I am traveling for work this weekend. When booking the trip I didn’t think twice about getting on an airplane on September 10. My memory for tragedy is short. I am a hard-wired optimist. I am more comfortable on the smallest sliver of silver lining than embracing the complexities of an event like September 11.
Now that I’ve recognized that discomfort perhaps it’s time to lean into it. To do that I must rehash my own experience with the timeline of September 11, 2001.
I was living in England. Attending high school on an American military base. To get a full picture of what that means I need to remember my transition to living overseas as a military brat.
After getting the overseas assignment my family had to get debriefed and reviewed. The military did their best to look out for the health and wellbeing of the families they sent abroad.
We all went to talk to the base psychologist. The meetings were brief with some basic questions. There was still a stigma around going to therapy at the time. They explained that suicide rates increased with those that moved to England. The weather plays a role in this. But it can also be depressing to leave the familiar and get placed in a setting where you don’t feel like you belong.
Around the time of our move there had been some IRA attacks in England. We learned about organized terrorism. And how to avoid standing out while in a foreign country.
We were told we should:
As a 15-year-old this all seemed over the top.
Shortly after getting into temporary housing, we got a knock on our door just after getting into bed. It was two MPs (military police) in full body armor and weapons. We were asked to get dressed and vacate the premises. An abandoned suitcase had been found near the buildings it was being treated as “suspect”.
We spent the next three hours outside waiting for the clear. It turned out to be full of clothes. A situation like this could have been devastating. Precautions needed to be taken to keep everyone safe.
Not long after I watched 15 MPs with dogs surround a shipping truck. A noise was heard under the truck. Safety protocol was taken assuming the worst. The sound was located in a locked compartment underneath the cargo trailer. When unlocked they found a man. He was a refugee from Eastern Europe. He managed to get into the truck in Italy and survive the long drive across the continent.
It was strange to see the attack happen in the US and not where I was experiencing daily preparations for an attack. There is still a disconnect for me from having been somewhere else and yet feeling the direct effects of it.
Here’s my story from September 11, 2001. At least how I remember it.
The time difference put the attack at the end of the day for me. I was in my last of the day (Auto Tech). Minutes before the bell rang to end the day my teacher got a call from his daughter. He hung up the phone and told us a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. Then the bell rang. We got up and left.
His comment made slid right of me as I went about my afterschool routine. There was a talk in the halls about it as we grabbed our stuff from our locker and headed off-campus. As usual, I didn’t catch the bus home. I walked with my friend Damon, to his house on base. It was this walk that stands out more than anything.
Every U.S. military base has a threat condition. There are certain protocols for every threat condition. Until that point, the Threatcon had always been Alpha. The lowest threat condition.
Leaving school that day we didn’t really know what was going on. We hadn’t seen anything. We were just going about our daily business. When we got to the front gate of the base (a five-minute walk from high school) the threat condition was at Beta.
Damon lived another 15-minute walk away. Halfway between his house and the front gate, was the base youth center. When we got there two of the employees were covering the sign that identified the building with a black bag. This protocol was part of or threat condition, Charlie.
By the time we finally got to his house, turned on the TV to see the second plane crash, the threat condition was at Delta. This is the highest threat condition. The base was officially being shut down. No one was allowed into the base. If it hadn’t been for the fact that my dad was working on base and could pick me up I wouldn’t have gotten home.
The base was shut down for three days. School was canceled. Cement barriers were put up around the base. Safety went up to 11. It took over an hour to get through security and onto the base. If you took the bus to school it was three months before you were on time for first period. School trips were canceled.
Despite feeling disconnected from the attack I felt the effects of the event for the next six months. I remember my Government teacher telling us terrorist attacks create fear. Fear creates hysteria and distrust. Those two things can have long-term, detrimental, effects on society.
On a small scale, hysteria and distrust can tear families apart and destroy lives. In the chaos of tragedy, it is easy to point fingers and place blame. To lose sight of which way is up and what is most important. I think this is the reason why I hold onto the sliver of hope.
If I can hold onto the silver lining it grounds in me a better future. But when I do this I tend to forget the tragedy. Lost sight of the thing that created the silver lining in the first place. As bad as tragedy is it has the ability to ground me. To bring me to the present reality and the fragility of the time I have to be alive.