Where Were You on September 11, 2001?
My father remembered exactly where he was and what he was doing on December 7, 1941. He often recounted how he was up in the woods of New Hampshire deer hunting when word came to his group of hunters about Pearl Harbor. He never forgot.
I can tell you what I was doing, what the weather was like, and how everyone around me reacted when we got the news about President Kennedy being shot in Dallas. I will never forget.
Nor will I forget what we were doingon that bright, sunny morning of September 11, 2001.
Penny and I were having coffee with Raymond Chabot and his two cronies at Ray's camp on the Rapid River, the "Sugar Shack". We had ridden our mountain bikes down to see Louise Dickinson Rich's home below Lower Dam, and had met Ray on the way. His place is about as remote as you can get - the end of a logging road with the only public access a five-mile boat trip to the Lakewood Camps on Richardson Lake. He has no telephone, no television, and no electricity except what he generates himself. Lakewood Camps is about the same. Just what we were looking for after a hectic summer.
The sound of an ORV tearing down the road caught our attention. Harry Veronsonie, the dam keeper at Middle Dam, ran up the walk and burst in the kitchen. "Ray, turn on your radio - something terrible just happened!" he said.
All conversation stopped while Ray got down his battery operated radio and turned it on. We sat dumb struck as the news of a plane hitting the World Trade Center filled the kitchen. It wasn't clear if it was an accident, or something more sinister.
We saw another ORV come down the road through the window, and Harry's son came running in. "Quick, you just got a call to get back to the dam - a terrorist alert for all hydroelectric facilities has just come over the radio!" Harry and his boy left on their ORVs for his post on Middle Dam. Penny and I thanked Ray for his hospitality and got on our bikes to head back to the Lodge.
I don't think it really registered, that initial news. When we got back to our cabin, I got a cell phone call from son Jim. There is limited cell phone service if you are near the lake. He told us what was happening, that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center and another the Pentagon. It is not an accident - the planes deliberately hit the buildings - it was terrorism.
The people in one of the cabins next door brought out a battery-operated radio and played it for everyone to hear. We sat on the porch and listened as the news came in. It was totally unreal - here we were in such a peaceful setting. The waves lapped on the lake shore, and the trees rustled in the breeze. Other than our little colony, we could have been alone in the world - except for the terrible, tragic news coming in from New York and Washington. We were so remote from what was going on that the enormity of it all didn't really sink in till much later. But it has. The tragedy of September 11 has changed our nation and our world, and I will not be able to forget where I was and what I was doing on that date.
Dealing With The Tragedy
When we got back home, we were drawn like moths to the television. I spent hours on the computer reading news articles from around the world, and printing them out for Paul and Penny to read. We were angry at the loss of life, and at the same time saddened at the thousands of lives lost, the innocents and especially the fire fighters and police.
The articles discussing the reasons behind the mindset of this terror were fascinating and frustrating at the same time. America is now facing first-hand what many other countries around the world have had to deal with for years - terrorism on their own ground. Northern Ireland, England, Israel, Egypt, Russia, France, Spain - and the list goes on.
I have never been a Bush fan, but applauded his war speech. I thought it was eloquent, effective, and just what the country needed. I was buoyed by the reasoned approach by Secretary of State Colin Powell to build an international cooperative effort to root out terrorism. For the first few weeks, I was angered and nervous about the saber-rattling of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, the "do something drastic now" approach of the Project for the New American Century. I took the time to send an e-mail to Powell to support him - never done that before! I remember from first hand experience the "tar baby" of Vietnam and hoped that we had learned something from it. It with relief that a longer-term view of the ultimate resolution to international terrorism is now being advocated. It is gratifying to hear our leaders talk about the long term duration and the sacrifices of this effort. I hope that Americans are hearing and heeding - this is not going to be a 30-second sound bite effort.
We worried a lot about our grandson Derek in the Navy and assigned to the USS Sides, a Frigate based in San Diego. And about our granddaughter's friend Matt, who is with a special unit of the US Marines at Camp Pendleton. And we worried as much about their parents and how they were dealing with it all. Son Jim, his wife Alison and daughter Kim flew out to San Diego to see Derek - he is fine, and they are relieved.
Since September 11, we have all had symptoms of depression - trouble sleeping, concentrating on the simplest tasks, fatigue. But we were the lucky ones - no relations or friends were lost in the tragedy, but our hearts go out to those who did. Their stories are heartbreaking, especially the children orphaned and left behind.
But life has returned to nearly normal. Book orders are starting to pick up again, after almost nothing for several days. I went fishing the next weekend with Jack and Ken in Colebrook, NH, but we talked the whole time about the events of the week before. I postponed a meeting scheduled for Durango on September 18 until September 27, but mainly over concerns that people wouldn't be able to arrange flights there with the confusion in the airlines. Our Crabtree family reunion came off successfully, and I have flown across the country and returned, no worse for the wear.
I think the biggest thing that bothered me was our frustration at not being able to do something to help. Jim and I debated going to New York to help, as EMTs and Firefighters we figured there would be something we could do - but the Portland Red Cross said that they had enough volunteers and to stay home. And so we did. We tried to help in other ways, to show our support, to do something, anything. My company set up a dollar-for-dollar matching program to the September 11 fund, and we contributed - all together nearly $75 thousand was raised. Maine blossomed with American Flags - on houses, cars, trees and buildings. Jim displayed one on his car antenna - at half mast. We always display a flag here at the Farmhouse, and I added one to the car and dug out a small lapel pin to wear. All this has helped a little. But there is still a great sadness and a need for closure that haunts me.
I thought I was handling it all very well - until I heard the new Tom Paxton song on Prairie Home Companion about a month after the tragedy of September 11. Tom's song, The Bravest, is the best tribute I have heard to the fire fighters who lost their lives at the World Trade Center, helping others live at the expense of their own lives. Click on the link to download the song or go to Paxton's website.
When I heard it, I burst into tears - somehow it hit a cord in me, and the pent-up grief that I didn't even know I had came out. We all have our personal grief, no matter what we were doing on September 11. Please, listen to the audio clip if you can - click on the link I've provided. If you cannot, here are the words:
Why do these words hit a raw nerve? Why are the lyrics so haunting, while so many other eloquent statements about the tragedy have not touched me in the same way? Perhaps the chorus of "The Bravest" is reminding me that others gave their lives unselfishly while I was safely sitting at an idyllic lakeside cabin in Maine. As terrible as the loss of lives of the innocents at the WTC was, the 344 firefighters lost in New York at the World Trade Center was to me, more tragic. They were not fleeing disaster - they were charging ahead despite it, just doing their jobs.
I have been a volunteer firefigher and EMT for more than 10 years. As a volunteer on small departments in small towns, I've never been exposed to the life-threatening situations that a full-time firefighter on a big city department sees far too often. I can't presume to ever understand the dangers they face in their jobs, or especially in the dedication to duty they displayed on September 11. I have been lucky as a firefighter. The times when my life has been directly threatened on a call are very rare - I can think of only 3 or 4 times. But even then you don't stop to think about the danger - your training kicks in and you focus on what needs to be done. Despite the obvious danger, this is what the New York Firefighters did at the World Trade Center. I will never face what they did, but I think I can understand what they experienced.
Maybe because of these experiences I am feeling their loss more profoundly. Or, perhaps these feelings I have are guilt that it was them and not I - I don't know. I do know that I needed to bring these feelings to some sort of closure for my own peace of mind.
I made a pilgrimage to New York City on November 8 and 9 to honor the fallen heroes. I wept and laughed through their wakes and funerals. I offered a prayer at Ground Zero and paid my respects to all who had perished there. It was something that I just had to do. The other firefighters and the spouses of firefighters that I talked to about it understood - it is something that had to be done for our brothers. I met hundreds of firefighters from all over the country and Canada who had made the same trip. The pilgrimage has helped me understand things better and put them into perspective (see And The Bagpipes Played "Amazing Grace").
The President has urged us all to pick up our lives, and to resume flying again. I resolved to do so, to help out in my small way in rebuilding confidence in flying. I scheduled a trip to meet with clients in Colorado two weeks after September 11.
This was not without some misgivings. It was pretty unsettling when I think that if we had not had reservations at Lakewood Camps, I would have been flying out of the Portland Jetport at the same day and hour as two terrorists who then flew into the World Trade Centers. I wouldn't have been on the same flight as them, but leaving at the same time heading west across the country. My flight could have just as easily been chosen instead of the flights out of Logan.
The newspapers and television were full of conflicting stories about restrictions on future air travel. After hearing about new airport security checkpoints and baggage and parking restrictions, I made a "dry run" to the Portland airport a week before my flight to see for myself.
"Arrive two hours before flight time. Leave your pocket knife, fingernail clippers, anything metal or sharp at home or check them through in your baggage. Reduce your carry-on to as little as possible. Only ticketed passengers at the boarding gates. Expect delays and changes. Be patient."
I called a couple of days in advance to confirm my flights. You haven't needed to do that for domestic flights for years - but it is a good thing that I did. One of my connecting flights had been cancelled and United had to rebook me on other flights. If I'd just shown up with out confirming I would have been stranded in Denver overnight and missed my meetings.
Arriving an hour before flight time at the smaller airports, like Portland and Durango, is probably sufficient. Two hours is too long. However the recommendation for the larger airports, like Denver International and Chicago O'Hare is to arrive 4 hours before flight time. People have been taking 2 hours or more to get through security. The stewardess on one of my flights back said that departure of her flight from LAX was delayed nearly an hour to wait for passengers who were stuck standing in security lines. Armed National Guard troops were patrolling Denver, and will be at Durango next week.
Most people I talked with were understanding and supported the additional security, even if it meant delays. At the Portland security check point they asked me to run my cell phone through the scanner. That was a new one for me - in the past the security folks only wanted to have you turn it on. I learned later that guns disguised as cell phones have been discovered in the UK, and are a new threat. My boots have steel insoles, and set off the metal detector. This has happened before, and they would just scan me with a hand-held wand. No more! "Take off the boots and put them through the scanner. Step through the metal detector in your stocking feet." At Durango, coming back after a week away from home, just about everyone wearing boots had to go through the same exercise. That means to remember to wear clean socks with no holes in them. One of the stewardesses I talked to said that her underwire bra set off the metal detector - try and explain that away!
Only plastic knives at the airport restaurants or with your meal in business class. No metal corkscrews are allowed, even by the crew, so only screwtop wines and champagne are served on board. These are all trivial, but graphic statements that our world has changed. [Update - On my last airline trip to the west on November 13, United had put a corkscrew on board as part of the standard galley equipment. The Merlot was wonderful, and it came out of a bottle with a cork, not a screwcap!]
When I stepped onto the plane from the jetway in Portland, flying for the first time since Sept 11, I felt a little "twinge" of apprehension. It was only momentary, and soon passed. But for me, who travels by air all the time, this was very much out of the ordinary. Other passengers admitted to the same feeling.
The planes were all half empty. Numbers of scheduled flights are still way below what they were before September 11. My upgrades went through without any problems as a result. I also had plenty of time to talk to the stewardesses. To a person they were unsettled and nervous. One was being laid off in the staffing and flight reductions. Two were planning a career change - they didn't see themselves in a long term career in aviation. One had had some bad experiences right after the FAA allowed planes to fly again. She had six middle-eastern looking passengers, seated two by two by two in coach. As soon as the plane lifted off the ground, two of them immediately stood up. She was expecting the worst - it turned out that they were just as nervous as she was, and were not a threat. Her nerves, however, were jangled.
My flights going out and coming home were on time, everything went smoothly, and except for a tense atmosphere that was almost palpable, there were no problems. Most travelers, like myself, will adapt to the changes. However there are people who rarely fly, or who don't like to fly. For them the delays at checkin and the other hassles, as well as being generally nervous anyway, will probably mean that they won't be flying anytime soon. That is going to hurt the airline industry and the economy, and in a sense will be a victory for the terrorists.
A New World for All of Us
Have our lives changed? Yes, and they will be changed for a long time. America has had a rude awakening to the reality that much of the rest of the world has come to know. It will never be the same again.
Our minister preached a sermon on our responsibilities to the poor and homeless on Sunday. She pointed out that America has contributed $500 million in only two weeks to the disaster victims - a huge outpouring of support that shows how deeply we, as a country, have been touched. And our capacity for giving. But does it take a tragedy like this to remind us that we are all our brothers' keepers, that we have a duty to help others in need? I hope that this whole affair opens our eyes a little, that we are part of a world community and not an isolated island unto ourselves.
Being the strongest and richest country in the world carries with it certain responsibilities. While we should not be deluded to think that we could be the world's policeman, as a nation we have a moral obligation to bring to task those who were responsible for the tragedy.
America is also a nation of caring, supportive, and charitable people. As sad as these events were, they have forced us to think beyond ourselves. Our leaders need to examine why terrorism exists at all as a means of furthering a twisted goal in the name of God. Perhaps the events of September 11 will all help in that process.
No, I will not forget September 11 and what I was doing when our world was turned upside down.
Photo of Firefighters raising the flag at Ground Zero compliments of People Magazine Weekly, September 24, 2001 issue. Photograph by Lori Grinker/Contact Press.
Photo of Ground Zero used with permission of Steve Spak, New York Fire Fighter UFA Local 94.
"The Bravest", by Tom Paxton, Copyright © 2001 Pax Music - words used with permission. Audio clip copied from the 10/13/01 Prairie Home Companion show, as sung by Garrison Kieler.
Last updated June 7, 2005
Copyright © 2001, 2005, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2001, 2005, Allen Crabtree