Monday, September 10, 2012

My Message From September 11, 2001

Each September 11th since 2001 has seemed a somber day of reflection, but this year is, for me, even more so. In the last month, my wife and I moved to the New York City area and were lucky to find a great apartment in New Jersey with a view of lower Manhattan. The Freedom Tower (officially the One World Trade Center), which remains under construction, dominates the view from our new home. Most days I can wonder at its architecture and scale, but sometimes it reminds me of a frightening and sad day not so long ago.

In the past week, the Tribute in Light has been tested, sending bright blue beams into the heavens, and the normally white lights in the tower have been swapped for patriotic red, white and blue. I wanted to share a few of the photos I've taken in the past week, including a couple of pictures sized to be Facebook cover photos, should you want to honor the day on your profile.

I also wanted to share the email I sent to friends shortly after 9/11/01. At the time, I was living in Milwaukee but was stuck in San Francisco when the air system was shut down. I ended up hopping on a Greyhound bus for the long trip home. In the days before mobile internet and coast-to-coast cell service, those of us on the bus were cut off from the 24/7 television coverage that was riveting and horrifying most of the country. I've often wondered if the isolation and urgency so many people felt that day contributed to the explosion of cell phones in the decade that followed. (In 2001, the number of mobile subscribers was well under half of the US population; ten years later, there are more mobile subscribers than there are people in the United States.)

Upon arriving home, I regained both my physical and digital connection to the world, and I sat at my computer to capture my story and emotions in a message to friends. My eleven-year-old message is apropos of nothing that I typically write about on this blog, but as I sit tonight at my desk with a view of the towering new World Trade Center, I feel compelled to share this small slice of my life. For another personal take on the experiences of 9/11, please read my friend Jeremy Epstein's post. He shares the fear, shock and compassion of New Yorkers on that horrible day.

2012 Photos of the Freedom Tower/One World Trade Center


My Message from September 2001

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. 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 from San Francisco to 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 five- to-sixty-minute 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. I, and several people around me, later wondered if the woman who had boarded and sat next to me at that stop was hiding something. At first, she struck us as 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, which involved two trains—one hauling passenger cars—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 life saver--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, but 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 men's 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. 

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 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, anyway, 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 around, it struck me harder than I had imagined.  

I cried during the initial coverage on Tuesday, and I find myself crying again. My wife 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.

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.


Alan Bergstrom said...

Augie: thanks for sharing. We all have similar stories.i was in New Jersy on that fateful day with my consulting team about to present to a group of corporate execs across the river from Manhattan. We watched the second plane hit the WTC and both towers collapse. After conferring with the CEO of the company were were working with, my team and I gathered our things and began a long, sobering drive from NJ to Atlanta in our rental car. Tears flowed freely and it was several weeks before I could watch the TV replays of what had transpired. Let us never forget what happened on that day and the message we are obligated to share with our children to keep the memories alive. God bless those whose lives were lost and those responders who put their lives on the line to save countless lives. God bless America...long may she live!

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Alan. The day brought us all memories we'll hold forever (we want to or not.)

I appreciate the note.