Twenty Years Ago

Posted here (week 2479).

The twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks means the internet is awash with memories and retrospectives. I found Charlie Warzel’s recounting of his experience as a child in NYC and recent shift in perspective particularly interesting.

My own experience was quite unlike most. When the first plane hit a tower, we were waiting in the paddock with her NB Miata at the SCCA Solo II Nationals. The course was on the tarmac of Forbes Field in Topeka, home to a wing of the Air National Guard that provides in-flight refueling. There were no TVs, only car radios, so as word spread we all tuned in to hear about towers burning and, eventually collapsing.

I wasn’t familiar enough with NYC to understand what the World Trade Center towers were, or appreciate the true scale of the catastrophe. My only visual memory was watching a line of military vehicles driving into a large transport jet, and the shimmer of the engines warming up on that and another large plane as the organizers scurried to move us all off the airfield. It was very dramatic, but of course nothing compared to the images the rest of the nation was watching on TV.

Our plans thwarted, we retreated to a restaurant (a Denny’s, IIRC) for lunch. There was some chatter about New York, but no TV or radio. While we ate, someone stole our helmets from the car, which we could not easily afford to replace and helped convince us we should use the remainder of our scheduled holiday time to take a road trip onward to the Rocky Mountains.

I don’t recall the rest of that day, but we had learned that air travel was suspended and heard that hotels and rest stop parking lots along the highway were thus full. So we left early the next morning and drove I-70 straight through to Denver, listening to music on CDs. I think we stayed at a Denver hotel and took day trips to Boulder, Colorado Springs, and Rocky Mountain National Park.

At some point I saw a newspaper with a front page image of the burning towers. The scale surprised me, but as a static, cropped image it failed to really shock me.

The next image in my memory is from the park, at least 2 days after the attacks. We had hiked to a viewpoint and looked east into clear blue skies, feeling like we could see the entirety of middle America’s airspace. Of course there were no planes to be seen, and thus no contrails. I was aware for the first time how ubiquitous contrails are as a feature of clear skies.

I don’t recall much else about the trip. I learned more about the towers themselves on the internet, and back home the news gave updates on the estimates of lives lost. Although in absolute terms more than 17 times as many people died as in the Oklahoma City bombings, considering the relative scale of the cities it felt like a comparable tragedy from such a geographic and cultural remove.

A New Jersey-based client I worked closely with in the trade and logistics industry had lost several friends. Learning that was about as personal as the event got.

My next memory of the time was the flags. So many American flags, everywhere, implicitly expressing support for the freshly declared “War on Terror”. The nationalism made me uncomfortable, and when others with private offices in my hallway put flags and eagle memes in their windows, I placed a NATO flag. I was given some grief about this, but having purple hair and being vegetarian in St. Louis had thickened my skin.

I’ve often thought about how much slower my exposure to 9/11 imagery was, compared to most Americans. Certainly this was a major contributor to my resistance to the freedom fries jingoism that followed.