Tuesday, September 16, 2014

September 11th, 2001 for Me

On Patriot Day, September 11th, My sister, who was traumatized by the twin towers falling asked me if I ever wrote about September 11th? I said no, because my experience was just like everyone else's, and so many people had a far more interesting story to tell. But seeing as how sometimes I search for something to write about and as I thought about how the experiences I had leading up to and after 9-11-2001 I realized, it might as well be told.

I first heard of the towers incident during break, about 9:15 AM on Tuesday, roughly the fourth week of school my sophomore year of high school. I didn't believe a plane crashed into the towers, it was unbelievable, especially because I had gone up in one that summer. Later in the morning it was announced over the school speaker system, this really happened. Finally my last class of the day, fourth period, about 1:40-3:00 central time, was world history or current events with Mr. L. The two social studies teachers had adjoining rooms and it was the first time I remember them removing the collapseable wall to have both classes sit together. They both spoke for a few minutes, then we watched CNN for an hour. There was nothing to say, except this wasn't an accident, and we would all remember this day.

This was close to home for me because in May and June I believe that summer my family had taken a 17 day road trip from Kansas to the east coast, hitting up everything from Antietam and Gettysburg to The New York Stock Exchange and fresh lopster in Maine. In New York City we did it all, in about two days. We had pizza a block away from times square at a tiny little authentic New York Italian pizzeria. We watched the traders on the floor of the NYSE. We went to Battery Park, we waited three hours to get to the top of the Statue of Liberty, only to be yelled at 10 seconds later for taking too long by the person who was one minute behind us in line. Then we went to Ellis Island. We even rode the subway into NYC, and had a nice man talk to us for ten minutes while waiting for the train and suggest things to do, because we stuck out as tourists. We had Chinese food in Chinatown, and had a young waiter hover over us the whole meal! We rode a New Jersey cab back to our hotel in Newark, just to hear the accent. And of course, I think at my insisting, we went into the World Trade Center towers because they were taller than the Empire State Building and we only had time for one tall building.

I remember it was expensive to take the elevator up, and my parents discussed if it was worth it. The lower first three floors of the building were all one floor with high ceilings and the design of the buildings was just fantastic, lots of natural light was coming in at the bottom of this 110 story builging. Finally we boarded the elevator for the three minute ride up to the top, complete with a tour guide. It was cloudy, misty and windy by the time we got up there in the afternoon, so we were not able to go up to the top and walk around outside, which was a pretty big dissapointment to me. We walked around the top floor of the tourist floor one time, I think I bought a pressed penny as that was what I collected when I was younger. I still have them all somewhere. The shops were all quiet, like an airport in the off hours, nice small expensive shops, the kind my family (or at least I) didn't really feel comfortable in because we couldn't afford anything in them. I like to push myself and I remember walking right up to the glass and looking down, having to force myself to do it of course because it was so high! We could also see the statue of liberty from then when the clouds parted a little. When we walked to the corner where the two towers came together the wind was whipping them closer to each other and farther away, a noticible difference of a few feet. That was a little scary!

Quite certainly, someone that was on that floor in June while we were there was certainly there on September 11th. Although, we were there in the afternoon and retail shops sometimes don't open until much later in the day, and it was school season, so I imagine that there were fewer people there from a tourist industry point of view.

This was more traumatic for a lot of people than for me. For that, we need some background. In the summer of 1995 my family moved to Oklahoma. It's barely a footnote now, but the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was a big deal! It was on the news all the time. On top of that, sometime in the school year of 1995-1996 on a Cub Scout trip, or maybe even a school trip, we went down to Oklahoma City to spend the night in the Science Center, and on the way back we stopped at the bombing site. The building was gone by then, but all the surrounding buildings were still vacated (although it was a weekend) and missing windows. I distinctly remember we parked on a lot across the street from the Murrah Building site, a dirt patch, not a paved parking lot. The building was missing windows and you could look in and see the desks and papers scattered around everywhere. There were some black computer keys which were just outside the building and I picked up a couple. They are likely still at my parents house if they haven't been thrown out yet. The kind of memento that will get thrown away some day because a couple dirty black computer keys have no meaning to anyone but me. I remember all the people that died and were injured and visiting the site when it was quiet and deserted, and seeing how I, as a nine year old could walk up to the building across the street that was heavily damaged and pick up something damaged in the blast. It was strange to me how something so famous, on the national news so often, was just a place, that I could visit and take away a piece of.

I remember at the one year anniversary my classmate Shawn (I have no idea where he is now, so I'll use his full name) had an aunt or some relative that was wounded or maybe even killed, I don't remember what exactly, in the blast. Our whole elementary school went out to the flagpole and stood in a circle and held hands, I don't remember if we prayed, probably, but we had a moment of silence and I was beside Shawn as he cried during the moment of silence. I don't remember saying anything or trying to comfort him, but I remember thinking how much more serious the event was for him and his family than for me. It puts the whole event close to home. I have mementos from the bombing site, I have a friend's family member directly affected by the blast, it was my first experience of tragedy.

Similarly during that time there was the OJ Simpson murder trial and the Bosnian conflict, the world seemed like a place where murders happen and wars are fought.

Later, when I was in seventh grade the Columbine high school shooting happened. I distinctly remember that I went to track practice, went home to eat, heard about the shooting on the evening news for the first time, then went back to school to present our country project, mine was Russia, and the shooting was all everyone could talk about when we got back to school at 6 or 7 PM to display our projects since we had all only heard about it after we left school or track practice. That hit home for me in a couple ways. The teenage mind is not a pleasant one. I can understand how people get made fun of for such a long time, get rejected and lose hope. Even I, how many times in the past did I think, 'I'll show them, one day.' What did that mean? I don't know, I have a couple engineering degrees, I run fast, I go on 8000 meter expeditions. I think in my own way I have "shown them" although it is really about showing me what is possible more than being anything to anyone else. Side note, one of my friends here in Dubuque left his old job four years ago and a couple months ago, his old job had a shooting where a guy he knew went in and shot another guy he knew.

Later, working a summer camp job in Colorado my roommate for the summer was a year older than I and went to Columbine high school the year after the shooting. They did a lot of work to clean up the school and had lots of mental health councilors on hand, otherwise, it seems for him, the world moved on. Certainly that memory doesn't just go away, but life goes on, and you still have to write essays in English class.

I think for me, Columbine started to really make me aware that how I treated people, all people, not just the ones I wanted to impress, but the outcasts, loners, and uncool kids could make a difference in their lives. Oh certainly, I'm no saint, or even decent friend. But perhaps I listened, or didn't say anything demeaning. As I write this my conscious is saying to me, 'you liar! You did nothing, NOTHING! to help the less fortunate. How dare you exalt yourself?' So the truth is, I'm no better than the bullies. Yet Columbine did help me see the danger in bullying, and it's all part of the process of maturing and trying to be better today than I was yesterday.

So by the time 2001 rolled around, it was hard to believe, but I had seen enough tragedy, that very quickly I knew, yes this is the world we live in. The aftermath was particularly interesting for me. I was 15 when it happened. I was running my first season of cross country, oddly enough I started tracking my monthly mileage latter that month, and have been for 13 years now. The life of a high schooler is focused on activities, sports, musicals, girls (at least for most boys), driving, school, and the intensity of the here and now.

The events of the World Trade Center Towers also had a profound effect on my political outlook at the time. Former President Bush is lambasted now for his comments about people returning to shopping, but at the time it was very relevant because the .com bubble was burst and we were into a recession, that I understand now had nothing to do with September 11th. I do remember the NYSE being closed for several days after 9-11 and when it did open finally, it dropped a fair amount. The chart of his approval ratings are incredibly interesting, over 90% at one point! In the fall of 2001 and early 2002, this country was more unified than any other time I can remember. In 2004, I voted for Bush for President because I thought, 'we need to finish what we started in Asia.' It wasn't for me about economics at the time, or social issues, or global warming as my vote may be directed today, it was about people that attacked our country, and had not been caught yet, and I thought the incumbent would be the best guy to keep up the job.

The connections to 9-11 continue to this day. In college I stayed at a friend's house in Dracut, Massachusetts in 2005 and he lived just down the street, it seemed half a mile, from one of the pilot's houses. The pilot, John Ogonowski, had a small farm with a red barn, and standard two foot tall stone wall, it appeared maybe 5-10 acres, but with New England trees, I really have no idea. When we drove past on the way to the Boston airport it was quiet, I didn't see any cars or people moving around early that Saturday morning. Seeing the pilot's house down the street from my friend's house again brings it all home, this is real, this is the world we live in, this quiet upscale neighborhood outside of Lowell, has the chance for someone to be killed in a major international event, at his day job.

Even today, in little old Dubuque, Iowa, I know a man in town, one of the ones that hugged me after I returned from Everest this year, who's sister died on Flight 93 I believe, one of the flights at any rate. Here we are away from it all, and this man's sister died on 9-11. He has three sons, and the one oldest one would have been too young to remember her because he would have been maybe two or three at the time. I almost got him into running a couple years ago because he had (and I think still has) some interest in doing the New York City Marathon as a way to remember her.

There you go, a moderately in depth look at what September 11th, 2001 has meant to me through the years. This will sound crazy, but I would like to visit Afghanistan some day for a mountaineering expedition. It's not very climbed out, lots of new route potential, 7000 meter peaks. The problem is it's not quite as safe as a place like Pakistan, so I haven't planned a trip yet, although my presence could I hope develop better relations between the west and the locals if I did go. That is how I feel we must act, proactively and positively despite lacking 100% confidence in our safety, because there is no 100% chance for our safety. In the words of FDR, "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

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