Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11th, ten years later...because it's only appropriate.

Ten years ago I woke up from having my wisdom teeth removed to see the first of the World Trade Center's towers burning on the TODAY show on NBC.  I assumed I was hallucinating...as we all know anesthesia and Novocaine can do bizarre things to you and after all I often hallucinated about Matt Lauer.   But, alas...it wasn't a figment of my imagination.  As we all know it was very very real.

These are my wisdom teeth 10 years later...they look
surprisingly like candy corn.


That morning my dad had just picked my mom up from LAX as she returned from a business trip to Alaska.  Trivial as it might sound...that would be the last time that my dad would ever be able to wait at the gate in the airport terminal with flowers in hand able to give my mom a hug the moment she disembarked the plane.

I went and crawled into the bed of my grandmother in the room next to me.  She was sitting on the edge of the bed with remote in hand toggling back and forth between the television stations trying to find out any new bit of information she could.  The first thing she said to me struck me as odd..."This is the first time I have ever seen all the television stations without a single commercial..."

There was silence between us for a few minutes but I knew exactly what she meant.  It was a new day in America.  When the almighty dollar is put on hold for 72 hours...you know something has changed.  And after all, what was the point of commenting on the horror of what we were seeing?  Some things just don't need to be stated.

I was 19-years-old that day, the same age my Grandma Dorothy had been sixty years earlier when she sat in front of a Zenith Stratosphere radio listening to the reports of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  I had the immediate thought that history was about to repeat itself.  I assumed that soon we would be at war, this time World War III.  I would have to become a nurse at the Air Force Base delivering babies like my grandma had done, we would have to start rationing canned goods and panty hose and all the boys I had grown up going to school with would ship off and who, just who, would be this generation's Bob Hope?

My grandmother Dorothy May Govan in 1941

Clearly these were the stupid naive rambling thoughts of a teenager, still under the influence of sedatives and pain killers.  But the strange thoughts just kept coming.  My mind immediately flashed back to the summer of 1999 when I had been a teenage diplomate at a program for international high school students at the United Nations and my friend Michael Biel (from Germany) and I had broken away from the chaperones and gone up to the top of the World Trade Center and taken a quick picture with the New York skyline behind us.  As trivial as it seemed I had this instant sense of mourning that we would never be able to duplicate that picture when we were older like in a Kodak commercial.  I remembered that that trip to "UN Camp" had been the first time in my little life that I realized that the rest of the world wasn't too fond of us Americans. Then those thoughts were pushed from my mind as I watched the first tower start to collapse on television.

WTC, Observation Deck of Tower 1, July 1999
And suddenly I suppose I started to realize that I was watching people dying in real time.  We were seeing death in real time that was somehow in slow motion.  As the towers collapsed floor by floor it seemed liked it was going just fast enough to make it impossible for people to escape but just slow enough to inflict tortuous anguish on those who watched.   And there is something about seeing death in real time that kind of burns the lining of your stomach and causes the back of your throat to both dry and swell at the same time.

It would turn out that I never became a nurse delivering babies at the Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, California like my grandma, but I would train to be a first responder and then do a masters degree up the street from the Norton Air Force Base at Loma Linda University's School of Public Health, specializing in disaster management.  The boys I grew up with didn't all ship off.  Just a few did.  My family's neighbor Thomas Jenkins Jr. from our little town of Coulterville, California (pop. 115) was the first casualty of the first Gulf War...made the cover of  Time Magazine...and I had it in my mind that if you went to war you never ever came back.  But all the guys from my cohort came back..they weren't the same though...not ever.

Lance Cpl. Thomas Jenkins, 21 of
Coulterville, California

Subsequently, the Patriot Act was passed.  US troops deployed to Afghanistan, Toby Keith was everywhere.  Suddenly it was cool to be an American again, where in my teens it had been oh so gauche.  Air travel went from being an awesome experience to a loathsome humiliating experience.  Islam became a loaded, if not dirty, word.  Everything was different and yet everything was the same.  We (the US) were still rich, we were supposed to shop and consume and travel and shop and consume some more.  Our civil rights were different.  Our national security was different.  Our concept of "us" and "them" was different...but our Starbucks and credit card limits stayed the same.

On March 20th, 2003 I was in the tiny medieval walled town of Trujillo, Spain, staying in a 16th century Franciscan monastery that had been converted into a hotel.  Everything in the room, save for the flat screen television broadcasting CNN, looked just like it had 500 years ago when the building was first constructed.  I watched as the imbedded reporters cruised along in the army tanks as the allied forces led by the Americans began their march on Baghdad.  And I thought, maybe this was it...we (the US) were already in Afghanistan...now we're going into Iraq...just like World War II had two major theaters in Europe and Pacific, this war would have two theaters and this war would be fast like Operation Desert Storm...right?  Then everything would go back to normal.  No more Patriot Act, no more full body cavity searches at the airport or limits placed on how much fertilizer you could buy for your lawn.

Trujillo, Extramadura, Spain on March 20th, 2003


Of course eight and half years later...the war is still going.  In that time I have traveled to Ground Zero, to the Pentagon, to Pennsylvania, to the Middle East and I have made a beautiful friend in a beautiful woman named Catherine Lafuente, whose father Juan Lafuente, died in the World Trade Center on that fateful day, and who has devoted her life to cultivating peace and understanding with Islam.  And today I saw her mother Colette Lafuente read out her husband's name at the 9/11 memorial ceremony at Ground Zero.

I don't really have a thesis for this post or even a point to make.  I am just reflecting on the last decade and musing to myself how it feels as though in some ways only a week has passed and in other ways it feels like a lifetime has gone by.  I wonder what the next decade has in store for us all.