There are only a handful of days in my life that I vividly remember most of the details of that day — even the mundane ones. The day my mother died, the day I got married and the days my children were born are among them. These were days of great sorrow and great joy and, obviously, they were very personal to me.
But there are also those days we remember together as a nation. And there are just a handful of those I really remember too.
My mom could always recount where she was when she heard JFK had been assassinated and where she watched Neal Armstrong take his first step on the moon.
My first day like that came on January 28, 1986. I was sick and missed a day out of Mrs. Thompson’s fourth grade class. I think I had strep throat, but I was still excited I would get to see a schoolteacher named Christa McCauliffe go into outer space. A teacher?!?! How cool was that! I saw the Challenger explode at my grandparents’ house. I remember seeing it happen but not immediately understanding how catastrophic it was. Why can’t they just go rescue them?
I remember the first missile strikes of the Gulf War in the ‘90s, but that memory is not as clear in my mind as others. Perhaps because it wasn’t just one moment, but a sustained attack. And it happened on the other side of the world — far, far away from Sweet Home Alabama.
My mom and I watched the infamous O.J. Simpson Bronco chase sitting on my bed in my room the summer before my senior year of high school. I heard the verdict on the radio sitting in my red Pontiac Sunbird on Florida Street waiting for a train to pass. It was my first quarter at the University of South Alabama and my Spanish teacher let us out of class early so we could go home and watch the verdict being read. But I didn’t quite make it in time. Tren estupido!
But no other moment in my memory compares to that of September 11, 2001. I am sure I am not alone in that assessment. And it’s hard to believe that this Saturday will mark 20 years since one of the darkest days in American history.
I was walking to class at the University of Texas at Austin. After I graduated from South with my Communications degree, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Strangely, hundreds of jobs weren’t immediately available to a kid straight out of college with no “real world” experience. I was drifting a little, like you do at that time in your life, and that was a first for me, and it scared me. So I decided the answer was to go back for more college! Because if you are still in school, you are doing something productive, right?
But as I strolled to that class that beautiful September morning (remember just how blue the sky was that day?), a random guy in front of me answered his cellphone. He began questioning whoever was on the other end, as if he did not believe what he was hearing. “It flew into the World Trade Center? What?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about but once I walked into the building where my class was being held, I found out quickly. Everyone was gathered around the televisions in the common area watching the replays of the first plane striking the North Tower. Classes were immediately cancelled. Businesses shut down. It was eerie. I went home, and my roommate and I watched the rest of the events of that tragic day unfold in real time and then in repeat. Over and over and over again. So much loss of life. In such horrific ways.
Jenna Bush was a student at UT at the time and my mom called concerned the terrorists would be flying planes into the campus next to target the president’s daughter. I don’t even think I rolled my eyes at the time or told her she was being ridiculous because I thought maybe she wasn’t this time. I didn’t know what to think. None of us did.
Remember that feeling of fear we all had before we knew the attack had truly ended? Who would “they” go after next? And it was more frightening because we didn’t know who “they” even were. When would the next fiery image come and where would it be? How many more lives would be lost? Are the planes just step one? Would something else horrible happen tomorrow or the next day?
It was scary. And this is why this day will always be the most indelible. With other major events, such as the Challenger, it was awful to watch, but we still knew we were personally safe. With 9/11, there was a period of time when we didn’t. And none of us will ever forget that day or that feeling.
For my children, the pandemic will certainly be their first memory of something bad happening to our nation and world. I am not sure what images will stick with them. Will it be the virtual learning they had for the last few months of their second and fourth grade years? Will it be wearing masks for at least two school years? Or the vaccine clinic at their school? Maybe my son will just remember riding countless miles on his bike, along with all of the other neighborhood kids. And my daughter will remember using the virtual learning software more to chat with all of her friends than, um, “virtually learn.” It will most likely be a blur of all of it. But they will certainly never forget it.
One day my grandchildren will ask their parents about the pandemic and what it was like to live through it. Sadly, I think their response will be something like, “Well, you had the vaxxers and the anti-vaxxers and the maskers and the anti-maskers. Many American lives were lost, and it was a time of great division in our country.”
I do hate that they will never know the feeling of unity we experienced as a nation immediately after 9/11. I remember in the days and weeks following the attack, sitting before my shift at Hill’s BBQ in Austin with my fellow servers making flag pins for all of us to wear and give to our customers. My roommate and I put a flag on the door of our apartment. Most everyone in our complex did, no matter where they were from or what they looked like. People were just nicer to one another.
Obviously, we all would have preferred 9/11 never happened, but the spirit of kindness and generosity that swept over this country on September 12 was beautiful and special. Every year on the anniversary as I watch the replays of the footage from that day and think about all that was lost, I try to think about those days after too.
United, we stood. One nation under God. Indivisible.
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