Friday, September 9, 2011

Email Message From the Past Captures My September 11 Experience

My experiences ten years ago this week were not terribly exceptional—I was not in New York, Washington D.C. or Pennsylvania and did not lose a loved one—but like all Americans and many in the world, the horrifying events of that day resonated deeply.

Caught 2,000 miles from home when the air travel system was shut down, it took me days to make my way to the warm embrace of home, friends and family. I captured the events of my strange road trip from San Francisco (where I would move eight years later) to home in Milwaukee in an email that I sent to friends on September 15th, 2001. I thought it might be of some interest to share that email.

In my message, I mention Lindsey, a young woman who sat next to me most of the way cross country. She was paying a last visit to her grandma in Madison, WI prior to reporting for duty in the Air Force. I've thought of Lindsey often in the years since. She's been a small reminder of the people who sacrifice and serve to keep us safe, and I hope wherever Lindsey is that she is well and happy.

Here is my message from the past:

What a week--what a sad, confusing, and strange week.  What follows is rather lengthy, so I don’t blame you if you don’t read it.  Either the long time out of touch, the peculiarity of my experiences, or just the emotion of this past week seemed to take over my fingers as I sat down at a computer for the first time in almost four days. I wanted to share some of my experiences.   

I know what I went through is nothing but a minor annoyance while so many are dealing with so much more. Still, my experience makes me wonder how many millions of Americans have been "inconvenienced" in the sort of way I was. In the past week, I was stuck 2,000 miles from family and friends, unable to comfort or be comforted, at the moment of the most tragic event our nation has had to face on its own soil perhaps since Pearl Harbor or the Civil War. 

I was awakened Tuesday morning by a panicked call from Geri. Her first words were, "Are you all right?"  I responded with some annoyance, "I'm sleeping."  She told me to turn on the TV and I saw the smoke pouring from the World Trade Center. For a day and a half I was glued to the television and computer in my hotel room, alone as I watched the sad and frightening coverage and searched for options to get me home as soon as possible. 

My only break from the non-stop coverage came the evening of September 11th. An uncle and aunt in San Francisco picked me up and we went to Fisherman's Wharf. It was a surreal and forced experience to be a tourist that evening.  Many of the restaurants were closed and the mood was somber, despite the fact the evening was quite beautiful.  We heard servers talking about their fear of losing their jobs or income because tourism might be harmed, and we left a very generous tip. 

At one point the following day, I had reservations for three separate means to get home:  My original air tickets (on a flight that was, in fact, canceled yesterday), Amtrak tickets (which would've cost almost as much as my round-trip air fare and would not have gotten me home until Monday after routing me through Portland), and my bus tickets (which I eventually used.) That doesn't even count the three-day, $1,300 rental car I briefly considered reserving to make a solo drive home. 

The trip home was strange. Fifty-three hours on the road, interrupted only by brief stops throughout the day and night in disgusting bus stations or the more appreciated and cleaner fast food restaurants. I spent the better part of three days crammed into a space smaller than any airline seat, not showering, hardly sleeping, and eating virtually nothing except food that was pre-prepared, sealed in plastic, and warmed in the dirtiest microwave ovens on earth. (The food was so bad that a Wendy's in a truck stop in Iowa was a welcome and appreciated stop!)

Certain experiences added to the strangeness of the trip: 

In Sacramento, special agents with badges (no one caught what agency they were from) boarded our bus, briefly interviewed everyone, and searched several pieces of luggage. Several of us later wondered if the woman who boarded and sat next to me at that stop was hiding something. She seemed nervous as she loudly announced that she had to have extra carry-ons because she had forgotten to get address tags for some of her bags, a requirement to check the luggage in the cargo area of the bus. Later, after we were on our way, she announced equally loudly that the reason the agents had searched her bags (and almost no one else’s) was because she had an Arab friend.  She also noisily said that she felt safer that the agents had searched the bus, but it ironically left the rest of us, who had previously felt safe, wondering if there was cause for worry.  We were all glad when she exited the bus without incident the next morning in Salt Lake City. (She took her pillow with her every time she left the bus, leaving us conspiracy theorists to wonder if she was hiding drugs; and of course, the agents never searched her pillow.)  

In the middle of the Utah salt flats we passed within 200 yards of a train wreck that had occurred just hours earlier. The accident involved two trains—one hauling passenger cars—and looked bad. Several cars were derailed, still smoldering and surrounded by dozens of fire trucks and ambulances (not to mention TV trucks), and we all worried about the injuries or fatalities. We were relieved to learn a day later by newspaper that no one was killed.  

While we were in Salt Lake City, one passenger heard a rumor about an American Airlines plane leaving for Chicago that still had seats available. She abruptly abandoned our bus, leaving behind the pillows she said she no longer needed, and left for the airport. (Her pillows were a lifesaver--on the second night I got my first minutes of sleep against one of the pillows she abandoned.)  We all wondered as we arrived home Friday night if she had gotten home ahead of us, although we agreed it was likely she was still camped in the airport, wishing she had stayed on the bus or at least kept her pillows.  

Greyhound bus stations are the butt of many jokes, and I now understand them. Perhaps the worst station I saw was the Omaha bus station. Having arrived in the morning, we were anxious to get to the bathrooms to freshen up. I took one step into the mens’ room and almost left in disgust--a half-inch pool of dirty water covered the floor and every surface was grimy.  I was so desperate to brush my teeth and shave that I rolled up my pants legs and managed to do my morning routine while holding my travel bag and never setting a single item down on any surface. That bathroom was so bad that a man who had gotten on the bus in San Francisco looking much like a vagrant (and smelling like one), stepped into the bathroom, looked around, and immediately turned and left. 

(I know Greyhound was sagging under the burden placed on our transportation systems, but wild horses couldn't drag me onto a long-distance Greyhound bus after seeing the neglected bathrooms, inedible food, derelict bus stations, and indifferent and untrained employees we all endured on the trip. If you are thinking of buying stock in Greyhound with the idea that millions of Americans are being exposed to the joys of Greyhound, don’t. Around a third of the newbies started the trip by saying they’d never fly again after seeing the scary scenes on television but by the end, 100% of these same people agreed they’d hop on a plane tomorrow rather than set foot in a Greyhound for a second time.) 

Of course, none of us knew what was going on in the outside world.  It made me marvel at how connected we’ve all become—television and the Internet seem like necessities and not luxuries here in the 21st century. I was thrilled when, at the very first stop after boarding, I found an Internet terminal in the Sacramento bus station, and I was disappointed when scouring every other bus station along the route failed to reveal a similar one. (I suppose the average Greyhound rider isn’t quite as connected as I am.)  Along the route, we picked up rumors in bus stations and tidbits of news from family by phone, and we debated if the US would be at war and retaliating by the time we arrived home. 

On the bright side--and there are bright sides to these sorts of experiences, after all--there were nice people to be met on the bus and several of us became fast friends: Joyce, a nurse from Iowa; Jeanie, a banker from Minneapolis; and Lindsey, a teen from Reno about to join the Air Force. None of us were “regular Greyhounders,” which made us a part of the majority on the bus who had never set foot in a long-distance bus. My small group of new friends looked out for each other, held places in line, and shared stories, family photos, information, newspapers, and snacks. In short, we kept each other sane in the face of conditions and at a time when sanity was stretched just a bit. Another bright spot, I suppose, is that I did get to see parts of the country that were new to me, although driving through Utah and Wyoming at 75 miles an hour and stopping at truck stops seems a pretty poor way to see these states for the very first time.

I got home last night and enjoyed my first night back—my wife, my cat, my bed, and my own bathroom seemed like luxuries, and for a while anyways it felt like life was back to normal.  It isn’t, of course, and as my focus changed from the petty problems of my own uncomfortable journey to the world at large, it struck me harder than I had imagined.  

I had cried during the initial coverage on Tuesday, and I find myself crying again.  Geri compared her emotions to when my mother died—the way the tears sneak up you at unexpected times—and I find this is the case today.  These are sad and scary times. 

Obviously, this week will be remembered for a long, long time. In the future, historians will assess how the rest of our lives were shaped by one Tuesday morning in September of the first full year of the new millennia.  In the future, composers will write songs and moviemakers will create films about this week. (Those movies, perhaps sadly but definitely suitably, will not feature Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger, saving the day single-handedly.)  In the future, much will be said about the lives lost, the heroism demonstrated, the actions of presidents, kings, and common people, and the way our world was changed on one horrible day. All of that is in the future, however, and right now I am trying to sort it all out.  For days, my attention has been focused primarily on my own trip home. Now, I am catching up with the rest of you who have been watching 24-hour coverage and dealing with this tragedy since it occurred. 

I am mourning the life lost and the pain this is causing to so many people. Today, 100,000 people are grieving the loss of a wife, husband, son, daughter, sister, brother, father, or mother.  Perhaps another million are mourning the loss of a friend, acquaintance, or coworker. But all of us, in the US and the rest of the world, are mourning with them. 

I also search for things I can do—something that can help my country, my family, and myself. I know everyone’s already been bombarded with ways to donate, so I won’t belabor the point, but it has helped Geri and I to feel as if we’ve somehow contributed to the cause by donating cash to several organizations.

I hope you don’t mind this lengthy message. I’ve had a lot of time to think (and do just about nothing but think) over the past week. I appreciate your friendship and the messages you sent while I was stuck half a continent away.  These are dark times, but those we keep around us make them lighter.  

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