back to New York for the Thanksgiving break that year, I ventured downtown to visit a friend who had lived near South Street Seaport, just blocks away from Ground Zero. When I walked up into the cold air from the subway station near Water Street I turned around and saw the vast emptiness in the sky, the black void where those two towers once stood. I stopped to take a moment, reflect, and soak in the magnitude of what had happened in this very spot. I also couldn't help but remember the last time I had been down here, the last time I stood on this ground and looked up at those majestic behemoths of concrete and steel. An old movie ticket stub reminded me; I had caught a matinee of The Others at the multiplex across the street from the World Trade Center on August 12. One month earlier.

Now, ten years later, the details of that day remain just as vivid. The details of that day will also stay with me as a reminder to take nothing for granted and to appreciate all the blessings, trivial and otherwise, I have.

Remembering and honoring,

H.P.M.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

That was a really moving post, Hiko. My day started out the same too. My mom called me and I watched the coverage in the eating area at Student Village. I really could not believe my eyes. I felt really confused, I don't even know what I was watching live and what was playing over and over again. I do remember the tower falling and there was a massive gasp in the room. People started crying. I felt frozen and I got the worst headache. I didn't want to be alone but I didn't want to be around anyone anymore. I didn't know if I should go outside or stay inside. It was such a sad day, and a sad several years after.

-Mich

rebeccadfox said...

Wonderful Post Hiko.. I remember I was late for work, running my temp sheet in to the agency before I headed to the actual job and you are right. I remember it was a beautiful day. I had the radio on when they announced what was happening and it was so surreal. At work we were stunned, sitting around telvisions, radios, the internet.. I had a young friend who had just enlisted and we knew this meant she would have to go to war and she was scared. I was in upstate NY 6 hours north of the city and we heard the jets over head. surreal..
-rebecca

ccf said...

Somewhat ironically, Independence Day was on Fox that night. I imagine there was some back and forth at the network about propriety and such, but, you know, triumph of the American/human spirit and such...

Jenny said...

Another post that gave me goosebumps Hiko. My day was very similar, but I feel I cannot put it into words as elegantly as you.