Friday, September 11, 2009

Where were you when...

I grew up hearing people say, "I will never forget where I was when I heard Kennedy was shot." It became a thing to ask after his assassination; a cultural phenomenon and talking point. "Hey...Where were you when Kennedy was shot?"

The question changed on March 30, 1981. Suddenly people were asking, "Where were you when Reagan was shot?" Well, unlike JFK, whose shooting I'd missed by several years completely, I was in the car with my biological mother when the news came over the radio. It was quite the story, and as the smaller parts of the event started coming out in drips and drabs, the nation was fascinated. Once in the limo and speeding from the scene, Reagan said to the secret service agents covering him, "I think you broke my rib." But, no...He'd actually been shot, and when he started coughing up blood, he was rushed to the hospital.

Now, the question has changed yet again. "Where were you when The Towers went down?" I was glued to the television in living room of the boarding house I was living in, watching in horror as they collapsed.

Approximately one year later, I found myself in Manhattan on business. It took a two-hour train ride to get there, and Pennsylvania Station was not the place I'd grown up seeing. There were many new additions to the entire train station: soldiers. Their camouflage uniforms didn't help them blend into the scenery at all, but made them stand out. I gave a courteous nod to some of them. I spent a few minutes flirting with a particularly attractive soldier with a very big gun...

And then I came to The Wall. It was completely covered with love letters to those who had been confirmed dead. There were numerous written pleas about one person or another who had not been seen since the the Twin Towers collapsed. And along the and candles (unlit) lined the length of the impromptu memorial.

I spent a half hour or so on my return trip, reading the various messages before tearing myself away. Oddly, I found myself wondering where the superheroes were during the disaster. Marvel comic has so many characters based in or around New York, and I swiftly found myself running back to my childhood defense of wishing superheroes had been on hand to save the day. Would Spider-Man have had enough webbing to glue the towers in place long enough for police and firefighters to save more lives? Would the Thing have been strong enough to support a weight-bearing support beam to keep at least one of them from going down? Could Doctor Strange have whipped up a spell to undo the entire nightmare? We'll never know, because the only superheroes on hand were mere mortals with bravery beyond anything I can even imagine. I mean, people sometimes ask if another person would be brave enough to run into a burning building to save someone...but can you imagine running INTO a pair of skyscrapers to save thousands of strangers while surrounded by nothing but death?

I found a documentary on YouTube about it. Two brothers, Jules and Gedeon Naudet, were following the career of a rookie NY firefighter. They were on a routine call for a potential gas leak, when they all looked up at the sound of a low-flying plane. The camera seemed to instinctively follow the path of the plane...the sound...and then there was the massive explosion more than half way up the North Tower, and you can hear one firefighter saying repeatedly, "Holy shit!" And then these men - these incredibly brave human beings - piled into their vehicles and rushed to the scene.

There's footage in the documentary, still available on YouTube, (it starts here, and "logprof" appears to have the entire documentary on his list of uploads), in which one of the brothers was still with the firefighters inside the lobby of one of the towers. Commentary follows loud bangs that are occurring outside, and I am thankful the camera wasn't aimed in that direction...because it was the sound of bodies slamming to the ground. And one of the firemen asks, "How bad is it up there that the BETTER option is to jump?"

I'm off to bed. My sleep is a little off. And I have a day of grieving ahead of me. But when I return, I'll share the relatively benign news about the ulcer on my left ankle.

Be well, my friends. Today is a reminder that life is too short, and can be ended in an instantly by the strangest, most terrifying events. So, please...I'm begging you BE WELL!


WalkingTarget said...

I was sitting in a classroom waiting for a my first class of the day to start when I overheard a few guys in the row behind me were talking about a plane hitting one of the towers. One of my roommates was in the class with me and we turned and asked them if there was more information (we hadn't gotten tv or internet active in the apartment yet, so had little access to news sources there). There wasn't much detail yet, so we all just kind of thought "That sucks" and went about business as usual.

By the time we made it to our next class, the chatter in the room was that both towers had fallen. Having no classes immediately following that one we made a beeline to the nearest computer lab and found that CNN had replaced their normal website with a single, text-only page (presumably to minimize bandwidth usage as everybody and their brother went there to see what the hell had happened). It was shocking and rather surreal.

People were dismayed. There obviously wasn't any information on who or why it had happened and theories ran wild. Many classes were canceled and there were discussions on if, say, the Sears Tower was going to be targeted too (and even some doomsayers worried about campus itself as UIUC still has some strategically important stuff on site).

Back at the apartment we managed to get the TV to tune to over-the-air broadcasts of the local PBS station that was running BBC news and we had that going almost continuously for a few days. Even so, I didn't see the video footage of the second plane hitting the tower or of the actual collapse for over 3 years when NOVA ran an episode about it. Even at that far remove it was powerful imagery even though I've never been to NYC or knew anybody who was anywhere close at the time.

Be well, Rob.

Arguskos said...

I was in art class in 8th grade. When Alex Dunn, a friend of mine, rushed in late, the teacher asked where he was. He completely ignored her, grabbed the TV remote from her desk, and flipped it to CNN, where we all saw the first plane connect just as he turned it on. There was dead silence, and my teacher said, and I quote, "I need to call the Superintendent." We were the first class in the whole district to see the event, and we alerted everyone else. It was just stunning to watch NYC fall to pieces, both literally and figuratively. I haven't forgotten it since.