17 Years

Last night I got caught up reading this thread of memories from people the world over recounting their memories of 9/11. It was 17 years ago today and, for the most part, I’ve never liked seeing “bloggers” share their self-centered stories that center around how much they love shopping in New York and how shocking it was.

This year, I’ve decided to recount my own memory, for a project I’m working on.

I was a typical 16-year old, sleeping in when the first plane hit.

In 2001, I was a month into my senior year of high school in Walnut Creek, California. The 11th, a Tuesday, was block period and I didn’t have to be at school until 10am so when my parents woke me up, I was annoyed like any teenager asked to get up early. Then the second plane hit. Then the Pentagon was hit.

It was hours before I needed to be at school but staying home alone that morning I was too frantic and scared because there was so much unknown. Were we at war? Would something happen in California? How many people had just died? I stopped at the grocery store for breakfast on my way to school and it was eerily quiet, as if everyone had been instructed that they could only talk about one thing. Like the nation was collectively shell shocked. The cashier was the first person who said to me, “they think it was Osama bin Laden.” I had no idea who that was.

I don’t remember much about the drive to school, just standing with my friends in the parking lot before 1st period. Rachel came up, cheerful as ever, and we had to ask carefully if she’d seen the news and explained what happened. Some friends were worried as they had family or friends in New York. Some had no idea what the World Trade Center was, assuming it was Wall Street or meant a financial collapse. Few of us had cell phones and no one was calling or texting so it was hours of the unknown.

In US History class, where I acted as the TA, our teacher shared her theories which only led to more fear.

“They might fly a plane into buildings in San Francisco. Or the Golden Gate Bridge.”

“The Naval Weapons Station is a target, there are nukes in the bunkers there.” One student was visibly upset by this idea, his house was next to the station. “Don’t worry,” the teacher announced, “if it gets hit and a bomb goes off, we’re all dead.”

There are memories I didn’t know to hold onto at the time, like sitting with my lab partner in Anatomy unaware that in 7 years his younger brother would die in Afghanistan fighting the war that followed. I didn’t know that my mom had a friend and her son, a pilot, taxied on the runway behind one of the hijacked flights, wondering why they were not chatting with the tower. I didn’t know that Shane, on his way to California for his mother’s funeral, was recalled by the Navy to active duty.

I knew I wanted to call Shane’s mother, who had been a mentor to me growing up. I’d spent a lot of time at Evelyn’s house, interviewing her for a class project, and she opened up about losing her first husband in the war in her final months as she battled cancer. She had just passed away and I wanted, selfishly, to call her house. Listen to her voice tell me that it was going to be okay. It was the first time I experienced loss on a personal level, wanting to be with someone who was now dead.

Because it’s been 17 years, and I was 16 when it happened, I don’t have perfect memories of the days that followed. I do remember the following August when I first visited Washington D.C. I don’t think Arlington Cemetery would have had the same impact if I hadn’t lived through the declaration of war. My parents and I drove past the Pentagon and the gaping hole in its side. We ate lunch one day at Costco, talking easily to a man who’d worked at the Pentagon that day and hearing his story. I remember the memorial service held the first year after. It was one of thousands and I sat with my friends on cold, hard bleachers as we listened to thousands of names being read aloud. I remember standing atop the Empire State Building some 4 years later, looking south to the site which was still being excavated and wondering what it was like for the tourists who watched from the Observatory Deck that day. I recall listening in horror when my friend Tanya described taking the bus into Manhattan and her front row view to the attack.

This past weekend I watched Jack Ryan on Amazon and overall it was a great series. But it reminds me how much of our culture has changed. Media, both our entertainment and news focus, is so much more centered on terrorism. The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, films about the attack itself I’ve never been able to watch… it’s hard to admit that most of us (myself included) didn’t care much about extremists until they visited our shores. Attacks in the Middle East seemed so far away, diplomacy was the job of the man in the Oval Office at the White House.

It might have been 9/11, it might just have been growing up, but 17 years ago marked a shift from seeing my life as isolated to one that is intensely interconnected. Everything from the fuel for my car to international sanctions and foreign aid are elements of this post 9/11 world. In some ways my high school experience was bookmarked by twin tragedies. Freshman year there was the shooting at Columbine and while it wasn’t the first school shooting, it definitely marked a trend that continues now 19 years later. Senior year began with 9/11 and was the end of childhood.

I remember taking a few days off back in 2011, I was already working for myself and decided to go to Santa Cruz on a whim. I didn’t have cable tv at home so it was a rare luxury to watch some design shows or catch the news. I came back in the evening, flipped on the TV set…. and saw President Obama announcing the SEAL team raid had successfully killed bin Laden. Nearly 10 years and everything rushed back, it was a relief and painful all at once.

17 years ago.

2,977 people died that day.

A thousand more have died, from cancer and other illnesses, as a result of being there.

Thousands of children have grown up without a parent.

Half a million have died since the start of the Iraq War.

So those who scream “conspiracy!” can fuck right off. Trump, who claimed to see Muslims cheer from New Jersey and has lied about losing friends in the towers, can go to hell. Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York, who said we didn’t have terror attacks until Obama was in office, should be admitted to mental health treatment post haste. Anyone who takes a tragedy and focuses on the way they can gain power, push an agenda or get famous didn’t learn anything from 9/11 and are unfit to lead in any capacity.

Undoubtably there are many people who have suffered more personal loss as a result of 9/11 and I’m not interested in comparing grief, as if it can be quantified so easily. To me, 9/11 will always stir up those early feelings of despair, fear, grief and worry and our response should always be to reach out in love, give what we can and stand in solidarity.

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