How Blue the Sky Was

This post was originally published on Sept. 11, 2011, on a previous incarnation of this blog.

* * *

The sky was so, so blue that morning, like it had been painted in Technicolor.

One of my classes showed some interest in talking about 9/11.

I assigned a few essays, but I realized, midway through class, that all of the works were in the year following.  There was nothing new, with perspective.  The readings were pure reaction from people like me.

I heard about a plane that crashed in the World Trade Center, Tower 1, before I left for work.  Reporters didn’t have a lot of information and it seemed like maybe a pilot lost control of a small plane.

“I have an idea,” I said.  “Post links to articles, videos, etc. that you find or have read.”  The minute I said this, I regretted it.  They seemed intrigued.  I wanted to take it back.

Traffic was slow.  It always was.  A plane flew low.  National Airport is a few miles away.  There are always low-flying planes. Sometimes they go fast.  I didn’t think anything of it.

What do I say?

I had graduated college a few months before, and everything was supposed to be bright, and shiny, and new.  I was going to move to New York and take over the world.  The world was mine.

I woke up to that sky and felt invincible and reminded myself that I worked this shitty job to save money for my move.

What do I say?  That my friends were safe?  I didn’t know this for a few weeks.  I tracked down their family members, left hysterical messages, emailed a zillion times, in hopes that I would hear something.  I don’t know how to explain that the majority of the U.S.’s telecommunications system outright stopped for a few days.

My friends were lucky.  One, who transferred to the PATH train each day at WTC around 9 a.m., worked the early shift that morning.  She worked in Hoboken, and her building had floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the WTC.  She saw it all.

My ex had a day off, and stayed close to home in the Upper East Side.

Two friends’ fathers had called in sick–not wanting to make the commute from the suburbs–because it was a beautiful day.

I was not close to the people I know, or know of, who were killed.  The fiancée of a freshman year hallmate, a fraternity brother of some of my close friends, was on the 83rd floor.  A friend’s aunt and uncle were on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.  I only knew people who knew people.

Five miles away from the Pentagon, I was stuck in traffic.  The radio updates now had something new: a second plane hit Tower 2.  Disbelief.  I couldn’t think of this being a deliberate act.  It was too big.  

I heard a thud.  The earth shook a little.  I thought it was construction.  There was always construction going on.  There was another pause on the radio.  The emergency broadcast signal played.  

“This is not a test.”

They are freshmen.  They won’t post anything.  They will get lost in the moments of the weekend.

The NPR reporter choked up on air.  It was when he reported that the second tower was hit, then the Pentagon.  Adrenaline shot through me, its icy burn making me shake.

I turned on one street, and then another, and then another, and went home.  It took me two hours to make a 15-minute commute.  Traffic stood still.  People were crying in their cars.  You could see people screaming.  At the ramp onto I-395 North, I saw the Humvees, soldiers hanging off them, holding assault rifles.  Traffic parted, somehow, to let the Humvees go through.  

What do I say about the current “credible threat?”  That this happens all the time?  That it never amounts to anything?  I don’t scare easily.  I live up the street from the White House–literally.  I have long held the belief that if the White House is attacked (or D.C. in general), I will be killed immediately, and this gives me some relief.  I am more unnerved than I want to admit.  Are my students scared?  Is this just another code–whatever-colored alert for them, like it usually would be for me?

What do I say about how my husband flew to Texas on Friday night, and I kept reminding myself that the chances were low that someone would attack an evening plane, since the casualties would be lower?  What do I say that when Dulles Airport was shut down last night, I froze up, forcing myself to leave the house so I didn’t watch the T.V. for hours, and instead ambled around my neighborhood, watching people go about their evening plans?

I watched TV for nearly 72 hours straight.  Any time I tried to sleep, I stared into the blackness.  I heard fighter jets leave from nearby bases .  The first time, I rolled out of bed and laid flat on my stomach on the cold wood floor.  I don’t know why I thought that would save me.  The following times, I sat straight up in bed.  Each time, I dreamed that Flight 77 passed over my car, its shadow blocking out that blue, blue sky.   

The plane that flew over me must have landed safely.  I was south of the Pentagon; Flight 77 attacked from the west.

How do I explain that the moments I remember were when we felt it was okay to laugh again?  That it didn’t seem right even when it was okay?  I’ve been going through–of all things–the first Saturday Night Live and Daily Show episodes that aired after 9/11.  I listened to the NPR archives of 9/11/01.  I went to my last class of the day thinking I would be ill.  Can they imagine that the entire country was in mourning?  That no one could, or would, laugh?

David Finkel, author of The Good Soldiers, spoke on campus earlier this week.  When asked how his experiences affected him, he responded, “I laugh a lot less.”

My students were eight years old the day planes fell out of the sky.  They grew up with those images, perhaps family or friends lost at an early age.  They probably don’t remember the Towers. I still am unnerved when I look for the Towers, and they are not there, anytime I go to New York.  I’m not sure what to say.  I feel I have no right to cry, that I do so out of selfish reasons, that because I do not share that direct connection, that the day marked how everything changed.

I am not sure what I will tell my students.  If I should tell them.  If they even want to know.  If they do want to know, what I should do. If I can tell them.  If they do ask, I will tell them how before I got in my car that morning, I looked up at the sky, wondrous at how blue a sky could be.

* * *

Note from Sept. 11, 2014: My lovely colleague posted John Hodgman’s “Welcoming Remarks Made at a Literary Reading 9/25/01″ this morning on Facebook, which reminded me I wrote about 9/11 and teaching once, and also how Hodgman’s piece got me through teaching the day of the Va. Tech shootings in 2007.  At any rate, you should read Hodgman’s comments.

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