Friday, September 11, 2015

Remembering 9/11

I've told this story many times, and on today's anniversary, I have to tell it again.

I took this picture somewhere around 1987
Having grown up less than 10 miles from Manhattan, I watched the Twin Towers being built every day as I walked to St. Stephen's School in Kearny. The Chestnut Street bridge offered the best vantage point. Every day, every week, every year they inched up higher and higher like two giant Lego towers, brick by brick, foot by foot. The audacity of their simplicity almost forcing them to lower Manhattan like the kid who is never allowed to sit with the cool kids at lunch because he doesn't look or act like them, but who inevitably leaves them all in the dust (in this case, quite literally).  

I had been to the observation deck many times; taken the PATH to NYC via WTC for as long as I can remember. On long, out-of-state trips I knew I was almost home, almost to Exit 15W on the NJ Turnpike or Exit 145 on the Parkway, when I could see them standing there like twin lighthouses at the southern tip of Manhattan, watching over commuters, guiding us home. "Yes, you've been to the 'other' world—the world without bagles and real pizza and Taylor Ham ('pork roll' to the rest of you). Now it's time to come home to the grit and the grime and the crowded and the busy and the endless days that dissolve into endless nights, and you know as crazy as it is to live here, you wouldn't want it any other way." Yes, I was home.

The Twin Towers were a part of the collective unconscious of everyone in that region just as mountain ranges are for those who live near them. They were always there... until they weren't. 

14 years ago today was my very first day teaching ever—except I didn't teach. Instead, I sat at the front door of Immaculate Conception School in Annandale all day and signed students out. From where I sat I had a direct view of Rt. 78. All day I watched as a constant stream of police, fire and rescue vehicles raced east from Pennsylvania and parts unknown to a scene unlike any most of them had ever seen or prepared for. At one point I held the hands of a woman who was in the car line to pick up her child. She was in a panic because her husband was an airline pilot and he was flying that day. She didn't know if he was dead or alive. I just remember holding on tight and telling her that he was alive, and hoping to God that it was true. 

9/11 was a gloriously beautiful late summer day. Not a cloud in the sky. The days that followed were the same—picture perfect—except for the fact that the soul of America had been ripped from its gut and we were all walking around like vivisections.

Having lived the majority of my life under the flight paths of Newark, JFK, La Guardia and Teterboro airports, airplane noise was nothing more than white noise. I moved to Hunterdon County in 1996 for a better, less hectic way of life. Oh well, you can take the girl out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the girl. The eerie silence that followed over the next few days as all air traffic was grounded was as unnerving as navigating Routes 1 & 9 at rush hour. I remember trying to play with my daughter in the sandbox. I remember trying to be 'normal', but there was no normal. Where were the planes? Where were the contrails? Where was the noise? It was as silent as a tomb because a piece of all of us died that day. As I write this, I hear the soothing song of the crickets—country living at its best. Silence that, silence the katydids, silence the birds, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in a different season for a different reasonThat's what it was like.

I remember traveling the Turnpike and the Parkway for years after that day, looking for my lighthouses. Scanning the horizon from the Empire State Building south... south... south... Where were they? Gone. Ashes and blood in the river. Would I ever make it home? No, I could never truly go home again. None of us could. That life before 9/11 is gone forever. 

Many of the people who lost their lives that day were simply going to work. Office workers, street cart vendors, pilots, flight attendants, custodians, cooks, dishwashers, store clerks—they were true innocents. Some were accidental heroes like the passengers on Flight 92. All were in the right place at the wrong time. But many were public employees whose job it was to run into Dante's Inferno while everyone inside was trying to escape: right place, right time. 

I think of all the brave members of Engine 10 Ladder 10the firehouse across the street from Ground Zero—especially the 5 who made the ultimate sacrifice. National Geographic made a powerful documentary about their bravery as they traveled into the heart of darkness. If you haven't seen it, please take some time to view it here:

They, along with hundreds of other brave men and women, were public employees who were just doing their job. They showed up for work every single day knowing that, at any moment, they might be called on to put themselves in harm's way. All in a day's work. How many of us would willingly take that job? And now we must add education professionals who are becoming first responders in the all too frequent and violent attacks on our schools.

When the attacks against public employees started raining down, the hipocrisy was undeniable. Elected leaders with a prescribed and scripted agenda villifying people whose job it is to protect and serve simply so they can push their agenda and protect those whom they serve. It's a sacrilige for any of them to partake of 9/11 activities. They might as well spit on the graves of those who died. 

My beloved cousin recently lost his battle with cancer. He was a retired firefighter with a heart as big as the ocean on which he loved to take his boat out to fish. He was as strong as he was generous and kind. It breaks my heart that he couldn't win that battle, but I'm so grateful that he wasn't called to the city that day. He had 14 more years to be a husband, father, brother, son, and all around great guy. I will miss him forever.

His memorial service will be later this month. I'm sure the members of the Maplewood-South Orange Fire Department will honor him. He deserves that and more, not only for the work he did, but for the work he didn't have to do. He didn't have to sacrifice his life. He didn't have to die in a burning building so others could live. But he would have if called to do so, because that was his job. 

Never forget...

They weren't as fluid and graceful as the marines at Iwo Jima. They weren't trained to fight wars, but they were the first to battle in a war that still wages today. They were awkward, exhausted, and filthy, covered in toxic dust and human remains. But just as their brothers did over 50 years before, they raised the flag and kept on going. One day at a time; one foot in front of the other against seemingly insurmountable odds, until the job was done.