Weird that I remember “You Dropped A Bomb on Me.” by the Gap Band was playing on the radio. We were headed south on the Jersey Pike. It was a sunny summer morning and we were driving to Geoff’s new duty station at Camp Lejeune, NC. Traffic was heavy and we were in the truck lane. Geoff likes to drive in the truck lane but I hate it. The big trucks make me nervous. “Everything makes you nervous.” Geoff said. Suddenly he had pointed off to the left. “Hey, look!” I’d been too busy flinching at semis to notice. “Cool! ” There they were, seen by my eyes for the first time, off in the distance across the Hudson. You can see the whole NYC skyline from here: The Chrysler Building and the Empire State, but the Twin Towers were the most striking, what my eyes kept returning to. And for a little while I was distracted from the traffic around me. I was thinking I would like to visit Manhattan someday and see them up close. Someday. Someday. But I never did. .
I don’t know why, but this year the anniversary is sadder for me. It might be because I recently read an article about a photograph of one of the people who jumped from one of the towers. I think like a lot of people, I had tried to bury those images, a little deeper every year, and then suddenly there it was, the photograph of the falling man permanently shocked into my synapses. Even after closing my eyes to sleep, there he was. Such was the power of this author’s writing that I am still thinking about the falling man, days later. And all the pictures people are posting of the towers look ominous to me in a way they hadn’t the past few years. A jetliner is always just out of the frame, seconds away from changing all our lives. Or maybe I’m just projecting my own personal unhappiness. Who knows. I’m just writing this now hoping it will give me some peace.
We are working on our computer assignment independently when the teacher walks into the room. She stands in the front of the classroom and says very formally. ” I’m afraid I have some bad news. A plane has hit the World Trade Center.” Few people even bother to glance up from their computer screens. Huh. Awful. Now, where was I? Someone in the hall says something to her I can’t hear and then she says. “Oh, it was two planes.” I stop what I’m doing . I’m picturing small private planes, maybe some kind of mid air collision.”What kind of planes?” I ask. “Jetliners.” Now everyone is paying attention. “Somebody pull up CNN.” she says. One guy at the back who is always done before everyone else already has. ” The Pentagon’s been bombed. We’re under some kind of attack”
That was the moment that changed everything for me. I have dropped off my husband, a Marine Master Sgt and Arabic linguist at the rental car place that morning so he could drive up to the Pentagon to attend a conference. My son Erik is in kindergarten on Camp Lejeune this morning and I am off base taking a class at the local community college. Suddenly I have a very clear image of exactly where my military ID card is: in a pocket of a blazer hanging in the hall closet at home. These are still the days of bored sentries waving you through the gate, no ID required. But I already know, in that second, that this has changed. “I have to go.” I announce. I throw my stuff into my backpack and am out the door. All I can think is I have to get on base with my child before they shut down the gate, if they haven’t already. I run across campus. It’s still early. A lot of people don’t know yet and I get a few quizzical looks. On the radio as I drive back to the base, Howard Stern is saying things that I can hardly believe. I don’t want to believe. I learn what actually happened at the Pentagon; it hasn’t been bombed, at least not in the traditional sense.
“Please, please, please.” I whisper as I drive up 24 to the gate. I should know everything is fine, because there is no line of cars, just my hoped for bored looking sentry who waves me through. As I slow down to let him see my base sticker, I glance over to my left. In the other lane a woman in a mini van has stopped and I have never forgotten her face, her arms gesturing wildly to the sentry who stares at her like she’s lost her mind. Within the hour the gates will be closed and the line of cars will stretch for a mile. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” I whisper as I drive forward,
When I get home and turn on the tv the towers are still standing. I sink down onto the coffee table and sit there rigid as I watch the unthinkable happen. I don’t even know how long it is before the phone rings and makes me jump. I am stiff with fear as I walk to the phone. First it is a friend and fellow Marine wife who cries and screams into the phone when I tell her Geoff was headed to the Pentagon. “I’m sure he wasn’t there yet” I say, trying to calm her. Then it is Geoff’s major who calls to ask if I have heard from Geoff. “You know what’s happened, right?” “Yes.” “Well, Just let me know if you hear from him.” Strange to remember those pre- cell phone days. Finally I call my mom. Just because. I can hear a slight quiver of hysteria in my voice. She doesn’t know. Doesn’t have the TV on at all. So I tell her. When I tell her Geoff is on the road to Washington she says “Yes, of course. They’re sending in the Marines.” This actually made me smile a little. “No, mom.- not yet, anyway.”
Geoff didn’t get home until the following day. He had to spend the night with friends off base. Even for an active duty Marine, getting on base had become a nightmare. That night I kept asking him “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand. Why didn’t they do something to help those people who were jumping? Why no helicopters? Why nothing on the ground to break their fall? He tries to explain, but I still don’t really get it. Then six months later watching the documentary made by the French film makers, I keep jumping at the sound of bombs going off outside the lobby of the WTC. And then I learn they’re not bombs. “I can’t imagine what it must be like up there if the better option is to jump.” a firefighter says. Finally I understand. The worst thing in a day of terrible things.
Twelve years later the world has moved on. A new tower stands proudly as a testament. I’ve seen it myself from that same spot on the Jersey Pike this summer. Someday I’m going to see it up close. Someday. But 12 years later the fallout from this day is still very visible. I saw it one night in a crowded restaurant. A Marine, blind, his legs gone below the knees, sat eating dinner with his wife. How old was he on that day? Could he have imagined what would happen to him? Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan staggers to a close. Maybe. And now Syria is waiting, the fallout also visible in the worried faces of my Marine wife co-workers and friends. Life and death and war go on. I’d like to say we’ve learned something, that things are better, but I don’t think the dust from the towers has settled yet.