A look back on how 9/11 changed me and the world
Remember 9/11… I believe that’s the catchphrase, along the lines of “Remember the Alamo”, “Remember the Maine”, or “Remember Pearl Harbor”. Although I admit I will occasionally forget my wallet, or that I’m supposed to pick up coffee filters, there aren’t enough hours of therapy or liters of libations that would ever allow me to get the images of two smoldering 100-plus story towers collapsing into a burning pile of torn and twisted metal out of my head. Ever. The words are almost accusatory, as if our patriotism has been called into question (as it was in the weeks and months following that horrendous day), and they might have as much impact as their San Antonio, Havana and Honolulu predecessors were we not living in an age where the media brings events into our living rooms and offices as they happen. Who will ever forget the non-stop video loops of the second plane screaming into the tower, the poor souls who decided to take control of their own destiny by jumping from the blazing infernos, or people in the streets scrambling for safety in what looked like a mushrooming cloud of ash from Vesuvius as the towers fell? Forget 9/11? Not likely in my lifetime.
Like most Americans, I remember exactly where I was at 8:46 A.M., September 11, 2001 – I was at a customer site in Montréal preparing to conduct training after flying in to Montréal-Trudeau (then Montréal-Dorval) from my home in Austin, Texas the previous evening. The manager onsite interrupted the training to inform me that “an accident occurred involving a plane and the World Trade Center”, but we resumed training; approximately 15 minutes later he returned to state that the second tower had been hit. I asked for a short break to make some phone calls (my brother had been scheduled to fly from Boston to Los Angeles that same morning, and I was concerned for a co-worker that I had worked with for 6 months in New York City as well as our customers there); unfortunately communication was impossible which left me with grave concerns for everyone I knew in and around New York City. The manager tried to get updates off the Internet, but all sites were down to a crawl. I eventually heard from the people I was concerned about and although shaken and bewildered, continued with the training session.
I never felt so helpless in all my life. My country was clearly under attack, and I was in another country (albeit a stone’s throw from the U.S.). Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto is often misquoted as having said of the attack on Pearl Harbor that they had “awakened a sleeping giant”; well, my friends, on September 11th we were not nudged awake, we were kicked in the teeth. The Canadians I came in contact with on that day and in the week to follow were beyond sympathetic, comforting and supportive; the Maple Leaf was immediately lowered to half-mast and anyone who discovered my citizenship provided a handshake, a drink and an arm across the shoulder. The two other customers I was scheduled to train later in the week called to say that they would completely understand if I had to return to the States and reschedule the training, but since all flights in U.S. airspace had been grounded, I offered to adhere to the schedule. Montréal is a warm, wonderful and historic city with an Old French charm and a metropolitan appeal, but the mood throughout the city was quiet and somber as television screens in every restaurant and bar were fixed to the events unfolding in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C..
I was originally scheduled to fly back into AUS on the evening of September 14, but I was advised to try to arrange it for Saturday morning since by that point international travelers were told to allow three hours prior to boarding. Hotels were at a premium since commercial U.S. flights in the air at the time of the attack were diverted to Toronto, Montréal and Halifax which meant that there wasn’t a room available in any of those cities, but fortunately I was already booked for the week. When I arrived at the airport on Saturday, the line of passengers ran out the door – I asked if it was the line for American Airlines but was told it was for Air Canada. I made my way to an empty American counter, flashed my passport, was whisked through customs and security and found myself at the gate with 2 hours and 45 minutes to kill before my flight. Since security was an issue, none of the airport concessions were open (no one knew what could or could not be easily purchased and used as a weapon aboard the plane). The flight home was the second tensest I had ever been on (the first being my flight to Chicago a week later when the plane flew about 1,000 feet directly over Sears Tower).
My story isn’t a testament of bravery or letter of thanks to a supreme being for allowing me to survive those harrowing events; there are thousands of people who escaped those calamities with their lives, and countless others who selflessly gave theirs running into the maddening conflagration to help others. The events that day changed my life and my outlook on it forever, as it undoubtedly changed the lives of every American. Before I describe how it affected my philosophy, I’ll give you a little background on my protracted affair with the city of New York. In 1968, my father drove the family from Boston to New York City; I was a knee-high sprout of 8 at the time. I don’t recall where we ate or stayed on that trip, but I will always remember three events: visiting the top of the then-tallest building in the world, the Empire State Building, climbing to the top of the endless spiral stairs of Lady Liberty to gaze out from the crown in the 103° heat, and hearing my father speaking Spanish to a man in Battery Park who was trying to communicate with us in what seemed like gibberish at the time. I was instantly hooked on the sense of adventure and absorbing the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of what seemed like another world. When my daughter Juli was approximately the same age, I rewarded her on her birthday with a similar trip, only in February the outside temperature was about 100° cooler. The itinerary was almost the same, except our visit to the observation deck of the tallest building in the world was in the World Trade Center.
I regularly returned to the city for work and for recreation; from late 2000 through mid-2001 I worked as a sales engineer covering New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania (I fondly look back on this as the time I lived in New York and visited my home in Austin on weekends). On April 17 of 2001 we called on a customer (Marsh) whose offices were located on the 95th floor of Tower 1. Our meeting was held in a grand conference room featuring wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor windows, and when the customer arrived for the meeting I remarked, “How do you get anything done with a spectacular view like this?”. I can’t even begin to empathize with the sheer horror of gazing out that same window some five months later to the image of an oncoming American Airlines Boeing 767. I later found out from the sales representative that the people we met with were not among the dead or injured, although Marsh lost several hundred employees that day. I am painfully aware and eternally grateful that a schedule change of 5 months by either the terrorists or the customer would have meant the difference between me writing this article and someone else writing it in memoriam.
I’m sure you’re wondering by this point how any of this has any relevance to a travel and food blog, so this is where I relate how the events on that day altered my perspective, or rather strengthened my values in this regard. In my encounters with people in my travels, I often hear them say, “You’ve been to more places here than me and I’ve lived here my whole life”, or alternately, “I’ve always wanted to see Cadillac Ranch, but heck, it’ll always be there”; I usually respond to the latter with, “Have you been to the World Trade Center?” If I’ve learned nothing else from this fateful day, it’s that if you have always wanted to see something, see it. Now. Find a way to make it happen. Dine at The Cave Restaurant in Richland, Missouri; have a ripper at Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, New Jersey; walk through the gift shop in the belly of the apatosaurus at Bell’s Dinosaurs in Cabazon, California. Do it and savor every moment; drink it all in until it courses through your bloodstream and intoxicates you. As Pascal (Ian Holm) affirmed with vigor in “Big Night”, “Bite your teeth into the ass of life and drag it to you!” Even Schlitz used to urge us to grab for all the gusto you can get – live like every day is your last, since we never really know how true that can be.
My last word on the subject is about remembrance. I sincerely doubt that anyone will forget the events of 9/11, but sadly we seem to have forgotten one of the most wonderful by-products of this dark and dismal day – how to treat each other with compassion and kindness. In the days following September 11 neighbors, co-workers, family and strangers found a common bond and relied on each other to get us through the valley of darkness. New York City, one regarded as one of the rudest cities in America (if not on Earth) was transformed into a place where everyone had a voice; our differences were put aside and we offered support and understanding where we could and offered tolerance where we didn’t know what else to do. We were all neighbors and this tragedy somehow brought us all closer together. In the ten years since that day, we seemed to have put that all aside in exchange for rancor, greed and a lack of humanitarianism. I only hope that like other lost memories we can find a way to get that back. Alvin Lee once sang, “I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do” – so I’ll leave that up to you.
Peace and love,
Tribute WTC Visitor Center (where pictures of objects from the ruins were taken)
120 Liberty Street
NY, NY 10006
Ten House (FDNY Engine Co. 10, FDNY Ladder Co. 10)
124 Liberty Street
New York City, New York 10006
GPS coordinates: 40°42’35.44″N 74° 0’44.58″W