Memories Of A Late Summer Morning

This is probably the last year I’m going to do this. At some point, wounds must be allowed to heal, and we have to learn to pick ourselves back up and move on. But, as a country, we seem stuck there on that sunny September morning, forever replaying the moments, doomed to never forget the mind bending images, cursed to feel the grief of our fellow citizens’ losses, and to pass these fragments of sense memory on to our children until the events of that day become imprinted indellibly upon the psyche of a nation.

I will, for at least one more year, remember the day that changed everything.

I was serving on board the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower at the time. It was late summer of 2001. Ultimately it was a good time for me. Just the year before we had completed our six month deployment to Europe and places South and East, and in the late winter of ’01, we sailed her on her final cruise before heading into the Northrup Grumman shipyard for a maintenance period that would last for years.

By September of 2001, the idea of not having to go back out to sea for years was still fresh, and the oppression of shipyard life had not sunk in yet. Also, just a month before, I was promoted, and still proudly marching around the decks with my fresh new First Class Petty Officer Insignia on my arm.

I was an Engineering Laboratory Technician, and, somehow had already gotten myself a plum spot working in the Dosimetry Office; the dream job of ELTs working onboard a nuclear powered aircraft carrier. With little oversight, and your own office that you only have to share with a couple of other guys, it’s about as much freedom as an enlisted blueshirt’s likely to get while onboad.

At the time, Dose (as it was affectionately called) had yet to get a television with cable, and radio reception was splotchy at best. We had to run a copper wire from the antenna through a disused discharge port just to get any kind of signal, and in order to listen to any radio stations you had to remain perfectly still or you were likely to lose it all in static.

That morning we weren’t listening to the radio. Dan had brought in a few cds and they were playing quietly in the background as he, myself, Justin and Mike lounged in the office doing what we normally did, in other words, pretending not to exist until someone came along to tell us we could go home.

Lt. Feher opened the door.

“Don’t you ever knock?” Mike asked snarkily. As our division officer, Feher was one of the few other people that had a key to our office, and we had a good natured, though serious, rivalry with the Lieutenant over his rights to enter our office unbidden.

We all expected Feher to shoot back at us with one of his usually flat and uninspired barbs, but Randy was wide eyed and a little pale. “Someone just flew an airplane into the World Trade Center.”

“On purpose?” someone asked, I can’t remember who.

“Don’t know. Probably an accident.”

Mike laughed. “What a fucking dumbass!” he guffawed. “How the fuck do you not see one of the biggest buildings in the world right there in front of you?”

We laughed. That’s something you have to know about Nukes, you don’t spend much time in the program without developing an incredibly dark sense of humor. Randy feher pulled the door closed behind him, and we continued to malign the incompetent captain who succeeded in not missing one of the largest, inanimate, manmade objects in the world.

Our chuckles had yet to die out and the topic switched over to something else when Randy slammed the door open again. This time he was stark white, his eyes nearly bulging. “It’s an attack!” he breathed.

“What do you mean, ‘it’s an attack’?” Dan asked, skeptical.

“They just flew a plane into the other tower!”

The tiny office erupted into an explosion of bangs and triphammering footfalls as we climbed over each other to leave the office. The aluminum door clanged shut behind us as we rushed to the main office where the division’s only cable equipped television resided. Running through the p-ways, we saw other people doing the same.

“Did you hear?”

“Yeah!”

“What the fuck happened?”

“How the fuck should I know?”

Nameless voices, all repeating the same litany of questions that would echo throughout America filled our ears as we made our way to our office. Anonymous pipes lead the way until we crashed through the door to find most of the division packed into the office, all eyes focusing on the horror playing out on the television:

I didn’t know what to think at the time. I was stunned. I felt nothing. The images that greeted me were too surreal, too unreal, too fantastic. It was like watching something that should only occur in movies, but in movies you get dynamic camera angles, surround sound throbbing in your ears and through your chest, up close in your face sensory engorgement that at least drags you in. Here, on a modest nineteen inch television with tinny sounding speakers was this video, and it looked… wrong somehow. Like the laws of physics were being broken, or maybe the laws of the universe.

Something like this just simply didn’t happen, and so, what I was seeing must obviously have been wrong.

And then the pentagon hit.

**

I don’t remember much after that. I know we put in a full work day. I remember the captain getting on the loudspeaker and addressing the ship, but I don’t remember his words. I don’t even remember if we had a moment of silence, though, logically I know that we must have.

I don’t remember much until I trudged back to my beat up old pontiac and turned the engine over. I felt empty, and numb. I had the impression that what had happened that morning dominated the day, but there was no lasting print on my brain, just this slightly sick feeling as the car’s radio kicked on.

All stations were talking about it; most stations had already mixed songs with news reports dubbed over them. Quick, ham-handed memorials to what we had lost, even before we knew truly what was going on.

Still confused, I pulled out of the gravelly parking lot and pointed the pontiac towards home. Enya, Sarah McLaughlin, and others belted mournful laments. Instantly every radio station had established blood drives, and it was all falling on deaf ears.

On the way home, though, there is a small military cemetary, small white stones lined up neatly in rows. Amid them stands tall a flagpole, and there the stars and stripes flew at half mast, and that’s when everything connected, and I broke down. Trembling, tears gushing from the corners of my eyes I don’t know how I drove home without getting into a wreck. I could barely see the road.

It just hurt so fucking much. To think about this land we live in and this people we share the planet with, this country with, and in an instant they were all gone.

**

” Shawn, it’s me. I just wanted to let you know that I love you and I’m stuck in this building in New York. There’s lots of smoke and I just wanted you to know that I love you always.”

I, like most Americans that night, could not divorce myself from the coverage. What made it worse was my wife at the time worked evenings, and what I needed more than anything at that moment was to have her in my arms, to know that at least she was still real and tangible and breathing and safe. I had to settle with just a phone call.

Not long after, my mom called me.

“Honey? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, mom. Best I can be I guess.”

Her voice was wavering, fear barely kept in check by that maternal instinct to never let your children know you are afraid if only for their sake.

“D-Does this mean you’re going back out now?”

“No, mom.”

“But…”

“Mom, it’s pysically impossible. Ike’s drydocked for at least a year or two. I’m not going anywhere.”

“But…”

“Mom! I’ll be fine.”

Silence.

“O-Okay… I’m just… we’ve already lit a candle for you, and we’re praying for you, and I just want you to know that I love you and I’m proud of you, and I’m scared to death for you.”

“If I have to go, I will, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

I wish I could say that was the hardest phone call I had to go through that evening. But along with the news coverage came the reports of the phone calls. Calls from within the World Trade Center. Calls from people telling the most important people on the planet the last words they would have heard by the outside world. “I love you.”

“I just want you to know that I love you.”

**

“I’m hear you… The world hears you… And soon the men who knocked these buildings down will hear you.”

Two days later, amid the rubble of the fallen World Trade Center towers, President Bush held a bullhorn to his mouth, and delivered the best speech of his lifetime.

I remember what it felt like to be an American at that moment. I remember the swelling pride and unity. I had always been critical of America, but at that moment, like an epiphany, I felt an almost spiritual bond with those other people who stood proudly and called themselves Americans.

Yeah, they knocked down our towers, but they couldn’t knock us down. If there was any way to better honor the memories of the men and women whose lives were ripped from them, it was by remaining, solidly, staunchly, and unapologetically American.

Six years later, that pain has been turned to anger.

**

I’ve just spent the past two hours crying my fucking eyes out. My head is pounding, and my chest feels tight, my eyes burn, and emotionally I just feel completely and totally drained. Just writing this piece alone I’ve been watching old footage of planes smashing into buildings, listening to 911 calls, and reading reports since last night.

In truth, it feels like I’ve just spent my most recent waking hours trying to rip the soul from my body.

Six years later, and we as a nation are still wounded by the attacks orchestrated by Osama bin Laden on September 11th, 2001. Families have been ripped apart, and the very fabric that holds us together seems at a permanent breaking point. In the aftermath, it would turn out that Bush did not fulfill his promise.

I wasn’t going to make this political, but I see now that that’s impossible. Impossible because as I explore my feelings of that terrible day six years ago, there is pain, there is patriotism, but there is also anger and shame and betrayal and disappointment.

It’s not vogue among those not counted as extremists to bring up politics on this day, not in regards to 911.

Fuck it.

We aren’t healing as a nation, instead we’re picking at the wound. We’re living like abuse survivors, refusing to heal, attracted to echoes of what did the damage in the first place, and seeking to inflict grievances upon others with little sense of empathy. So here we are, just like every September 11th since, paralyzed, frozen, and broken as a country.

We aren’t healing because no sacrifice was asked of us than to go visit Disneyland, and shop till we drop, leaving us disconnected from the process of being involved, of making a difference.

We aren’t healing because our national debate has rotted into us vs. them and virtually every aspect of that debate is attributed in some way or another to the terrorist attacks of six years ago. It is the cause for everything that plagues us, and we are deeply divided every step of the way.

We aren’t healing because our best and brightest are currently stuck in Iraq; a persistent conflict that only deepens divisions between both the opinion peddlers and participants in the national debate, but also between members of differing religions, races, and creeds.

And we aren’t healing because the persons responsible for the attack have never been brought to justice. How is it possible for us to heal when Osama bin Laden was given a pass? How is it possible to heal when al Qaeda has been allowed to reinforce itself? How on earth is it possible to heal when on a day of national mourning, the very man who orchestrated these attacks is still free to send us taunting video tapes six years later?

We can’t. Since that day, this nation has been taken on a disastrous path, one in which dissent is called unpatriotic, where bigotry is considered necessary for safety, where bravery is confused with macho, and where we still have yet to claim one positive thing to come of 9/11 as a nation.

There has been no silver lining.

We can’t go on like this. Not as individuals, and not as a country. Did the firefighters who dashed into those World Trade Centers do so for a country that would eventually become paralyzed by the events of that day? Do men and women continue to valiantly pledge their lives to service so we can sit here and cower and refuse to move on? I don’t think so.

I read through the transcripts again of those cel phone calls. “I love you” “Everything’s going to be okay”. These were the last messages of the people who left us on that day. They weren’t telling us to lock ourselves in stasis. They were telling us that we soldier on without them, but still with their love and their memories. That’s the message. That’s the point. We’re Americans, and I like to think we’re good people, but we’ve been doing our own country and their memories a disservice over the past six years.

It’s time we changed that. It’s time we moved on, remembering, perhaps even mourning, but no longer grieving. It’s time, I think, to finally let September 11th, 2001 finally be what it has been for years now; the past.

4 Responses to “Memories Of A Late Summer Morning”

  1. Mick Arran says:

    Jesus. Nice piece. I haven’t seen it put into such brutally clear perspective before.

  2. Thanks man. I appreciate it. I never take two hours to write anything, but the above bit was two very painful and teary hours.

  3. mick says:

    Really? It takes me 3-4 hrs to write almost anything. Whatever. It was worth it.

  4. Thank you again. No, most posts only take me about a half hour to forty five minutes to write… I type quick.

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