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Sunday's Word: 9/11

All week, I'd been trying to avoid the coverage of of the ten year anniversary of 9/11.

And I almost succeeded, until late tonight.

After the NFL dedicated Week One to commemorating the day, after every single station from CNN to HGTV talked about some aspect of the horrifying terrorist attack on our soil, I finally couldn't avoid it any longer.

Why did I try to avoid the "9/11" coverage? 

Because ten years later, it still hurts.

My story on the "9/11" attack is a strange one.  It has nothing to do with Lehigh or football.  But it does have something to do with two different ages that we lived in: the "pre" and the "post" "9/11".  (more)

On the inside of Kim's and my matching wedding bands, there's a date engraved: 9-8-01.

At the time of our wedding - which took place not far from Lehigh - I worked for a company based in Paramus, New Jersey.

From that office, on a really clear day, you could barely make out the Twin Towers on the hazy horizon of New York City.

At the time, my bride-to-be Kim was working in mail service sales, so she would frequently travel all over the Northeast.

Mere weeks before the attacks, she met in the lobby of the Marriott World Trade Center with a potential corporate client.

It would only be much later that her meeting there would take on deeper significance, as would countless other threads of significance that seemed insignificant at the time.

Like the fact that our wedding was originally supposed to be three weeks later than the actual date, on 9.29, but in order to accommodate family members we ended up moving the date to 9/8 instead.

Like the times I would lunch in Patterson, New Jersey, where one of the "9/11" hijackers lived a couple of months before the attacks. 

The FBI knew he was there at that time.  I might have even crossed paths with him or the FBI agents, too: I used to frequent a Subway sandwich store for lunch which was right down the street from where he lived.

Our complete focus was on our wedding - how it was going to be executed, and how we were going to pay for it.

My bride-to-be was focused on everything else involved with the wedding.  There was a lot to do, and choreograph.

We were a lot more worried about who was sitting next to whom for a late afternoon dinner rather than waxing philosophic about two tall twin buildings that wouldn't be there after we came back from our honeymoon.

A week before the infamous day, I was obsessing about putting together a CD of wedding songs that would play during our reception.

The last thing on our minds was our safety.

Our actual wedding day, 9/8/01, was an amazing day - where my best man, Terry, got me up early for the first time in my life in order to get me to the church on time.  There was no way he would have me to the church late.

Kim was radiant and beautiful as she walked down the aisle in her wedding dress.  It was a day I thought might never come for me - yet it did.  It was. 

I honestly felt like the luckiest of bastards.  (Guess what?  I still do.)

After the vows, our pastor whispered to us, "Guess what?  You're married!" at a critical time in the service.

The reception, despite a few hiccups (what wedding has none?) was a fantastic time. 

"At Last", by Etta James, was our wedding song, and we had a classy reception that people seemed to really enjoy.

But another aspect that I remember vividly now was how clear the day was. 

We were worried, of course, that it might rain.  But the sky could not have been more clear and blue on our wedding had the Big Guy Up Above willed it to be so.

That almost crystal blue sky would make nineteen hijackers' jobs just that much easier a mere three days later.

The sky during that weekend is what linked our wedding and the attacks.  Whenever I see a blue, almost surreally blue sky, I think of our wedding, and of the attacks.

It's just one tiny scar of the attacks that has not completely healed, and I'm not sure it ever will.

My other distinct "9/11" memory comes from a photograph, taken the very next day, by the mother of my brother-in-law. 

It was a simple picture of me, and my new wife Kim, laughing and smiling, exiting the hotel, ready to embark on our two week honeymoon in the Maritimes of Canada.

She didn't know it at the time, but the picture epitomized the end of the era.

Our faces were completely devoid of stress, or care - and the faces exude the energy of two people who had confidence that nothing bad could happen.

A terrorist attack?  Try telling that to the two people in the picture.  You'd have never been able to convince them that something that horrifying was going to happen.

We weren't alone in feeling this way, of course. 

It was a mass delusion that everybody seemed to have: the idea that We're Number One, terrorism was something that happened out there, in the news somewhere, somewhere far, far away, and in Fortress USA we're safe.

When you look at the picture - knowing what what happens next - it's almost eerie. It could not be more clear that the picture was taken in a different era.

*****

Kim and I were very much on our honeymoon, driving from Pennsylvania to the southern tip on Maine on the eve of Sunday, 9/9/01.

As we had done so many times, we passed by Newark Airport, where two days later Flight 93 would be hijacked and brought down in a field outside Shenksville, Pennsylvania, by some great American heroes.

We passed by New York City, and undoubtedly we saw the Towers on the skyline, like we had many times before.

We really didn't pay a lot of attention to them - they were a comfortable part of the skyline, sort-of faded into the background.  Like almost everyone else, we had no idea we'd be seeing them for the last time.

On 9/10/01, we drove right past the Comfort Inn off of Route 95 in Portland, Maine.  Later, we would find out that it was there where the hijackers of Flight 11 were making their final plans for their phase of the most horrific attack on American soil in modern times - the very first plane, destined to hit the North Tower at 8:58 AM.

It wasn't the Comfort Inn's fault.  How would they had known?

At the end of our second day has husband and wife, we pulled into Grand Falls, Canada, near the very northern tip of Maine.  We would zip through the border crossing, not even thinking that hijackers could get through this border into America as easily as we had entered into Canada.

Grand Falls is in New Brunswick, Canada, which is an hour ahead of Eastern time.  On that fateful day, we actually got a late start on Tuesday and headed to the Malabeam Information center, right outside the falls for which the town is named.

The woman manning the booth had no color in her face as she took our admission and we went in the park.  But she knew.

"What's going on?"  we asked.  "Some crazy things going on," she said, bless her, not wishing to interrupt our day.

We sensed something was amiss all morning - we knew something crazy was happening, but we couldn't put our finger on it.

Or maybe we just didn't want to.

Denial is a strange thing.  It's impossible to say exactly why, but somehow we knew just enough that we shouldn't try to find out anything else.  We hiked, ignoring the fact that nobody else was hiking with us.  We ignored the fact that kids in a preschool were all outside playing - for hours.

Finally, after our hike, we turned on the radio.  We made the decision that we finally needed to know what was going on.

It sounded like the War of the Worlds. 

We pieced it together: The towers had come down.  The Pentagon was attacked.

There was some word of a plane going down in a field in Pennsylvania.  All planes everywhere were grounded.

And nobody knew if that was it.  The most frightening thing was that nobody seemed to know if it was three, twenty, or hundreds of planes destined to hit buildings and landmarks around America.

My grandmother and aunt, who had flown out from Oregon to attend our wedding, were still staying with my folks in Connecticut, scheduled to fly out on a Wednesday.

Almost instantly my brain concocted a story when I remembered somewhere, something, that my grandmother, aunt and family were going to visit New York City for the day, even though it didn't make any sense at all.

Yes, my parents, aunt and grandmother could have been at the Twin Towers during the attack.

Frantically, we went back to the place where we were staying and called our families to make sure everyone was OK. 

After a nerve-wracking hour, I found out that they never left the state of Connecticut.

We also talked to Kim's father and mother as well. 

Kim was thinking about cutting our honeymoon short, to come back and volunteer to help the victims of the attack - the injured, you see, would need our attention.

But her father gave us the best advice. 

"Go on your honeymoon," he said.  "You only get one chance to be on your honeymoon.  Don't come back for this."

****

I didn't know anyone who worked in the Twin Towers, but some of the folks I worked with did. 

Later I would find out the stories of that day, from my boss at the time.

I never found out if they were true or not, but they were true enough.

Like the guy who evacuated from the South building, while his friend said "Hold on a second...", undoubtedly checking some not-so-important email.  Maybe a sports score, a recap of a baseball game, whatever.

He'd never be seen again.

There was also the guy who was dodging the burnt body parts falling from the sky.

The friend who had a picture taken of him helping someone evacuate the building - and then returning to help others, never to be seen again.  He was one of thousands of people on photocopied photos of people which people posted and flashed on cable news, with people hoping and praying that they were alive.

They added a personal layer of horror to the already-horrific coverage that Dan Rather, bless him, had going during the attacks on the wall-to-wall coverage on CBS.

For some reason, it seemed to make more sense when Dan was saying what was happening, especially being out of the country.

The comfort of seeing Rather reporting the news is probably difficult to comprehend for the latest generation.  It was probably the last Walter Cronkite moment our generation will truly have.

New names and references would enter our memories: Cantor Fitzgerald.  Those pictures of people on fire jumping from the top of the building.  All those angles of the planes hitting the towers.  The collapse of the towers.  Lower Manhattan covered in toxic dust.  The people running from the collapsing buildings.

They guy running away saying, "I'm sixty years old, but I can still run."

The twisted steel at Ground Zero.

The fire.

The burning.

I knew no firefighters or first responders at Ground Zero, but as time went on I would learn of their stories as well, not to mention the horror at the Pentagon and the lives lost there as well.

****

We ended up going the entire honeymoon, as scheduled.  We also ended up enjoying a good portion of it.  In many ways, it was a fantastic time of our lives that we enjoyed.

But "9/11" was there, always to be intertwined with those good times.

Everywhere we went on our honeymoon, Canadians were supportive of us. 

They'd always get a bit quieter when we said that were from around the area where the attacks happened.

On many nights where we should have been focused elsewhere, too often we were checking the news, wondering if anything else might happen, if a tiny nugget of information might have come out about the hijackers, or who was responsible.

Bomb threats poured in from every loony to CNN and all the cable news channels.  Every day was a jarring reminder of the attacks that happened, and what could still happen.

We saw spontaneous memorials to the victims all over Canada, with nice thoughts about how Canada would stand by America.  We even signed one.

We even took Rudy Giulliani's advice and - wondering what the hell we could do, half a century away from the attacks - and went to give blood. 

(Speaking of which, politically, isn't it strange that "9/11" has not made any modern politician a winner or legendary figure?  From President George W. Bush, who rallied people at Ground Zero to President Barack Obama, to getting the leader of the terrorist attacks in Pakistan, "9/11" political gains have been ephemeral and fleeting, although they shouldn't have been.)

Watching the Canadian volunteers stand for America's national anthem is something Kim and I won't soon forget.

Near the end of our honeymoon, we started to wonder about getting back into America.  We had driven our car - thankfully, we hadn't flown anywhere.  But how would the border crossings be?

The crossing back into America took two hours, when before, in a past era, it took two minutes.  Security was tight, as you might imagine.  What was a cursory check was now a fifteen-minute check of everywhere on the car.

We drove past the now-infamous Comfort Inn in Maine.  It simply had a saying on its awning, "God Bless America."

And when we drove back to our tiny apartment in central New Jersey, there was smoke on the horizon where two towers once stood.

Just like that, it was different.  It was a different world.  And all the little things that seemed to matter so much in the run-up to the wedding meant nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

*****

Ten years later, "9/11" still hurts. 

It's still hard to talk about, to think about.

I wasn't there when it was happening.  But it was around me, all the time, in the years and months as it was about to happen, and I couldn't see it or prevent it.

And it will always be associated would our honeymoon.

It makes no sense, but your mind goes there: should we have cut it short, gone back and tried to help more?  Should we have gone to give blood twice instead of once?

Why did the Big Guy Upstairs have us out of the country, where we were powerless to do anything to help?  Why was our wedding date changed to 9/8?

We could have helped.  We could have been home, and driven towards the city.  It could have been the case.

I'm not a guy who believes in coincidence.  There must have been some sort of Master Plan from the Big Guy Upstairs.

But to this day I have no idea what it was.

Ultimately, you end up going about your day.  You don't sit and think about it all the time.  But it's there.

And it's amazing that the rawness of the whole thing never really goes away.

The old saying is "time heals all wounds", but "healing" isn't the right words.  In this case, "numbs" might be better, but it's incredible how just one little thing can trigger aftershocks of "9/11" in me.  Thinking about our honeymoon.  Seeing low-flying planes.  Seeing the exit for Patterson, New Jersey.  Seeing a blue, clear sky.

And I'm just a schmuck that lived close by.  Who can imagine what the folks feel like today who ran from the building as it collapsed?  What about those who lost family members and loved ones?

I guess that's why I was trying to avoid the coverage.  I don't need "9/11" news retrospectives to remind me of what happened.  Ten years to the day, it still hurts, and no amount of flag-waving or sifting through history will make that feel better.

Ten years later, I didn't forget.  And I never will.

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