September 11, 2001: Where Were You?

Recently, I’ve commented to a few people about the day I mailed my application to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It was a sunny Monday afternoon between work and classes during my senior year at San Diego State University. But it was more than that, too.

I remember driving my bright red 5-speed Mustang to the U.S. Post Office about a mile away from my sorority house; I think it was the location on El Cajon Boulevard. I was so proud of that car, my second. I had it nearly paid off, and I kept it clean enough inside and out to practically be showroom-ready.

I rolled up to the drive-through mailbox and dropped the package containing my application down the hatch. I remember that I drove away feeling relieved – finally, after I’d had these papers printed out and sitting embarrassingly blank in a folder in my desk since the summer of 2000, I’d taken action. The ball was in Peace Corps’ court. I couldn’t wait to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, and live a humbler life, representing my country and helping people who really needed it.

That day was September 10, 2001.

And what surprises me is that sometimes when I mention that story to people younger than I am, they give me a blank look. It’s like they don’t understand the ironic significance of signing up to serve your country one day prior to the most heinous terrorist attacks in our nation’s non-wartime history.

I was nearly 23 when the attacks took place. But whether you were 5, 10, or 15 when they happened, wouldn’t you immediately make the connection? Please tell me that everyone knows what happened to our country on September 11, 2001. I wasn’t around on December 7, 1941, but I damn sure know what happened to our country that day. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me (as usual).

I did not write anything down that next day, or in the following days, and I don’t recall that I sent any emails. I did not start regularly retaining my sent email files until January 2006, an exception being mass emails I sent during my Peace Corps service that I’d captured to Word documents in an attempt to not tell the same stories over and over.

But there are some things about that terrible day that I remember very clearly. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that people who were alive on September 11 have a flashbulb memory of where they were when they heard about the attacks, the same as my parents’ generation did upon learning of the Kennedy assassination nearly 40 years earlier. Here’s mine.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

It was a Tuesday morning, so I awoke especially early for my Tang Soo Do Korean martial arts class, which began sharply at 08:00. Our instructor had requested that everyone come to class on time, having showered, and in a clean uniform. Students who did not heed these instructions were considered in a state of disrespect and not permitted in to practice.

I quickly silenced my 06:30 alarm and dutifully crept out of bed, crossing the dark room without disturbing my roommates LG and MM. As I passed our closet, I grabbed my plastic shower tote and my wrinkled (but clean) white gi, and headed for the communal sorority house bathroom at the other end of the second floor wing.

As I entered the large bathroom, the sinks and mirrors were to the left, and the toilets and showers to the right. I planned to hang up my gi in my shower stall; the steam from morning showers might release some of the wrinkles and help me pass muster. But before I even entered the toilet stall, I saw another pajama-clad sorority sister of mine, MF, crumpled on the floor in front of the sink. A phone was on the linoleum beside her, and I don’t remember now whether it was a landline phone or her mobile phone. She was sobbing hysterically.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, startled, blinking sleep out of my eyes.

“They bombed the Pentagon!” she cried.

“Who’s ‘they’?” I asked.

“I don’t know!”

“Who told you? Are you sure?”

“My dad works at the Pentagon. He just called me and told me!”

“Oh my God. Is he OK?”

“He’s OK, but a lot of people died. And they’re going to blow up the White House!” She broke down in sobs, inconsolable. I think she may have said something about the Empire State Building too, but I’m not sure.

Disturbed, I don’t recall using the toilet, or even brushing my teeth. I stalked back down the hallway to my bedroom. Upon entering the room, I turned left towards our small TV which sat atop a dresser near the door. We only had a few channels – no cable – and probably hadn’t turned on the TV for weeks. I pushed the power button. It came on loud, blaring. My two roommates LG and MM stirred in their beds, grumbling.

By way of explanation for my uncharacteristic loudness, I announced, “Someone bombed the Pentagon!” My roommates sat up, blinking like incredulous owls. As I got the volume under control, we saw the North Tower of the World Trade Center burning. We listened to the news anchor, who said a small plane had crashed, perhaps a commuter jet. We speculated about what kind of moronic pilot would fly a small airplane into such a big building on a sunny day.

And then, as we watched, the footage replayed of the second plane colliding into the South Tower, and we realized it had already happened about an hour earlier. It played over and over, and was clearly a large commercial passenger jet. I stated flatly, “It wasn’t an accident, then.” The coverage kept cutting back and forth between the burning Pentagon and the burning twin towers.

LG, MM and I watched TV in our room for a little while, and we saw the South Tower fall on live television. The news anchor speculated that 15,000 or even 20,000 office workers could have been in the building as it collapsed, and I suddenly felt sick. We all just watched with our hands over our mouths, silent in utter disbelief.

I returned down the hall, showered quickly and washed my hair, donned my wrinkled gi and hurried the fifteen minute walk to campus. While crossing an intersection, I dialed my dad, several hours north in central CA. I remember that my fingers were shaking as I speed-dialed. At the time, he was working as a civilian for the Department of Defense. Our conversation was halting, awkward, and he spoke to me in the way you would speak to someone with whom you are close in the company of someone else you wished weren’t present. The oddity of his distracted speech raised my alarm level as high as when I’d seen the Pentagon on fire. He urged me to return home and said that it wasn’t a good time to talk. I put my Nokia cell phone with its red, white and blue American flag cover into my gi pocket and hurried on.

Upon arriving at the gym, I encountered a paper sign taped to the door with a hastily-written message that my Tang Soo Do class had been cancelled. I returned to the sorority house, where I learned the the California State University (CSU) system, as well as all national air traffic, had been shut down indefinitely. I also learned that the North Tower had fallen, and that there had been another plane crash in central PA. Christ in heaven, I thought. What’s next? Rumors were flying. Every major skyscraper in the country was a target. Every bridge, every water supply.

Within a couple of hours, my manager at Longs Drugstore where I worked phoned to say that the store was closing for the remainder of the day and not to show up for my shift. Although I was a full-time student, I worked 40 hours per week, and sometimes 48 hours if I could get an extra shift. I asked the manager if the store would reopen by Wednesday, when my next shift was scheduled. He replied that managers would call employees one by one with any updates.

Dejected at the prospect of losing earnings I so badly needed for my tuition, sorority dues, rent and personal expenses, I hung up and joined everyone else in front of the TV in the den for the majority of the afternoon. There seemed to be nothing else to do. Everyone was in a state of shock. The oddity of the day was highlighted for me – I hadn’t had a day off from both school and work in months. Deep down, I started to feel angry. Someone needed to pay for this, for these dead civilians, for stealing our false hope that we were protected by two oceans.

Later (within hours?) I learned that all four transcontinental commercial jetliners that had been hijacked that day were on their way to California, one to San Francisco and three to Los Angeles, the latter a mere 90 minutes north of San Diego. It was literally weeks until I could go outside without checking the sky for planes, expecting a jet to crash any second into whatever building was within my sightline. My outrage continued to grow. These sons of bitches, I thought. How dare they? We’re gonna bring this right to their door.

Nothing else besides constant news coverage was on TV for what seemed like weeks, preempting all regular programming. In 2001 there was no YouTube, no Twitter, no Facebook. Everything we learned we learned slowly, bit by bit, over the TV, over the radio, through newspapers and magazines, through word of mouth. I started hearing that people had fallen from the towers. Despite myself, I wondered if those poor people had died before they hit the ground. I wondered if it hurt. Then the nightmares started, in which I was falling, falling, falling. I would wake up in the middle of the night and reach out to brace myself against something that wasn’t happening to me.

Distraught family members of victims appeared on TV, recounting last phone calls from their loved ones aboard the doomed planes, or caught above the impact zones in the twin towers. I am not an easily distressed person, but the magnitude of what had happened was tremendously distressing nonetheless. I felt that we were on the precipice of a major war, but with non-state, invisible actors. The prospect was terrifying.

When I returned to my job as a drugstore cashier, I tried to avoid glancing towards the magazine rack, where particularly gruesome editions of TIME, People and other magazines with the only possible cover story awaited shell-shocked customers. But one day, I was alone in the break room and one of the magazines was there on the table. I hoped someone would come in and save me from myself. No one did.

I hesitantly picked it up and flipped through it, steeling myself. Splashed across the pages were photos of different people tumbling down, down from the towers. In the clothes they put on that morning, their ties and blouses rippling in the wind. And then my eyes fell on a sequence of one particular man, blown up to cover an entire page. His legs pinwheeled through the air and his outstretched arms flailed desperately as he fell, frozen in time with seconds to go. “Jumpers,” the caption said.

Overcome with horror and shame at this final indignity, finally, for the first time, I wept.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The September 11 attacks on our nation permanently changed many aspects of our lives as Americans. Where the raw terror has subsided, a sense of permanent unease remains. Some people have chosen to become complacent, the terror subsiding back somewhere distant, the lessons learned slipping away; September 11 is something they apparently don’t even tell their kids about. But deep down everyone should know that anything seems possible now. What were once abstract images of foreign conflicts and weeping families on the evening news have now been delivered right to our own homeland, with the promise of more to come.

While my roommates and I had watched the news on that fateful morning, LG asked me whether I still planned to continue my Peace Corps candidacy. For me the answer was obvious: it had just become absolutely imperative that I serve my country. I think I was angry, I think I answered her question too sharply. In retrospect, would it have been so wrong to be afraid? We were entering into a time so uncertain that we couldn’t yet begin to understand the magnitude of it.

But the call to service, for me, was so strong. I knew I couldn’t do anything big, but I was going to do what I could for this country that has given me so much from the day I was born.

Some time later, in March 2003, I sat in my Peace Corps apartment in a small mountain town near the border between Macedonia and Bulgaria. It was snowing heavily outside, and had been for more than a week. I had distilled several gallons of potable water in the event of an electrical outage, storing them in empty 1.5 litre soda bottles in rows atop my kitchen cabinets, and had as much food on hand as I could afford.

My small black and white TV got two channels through the concrete walls, sometimes three if the rabbit ears were positioned just right. I laid on my broken fold-out couch in my sleeping bag and watched U.S. troops march into Iraq. Shock and awe. But deep down I didn’t feel good, and I wasn’t sure how long the conflict would last. In the streets, otherwise anonymous Macedonians approached me and shouted at me to “Tell George W. Bush [insert instruction of your choice here]!!”

Was it safe to be abroad? Was it safe to be anywhere anymore, especially as an American?

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

In the last few years, I have watched every single documentary and footage that exists anywhere on the attacks. Movies. TV documentaries. News interviews with survivors and family members. Random people’s footage on YouTube from the streets and through hotel windows. Some of them I have watched a half dozen times. I know the names of the dead police officers and firefighters, the story of the people trapped in the stairway that survived the collapse, what happened in the years of rebuilding.  I don’t know why I watch it, sometimes during my free time for hours or days on end, headphones plugged into my iPhone as I lay in bed transfixed. Most of the video wasn’t out until at least five years after the attacks. I think it took years for me to even comprehend how much there was. I think maybe subconsciously I hope that if I watch it enough there will be something else – a negation of some of it, like I could rewind it somehow.

Sometimes I have a recurring nightmare where I am suddenly standing in the bright sun, in the courtyard of an office complex. I look up and I realize, I’m standing between the North and South Towers. I look at my wrist and there’s an absurdly, impossibly large blinking watch — it’s 08:31, fifteen minutes before the first plane will impact the North Tower. In desperation, I run up to passers-by, imploring them to evacuate the building, screaming at them not to go inside. I run up to two ladies smoking by a railing and tell them to run. They don’t listen to me even though I am literally begging for their attention. I grab one of them by her upper arm and my fingers go right through her. Of course. I’m not there. It is not about me, and there is nothing I can do. They stub their cigarettes out and, carrying their coffees and gesturing animatedly, they walk towards the lobby. Back to work. On a normal day. A sunny day.

Every time I awake from this dream I feel sick and futile. But I’m not. I can’t save even one soul from getting in the elevator and going up. The years pile on top of each other and the victims aren’t coming back. From all the terrible things in the world, why this event to dream about again and again?

I can only serve my country, and so I will serve gratefully, honorably. And on a personal, individual level, I’m going to contribute as much energy as I can towards the Peace Corps mission of peace and friendship around the world. However cheesy it sounds, then and now, I feel the same. And besides that, I will fight with everything I have in this war. My loyalties have always and will always firmly lie with my own country and its ideals, for its achievements, its mistakes, and its possibilities. #Americastrong

Where were you on September 11, 2001?

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