I turned eleven years old on April 4, 2001. That fall I entered sixth grade my teacher was Mr. Duskin; he was a popular teacher, wore glasses and a Tolkien fan. It was from him that I learned of the live action Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. I remembered that the previous year the contentious election resulted in George W. Bush being appointed president. Even in my naïve, precocious political mind I was angered by the result. Two months before my birthday that year the Nisqually Earthquake hit the Puget Sound while I was sitting inside during a recess. School started in September and the second full week started uneventfully enough.
That Tuesday something happened on the other side of the nation. I remember sitting in my dad’s white VW Millennium Beetle. We were sitting at the end of our gravel driveway waiting for the school bus to take us to Eagle Creek Elementary School. My brother and I were sitting in the small back seat, our father sitting in the driver’s seat. He turned to the two of us and said: “something happened today in New York, you may hear bout it at school.” At least that is what he said in my memory. I can see my dad turn to my brother and I and try to explain to his two young sons what must have been one of the strangest days his life.
At 5:46 AM PST, as I was asleep in our home, a Boeing 767-223BR, built in a factory 30 miles south from where I slept, slammed into the north face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Sixteen minutes and 20 seconds later another Boeing 767, a 222 variant, impacted into the south face of the South Tower. The world watched as for the first time since 1941 the United States was directly attacked by aircraft flown foreign actors.
I remember school being surreal and subdued. Everything was like any other day. We did our lessons, had lunch and recesses. But I got the sense that the teachers and staff were trying to put on a brave face for us. At 6:37 AM PST a Boeing 757-223, built 60 miles from my house, struck the western side of the Pentagon in Washington DC. At 7:03:11 a Boeing 757-222 crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I cannot imagine what went through the minds of the adults as that day went on. It must have been like what their parents had experienced on December 7, 1941, their world being shattered in an instant.
The days that followed were dominated by the photographs on television, front pages of newspapers and magazines. The image of the impact on the south tower with the burning north tower, of the raising of the flag in the ruins, that shattered facade still standing, the dust covered, wounded and shell shocked New Yorkers staggering in the streets. Then images of our retaliation. Tomahawk missiles launched from US Navy warships at night, aircraft launching off carriers, grainy black and white footage of precision bombings that all end with a great white flash and staticky audio of the pilots commentating. The same old video of Osama Bin Laden firing an AK-47 or sitting cross legged on the ground. Of Bush, Cheney, Powell and Rumsfeld declaring about how we will have our revenge, that no one escapes American justice. It was the beginning of what would become a war that would last until today almost twenty years later; that is rapidly approaching the point where it will be possible to be born after the war started and to be killed fighting in it for our side. Few wars in Western history have managed that feat, the most recent being the French Revolutionary & Napoleonic Wars.
That sunny and clear morning in September is a memory that stands on par with the assassination of Kennedy and the Pearl Harbor attack. I would not be surprised if you asked anyone who was alive and conscious at the time where they were when they heard the news they could tell you in surprising detail. Everyone remembers because it is an event that changed their lives and will echo through this century and into the next. But my memory of it is sitting in my father’s Volkswagen and having the impossible explained to me.