This isn’t a post about JFK. But it’s a touchstone of our generation, it’s about something that became a focus for our lives, a lens to which we have been held to and hold things to for nearly 20 years.
When I was a kid, I never understood why the adults would get melancholy and say, “Do you remember where you were when they announced the President had been shot?” No need to designate which President. Everyone knew the answer, even though Reagan had been shot. McKinley had been shot. Andrew Jackson. Lincoln. Nope, this was of course Kennedy. The babyboomers’ own King Arthur who held court at Camelot. A man, who from a distance, seemed like a baby-faced quarterback telling all of us to go long with our hopes and dreams, in some weird Hail Mary pass that would take us…well, shit, nobody knew where it was taking us, because he was shot in Dallas, and from that moment on so many people remembered exactly where they were.
That moment in time was indelibly etched into their collective memory, like those shadows on the wall in Hiroshima that marked where people had been standing when the bomb went off. Maybe that was the moment for that generation to remember, when mankind had unleashed its very own Destroyer of Worlds onto itself. My second grade teacher, my parents, so many other people of that generation often said, “I was sitting in class when the announcement came.” Some started crying. History filled in the details. JFK had some shady goings on. Associations with the mafia, Marilyn Monroe, infidelity. The beginnings of the Vietnam War, which at the time was a scar on the American psyche and maybe one of the biggest polarizing factors of recent times in our history. Well, other than the Civil War of course. We still feel the aftershocks of those times. The divide in the nation between rural and urban, conservative and liberal, atheist and religious, black and white, gay and straight, peace and war. McDonalds and Burger King. You get the idea.
But at that time, regardless of politics, it seemed that people could agree on one thing: JFK was shot in the head in his motorcade in Dallas and everyone knew where they were when it happened.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was working as tech support for Polaroid digital, making around $7 an hour. I was married and my wife was at home, extremely pregnant. It had been a long, hot summer without air conditioning and only a swamp cooler, which lived up to its name, since it just made everything swampy, to cool the house. The days were getting shorter and cooler. We had finished painting the baby’s room and put a wallpaper boarder up as well. Watercolored turtles and ducks and other forest creatures. We had a crib, which her grandmother had bought for us. Everyday at work, my coworkers–mostly grandmas needing to supplement their incomes, or high school dropouts, lured by the company’s promise to make loads of money–would ask if there was a baby yet. They knitted us blankets, offered hand-me-down toys, furniture.
The job sucked. It was one of the worst I have ever done, taking calls from frustrated people on an inferior product. Most of it was talking them down, calming them down. Sometimes they were just frustrated and wanted to make someone else feel as bad as they did. I was good at this job that sucked. I could usually tame an irate customer and even sell them other things to go with their shitty camera. I lead sales in our department that month. I had a baby on the way. The job wasn’t challenging, other than keeping my talk times down and fielding more calls. No matter how well you did, from upper management, it was never good enough. That was a lesson I learned in how the masses are kept down and those in charge will always be in charge. I didn’t care. I had a job that was mentally challenging, but I was still applying for other jobs. I was still writing too. With the approaching due date, I was going through a lot of things in my mind. I had the beginnings of a great story in my mind.
I’m romanticizing things. They weren’t all that wonderful. We were poor. Fighting constantly. Robbing Peter to pay Paul and on the verge of bankruptcy.
When the first plane hit, we had been on the phones for about two hours. We all speculated as to it being an accident. I talked about how a plane had once hit the Empire State building. A B-24 bomber. I like to use these nuggets of trivia in everyday conversation. We all took turns ducking out and watching the news in the breakroom. When the second plane hit, we switched our minds from a freak accident to an attack on American soil. I called my wife from the phone in the breakroom. She had been watching the news all morning. People falling to their deaths rather than burn alive inside.
Then the towers fell. One by one. Chaos ensued. The clouds of dust, the people breathing asbestos and instant cancer that flooded the streets, turning Manhattan black as sackcloth. The footage of the paper spiraling through the air from a hundred ruptured offices. I just kept thinking “That’s a lot of paper.”
The AT&T group shut down for the rest of the day. Most of the area they called with NYC and the lines had to be kept open for emergency communication. As it was, the WTC Towers were said to have carried most of the cellular reception for the city. People were in tears, saying that they had just spoken with someone who had worked there the day before. I tried to remember if I had spoken to anyone working in the WTC. I realized it was better not to think about it.
I finished out my shift at 3 in the afternoon. Gas prices had already jumped up from $1.25 per gallon all the way up to $2.54. It was insanity. Lines were forming as people began to hoard fuel. When I got home, my wife and I had gotten sick of watching the news. I decided to drive to the college and use the computer lab to apply for some jobs. I needed to get out of the job I was in. We were starving. I was selling blood to help with bills. I needed something else to think about. I needed not to fight with my wife because she was in a panic, and when that happened everything was my fault.
So I drove my ’79 Ford Fairmont (my first car, which I bought when I had just turned 16–which was falling apart) to the college computer lab where I used to work. I applied for some jobs online. I surfed the internet. It was nice to be by myself to think for just a moment. When I got drove off in my car, it sputtered out and wouldn’t start near a church not far from the lab. I had pushed my luck, deciding to risk the drive rather than fight the lines at the gas pumps. It was out of gas. I went to a payphone and called home. The wife was angry with me for not being at home when we were at war. I told her I would be home if she would just drive over with the gas can for the lawnmower. She came to the church and helped me push the car out of the road. There was no gas in the can. We had to come back later for the car. Until my divorce thirteen years later, I heard the story annually, about how I had made my 9 month pregnant wife push a 3,000 pound car on 9-11 and how she thought she was going to just drop the baby right there in the parking lot. Our son was born six weeks later. 7lbs, 14oz. the cause of his mild autism is probably no more linked to his mother pushing a car than it is vaccinations.
The next day, the skies were clear. All flights were still grounded. Airforce One flew over town. It was the only plane that had been in the sky for two days. The skies were so clear and blue in Colorado. Unmarred by contrails or the rumble of aircraft other than that one which had flown over so low. I couldn’t help but think that was what the end of the world would look like. Clear skies.
So, where was I when 9-11 happened? On a telephone, listening to someone complain about a cheap digital camera they hated and probably selling them upgrades for it. It was the day after my 26th birthday, and the first birthday in two years I wasn’t fired on. We were too poor to buy me anything except for dinner out. I lied and said it was fine. Just like I did for the next 13 years. 9-11 marked a slow and steady descent in our marriage. Kids and money are stressful enough, but there always seemed to be that shadow hanging over us. The world wasn’t safe. We worried about chemical or biological attacks at the hospital when she was giving birth. We microwaved our mail for fear of anthrax being in the envelopes or our mail having touched biological agents that would kill us.
It marked a decade or more of nothing but fear, stirred up by the media with their Fuschia Level alerts and two or more wars going on in the Middle East at any given time. We didn’t fly anywhere for fear of hijackings or fear of being manhandled by the TSA. An entire decade of fear. Gas prices that quadrupled since 9-11. Fear of foreigners. Strangers. An inability to escape. Irrational, idiotic fear.
And since then, there has been very little reprieve. The Boomer generation talks about innocence lost when JFK was assassinated and how nothing was ever the same again. I think that was a drop in the bucket compared to living in a post 9-11 world. But unlike the unifying factor of patriotism and little boys saluting their dead fathers at Arlington that stir emotions in our hearts, people got angry and terrified after 9-11 and we have yet to mend things. The only common ground is to know we face a divided country. Divided in ideals, values, security, morality, politics, and blame. The last three Presidential elections have been a reflection of this. The cultural climate is as well. Media. Journalism. Social media (which is neither social nor media) is a driving force in disseminating this. We are distracted by lists of ten celebrity pics that will blow your mind (#7 is insane!) and layers of disenfranchised generations of Americans, further divided by money, politics, and their personal branding of patriotism.
Maybe the best thing to happen to this country in recent years has been natural disasters. They remind me of what Mister Rogers said when times are hard. Look for the helpers.
Americans are still helpers. I think we can get over the division of this nation if we all decided to help each other every day and love each other instead of dwelling on our incompatibilities. Or you know, love each other as we would love ourselves? Somebody said that long ago, but today we aren’t supposed to talk about those kinds of things in polite company.
Wouldn’t it be nice to tell your grandchildren where you were when people finally decided to get their shit together?
Major thanks to Jared Ewy who inspired me to write about some of these thoughts because of his 9-11 post today.