Monday, September 11, 2006

My Own Private 9/11

At 7:46 AM Central Daylight Time on September 11, 2001, I was rushing my kids out the front door to the bus stop. It was a typical early fall day in the Upper Midwest: gray, chilly, and unpromising. I argued briefly with Rachel about wearing a jacket. I lost.

My husband was a 3L at the University of Minnesota School of Law; I was a research fellow in the School of Public Health. He had only been back in Minneapolis for a few days, after a Washington DC summer associateship at a large, well heeled downtown firm. We were anxious about receiving a permanent offer for 2002, but otherwise life was going about as smoothly as it ever seemed to go for us. We owned a little Arts and Crafts Tudor revival on the western edge of Minneapolis proper, next to a city park. Our neighbors were mostly liberal neo-urbanists with "Free Leonard Peltier" bumper stickers and bake sale flyers for Sara Jane Olsen's defense fund, but Minneapolis civic etiquette is largely live and let live and they overlooked our American flag/Fox News/Catholic school household's peculiarities as long as we kept our sidewalk shoveled in the winter.

John wasn't re-adjusting to a school schedule very smoothly, and I heard low-level radio snooze alarm warfare proceeding upstairs. I put a load of clothes in the dryer and headed towards the back door to leave for work when John barreled down the stairs, practically knocking me down and in obvious alarm. "Turn the TV on. The radio just said a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center."

We switched on Fox. I still don't know if we saw the second plane impact live at 8:03, or if they were already replaying it. John started surfing for news on the computer. I sat on the couch and stared for awhile. I was very shaken, but this was something remote, that was taking place hundreds of miles away. It certainly didn't seem a good excuse to miss work or school. No one on screen seemed to know anything concrete either, and it was still not absolutely clear that it wasn't some hideous accident. So after half an hour or so John started for the shower, and I fumbled for my purse. And Fox News reported that a plane had hit the Pentagon, and I yelled at John, and sat down again.

What seems strange now is that it took so long for it to sink in that this was not analogous to a hurricane or a tornado or even the Oklahoma City bombing. This affected the whole country. I was still thinking I needed to get to work. Our federal contract for Medicare data support had just been renewed, and Tuesday afternoons were my shift on the help desk. I still had no notion that the entire country would be paralyzed. So I left for work, now more than an hour late. In the few moments between the back door and the garage, the first tower collapsed. On the way to campus, local news announced that the university was closing and all students were being sent home. Evacuation of the 57-story IDS Tower, Minneapolis's tallest building, was under discussion. I thought it all sounded silly. This was happening in strategically important cities, not Minneapolis.

The parking lot was almost completely empty by the time I arrived on campus. I parked anyway, and walked to my office. The shuttle buses didn't seem to be running. The office was deserted. My boss was in Atlanta for a conference, so it wouldn't be surprising even under normal circumstances that the secretaries would bug out early for lunch. But none of the other faculty or fellows were around either. I sat down for my shift anyway, the radio tuned to KSTP and searching the computer for live news feeds.

No one called all afternoon. I was alone in the building. I kept picking up the phone to make sure the lines weren't dead. John called when the kids got off the schoolbus. They were a little spooked, but the school hadn't made a big fuss. They had held a prayer service. They knew something very bad had happened, but not exactly what, and were fuzzy on the where as well.

There were seven cars in the parking lot when I left work. The parking attendant was gone. Someone had tied an improvised American flag to the open gate. I stopped at the liquor store on my way up University Avenue. I was still trying to make the day normal; I stopped there every Tuesday and Friday. There was a radio tuned to the news. The employees looked worn and old, pale green under the fluorescent lights. I bought cider and wine, spent more than usual. I tried to chat up the cashier. She tried to respond.

I guess I made dinner that night. I made dinner every night. I guess I bathed the kids and read them a story and tucked them in. I did that every night. But I don't remember that. I remember seeing John Fund interviewed on Fox. John Fund, who is usually so brash and caustic, so snarky, so full of himself. John Fund looked out his window and saw people jump from the tops of the towers, and watched them fall, and his voice broke, and he couldn't speak any more. I opened a bottle of wine, watched the self-confident and unflappable public personae at a loss for words, and I got very, very drunk.

The next morning, I didn't just shoo the kids out the door to the bus stop. I walked to the corner with them. And I turned around to walk back to our house, and looked down the length of York Avenue. Every house was flying an American flag.

I sat on this post a long time, because the potential for saccharine self-indulgence is almost limitless. In the end, the pros seemed to outweigh the cons. The comments are open to anyone who wants to post a private reflection. No partisan bickering, please.

3 comments:

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

Nice story Kathy.

It was my oldest kids' first day at school; the first time we ever dropped him off at someplace other than friends or family ... I'll never forget that.

Out on the West Coast, things were happening while we were asleep. We were informed by a friend who told us to turn on the TV.

Being a news addict, this was like giving an alcoholic a bottle of vodka; the next six weeks or so of my life were full of anxiety, WAY more anxiety than it ought to have been.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Yes, one can all too easily give in to the Weepy Side of the Force in remembering Black Tuesday.

Or not.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Oh, you beat me to it, Fran. I read your blog last night and was going to link to it. It's quite a story.

I think remembering the personal details, even the weepy parts, is the only way humans can recapture what drove our resolve in those few months after 9/11. My anger came a couple of days later, and shocked me with its intensity. It shocked my friends. At one point I took it into the confessional. The priest told me it was no sin to seek justice.

It's also well to remember what many of us feared most in those few days following the attack was not that we would be hit again, but that the response would be the same stuff we'd seen for the past ten years. We'd arrest some terrorists and let the likes of William Kunstler defend them in federal court. We'd, in the now memorable phrase, fire a couple of cruise missiles up a camel's ass. And it was a reasonable fear, because we had not yet seen this new administration tested.