The day before, Don and I had finished a house deck in a residential neighborhood near Cheyenne Mountain. All that remained to do on the site was clean up the construction mess, and that was my job.
So early in the morning of September 11, 2001, I dropped Don off at another deck site, and then drove over to our finished deck to begin picking up the scraps of lumber, discarded screws and nails, and miscellaneous construction trash.
I quickly put together my first load and drove with it to the shop, where we had a dumpster for it. The shop was almost all the way across town, so it took a while to get there. I’m not in the habit of listening to the radio when I’m driving and I didn’t have the radio on that day either. But I had the windows down and was enjoying the crisp air. It was shaping up to be a lovely Fall.
As I came back from that first trip, I ran into heavy traffic around Fort Carson, which is the home to an Army division. The roads leading there were stopped up with soldiers in green headed towards the base in their cars, trucks and SUVs. I had to work around the mess by taking a wide detour through the backstreets, and that took some time. Finally, I got to the deck and began picking up for my next load.
Altogether I made three or four trips to the dumpster that day. By four o’clock I finally had the site cleaned up. I had expected things to go faster, but those long detours around the soldiers had thrown me off schedule. Something I’d heard the day before seemed tied to what the Fort Carson troops were up to.
National Public Radio reported on the 10th that all our bases in the Philippines suddenly went on high alert that morning. Mysteriously, the Pentagon refused to say what was going on.
According to NPR, it was anyone’s guess whether the military was expecting its bases in the Philippines to be attacked, or was just carrying out an exercise. When I saw the Fort Carson soldiers on alert, however, I thought the mystery solved.
Since it would take a whole army to successfully attack Fort Carson, and since no armies were around but ours, I figured the alerts must be part of some large scale exercise. It was nothing I was really interested in.
I got to the new deck site a bit after four that afternoon. As I drove up, I noticed Don and two other carpenters — instead of working — were listening to a radio.
The planes began hitting shortly after I dropped Don off that morning. He and the other two had stopped work immediately. Yet, despite monitoring events most of the day, there was not much at that point anyone knew for sure. The questions were large and unanswered. Who was behind the attacks? Why had they attacked? Were the attacks over yet? Where was the President? And so on.
It took only a few moments for them to fill me in with all they really knew. The Twin Towers destroyed by two planes. The Pentagon hit by a third. A fourth gone down in Pennsylvania. All domestic flights grounded. And thousands of people dead.
After the other two carpenters left, Don and I went to the site I’d cleaned up so Don could inspect it. It might seem strange to you we thought to do that. But what else was there to do?
As we drove towards the site we noticed a TV van parked on an otherwise empty street. The crew were standing outside the van — a reporter, a cameraman, and a couple technicians. At first, there seemed no reason for them to be there. So I looked where the camera was pointed, and it suddenly made sense.
They were set up where they had a view of Cheyenne Mountain. At that time, the War Room that controlled America’s nuclear arsenal was buried deep inside. The crew’s camera pointed directly at the entrance to NORAD.
I found out later they’d heard the President might be taken there.
That evening, Don and I went out to eat at a restaurant after watching the TV reports. We sat at a sidewalk table with our food and said very little for a while. A dozen times that evening, I thanked my luck I was with him — among other things, Don is sober, steady and superbly level headed.
The sun was behind the mountains now, but it was still light out. I found it a struggle to figure out any implications to the day’s events. After what seemed to me hours of thought, I said, “Don, I might be in shock because I can only get my mind around three things right now.”
“First, this is the start of a war. Second, I hope to hell it’s not an attempted coup, because then it’s going to be a civil war. Just don’t let it be Americans who did this! And last, we’re going to war with our third string on the field. Bush is no better than a third-rate president.”
Looking back, I realize I wasn’t thinking clearly. But I believe I got the last bit right.
Afterwards, we went back to Don’s place. Becky came home from work. I expected her to want to watch TV with us, but instead she did her evening cleaning, which is a routine she does every night. I should have known she would. That’s how Becky grounds herself; it’s how she stays centered. She puts her immediate environment in order, no matter what’s going on elsewhere.
When years ago I’d worked as a fire fighter, I’d learned there are some people you do not want to be with in a fire because they simply cannot turn the nonsense off. Ever. That evening, I had the luck to be with Don and Becky, neither of whom is given to BS. They were a bubble of sanity in a world suddenly flooded by insanity.
Yet, it seemed that evening the whole nation had woken up. On every channel, people were talking realistically about the events of the day. There was no blustering. No exaggerated patriotism. No “talking points”. No wild lies. No one trying to sell you bullshit. At least that’s how it seemed. Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and the other media people were shaken but sober. The politicians joined hands to stand united.
Whatever else 9/11 did to America, it seemed to turn us into a nation of realists for a brief while.
I don’t remember much more from that day. I don’t even recall how or when I got home that evening. But a week or so later, I read in The New Yorker that, 13 hours after the first plane struck one of the towers, Pat Buchanan was on the Fox News Network calling for America to avenge itself with nuclear weapons. An entire nation cannot stay sober forever. The BS had begun.
Those are my memories of 9/11. What memories do you have of that day?