Sunday, September 11, 2011

Never Forget

It seems to be a part of the American experience that since we fought the British for independence, each generation of Americans has had one defining political, military, or war-mongering event that truly defines the youth of our nation.
I was 30 years old a decade ago on September 11, 2001. My grandparents were all in their mid- to late-20s on December 7, 1941. Both of my grandfathers fought in WWII; my Grandpa Porath in North Africa, then "D plus 3" landing in Normandy, France 3 days after the D-Day invasion. My Grandpa Krause was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I wonder if, at the time, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was labeled "an act of terrorism"? Having been to Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona, I don't think "terrorism" was used to define that attack because that word was never spoken in the memorial video or listed in any of the books I have on the subject. "Terrorism" is really a late 20th and early 21st century construct. Did we call the 444 days American hostages were held captive in Tehran, terrorism? The first time I can remember events being referred to as "terrorism" or carried out by "terrorists" is either the unfortunately common IRA bombings in London in the mid-1980s or in reference to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the late 1980s to the present day.
Some incredibly talented orators have spoken powerful words over the past 2 days, and I am in no way trying to compete with that level of reflection or tugging of heartstrings. This is simply what I remember from my life 10 years ago today, on September 11, 2001.
I was living in the last place I would live in Milwaukee, my "dream apartment" on 51st Blvd, north of St. Joe's hospital in the large Jewish Orthodox neighborhood, just 2 doors north of Rabbi Tewerski. I was working as the Clinic Coordinator for a Columbia St. Mary's outpatient clinic and was completely overwhelmed with an unsupportive Clinic Manager, departments that were sorely understaffed, and I was working an average of 50+ hours per week just to make sure insurance was being billed and the switchboard phone was getting answered.
At 8:10am my switchboard operator called the office to tell me she was not coming in that day, which I had already figured out since she was supposed to be on the switchboard from 8 to 8:30am and I was the one answering switchboard calls. She said something like, "There's something going on in New York. Airplanes are flying into skyscrapers-" I cut her off right there and said, "I'm too busy to worry about what's going on in New York. Call me later if you're not coming in tomorrow," and I disconnected the call. I remember thinking, I don't care what the hell is going on in New York. I've got to get this clinic open and running.
As the doctors, other staff, and patients came in for the day, patients were telling stories about terrorists flying hijacked planes into the World Trade Center, then into the Pentagon, then that the towers of the WTC were caving in on themselves. The south tower fell at 8:59am CST and by that time, even though we were strictly an outpatient medical clinic, we were affiliated with a hospital that is Wisconsin's premier burn center and there were rumors that Chicago may be hit and injuries could be diverted to Milwaukee. There were also rumors that the nuclear power plant near Sheboygan was a potential target and Milwaukee again would receive diverted injured patients.
At about 9:30am I was called into an impromptu meeting in a conference room with the Clinic Manager, Clinic Medical Director, the triage nursing staff, and on the speaker phone was our Clinic Administrator, the hospital's Medical Director, and the hospital's Emergency Response Director. It goes without saying that there was no "emergency code" for the threat we were now under. The Emergency Response Director developed a plan strung together with paper clips and bubble gum, which was basically, "If something happens that directly effects us, we'll call you with more detailed instructions." Thank God that was a call that never came.
When I walked out of the conference room, for the first time all morning I had a moment's pause to attempt to take in all of the tragic information I was receiving second-hand. I still had not seen any of the video that would begin playing non-stop for the next 48 straight hours. In this brief moment however, I did remember a good friend since childhood and that he worked for a law firm with multiple floors in Tower One, the north tower of the World Trade Center complex. The blood drained from my face and I remember leaning against the hallway wall, looking at my hands which had begun to shake and as much as I mentally tried to get the shaking to stop, I couldn't manage it. My hands would not stop shaking. I walked to my manager's office and told her that a friend of mine worked in the World Trade Center and I had to call him right now. I yelled the words, "I have to call him right now!" without knowing I had done so, until the silence after them was the only sound filling her office.
I had been to New York less than a year before and met my friend in the lobby of the north tower and we took the elevator up to his office, which I think was on the 64th floor. He gave me the "50 cent tour" and after about half an hour, we rode the elevator back to the lobby, said our good-byes, and I spent the next hour or so shopping in the mall that was beneath the plaza between the north and south towers. The subway station I took from the American Museum of Natural History on the upper west side to downtown was also located underground in this area. That was my 5th or 6th trip to Manhattan and I was proud of myself for being able to navigate the complicated subway system, at least enough to get myself around Manhattan to the major museums and tourist sites. Earlier in the day I spent some time at St. Patrick's Cathedral in mid-town. I still have the bookmark I bought there that day, and I still have my friend's business card he gave me that afternoon in November 2000with his WTC address embossed on it.
At work I didn't have my friend's home or cell numbers with me so I called 4-1-1 and got his father's home number. At the time his father was the pastor at a Lutheran church in Appleton and I called the church and his home and left messages on both answering machines. I left both my work and home numbers, hoping I wouldn't have to wait until after work at 4:30pm to hear from him.
At lunch I finally saw the images of the plane hitting the south tower, the collapse of both buildings, and the damage at the Pentagon. Although the images were horrific and I had no factual information about the status of my friend in New York, I felt in my soul that he was safe, that he was not trapped in some oxygen-sucking rubble or staggering through dust and debris that looked more like a moonscape than the lower Manhattan the world knew. I was anxious for confirmation of my gut feeling, but my instincts told me he was ok. I have no idea why I felt this way; I was too old to believe in the invincibility of youth, but knew the struggle of my friend's life that had gotten him to a law office in Manhattan, in the iconic World Trade Center, and something deep inside told me his story was not going to end this way.
I don't remember the rest of that work day, the drive home, or walking into my apartment. I do remember looking at my answering machine, its red light blinking to indicate a waiting message. I pressed play and the voice of my friend's father told me that his son was fine, was safe in his Jersey City apartment, that he hadn't left for work before the north tower was hit at 8:46am eastern time and had been at home all day. He then left me my friend's cell number, with the caveat that phone service was extremely hard to get and that I likely wouldn't get through, but to try anyway. I made several attempts at calling throughout the evening and into the night. I don't remember any of them expect the one that was answered at 8:42pm. He assured me he was ok, and ended the call quickly because phone service was at a premium. After our good-byes I turned off the constant barrage of horror on the TV and went to bed.
I have heard people on TV this weekend say that "it seems like yesterday" that all of these world-changing events took place. That is not the case for me. It has been a long decade of watching other countries like Spain and England move beyond the deep wounds of their own terrorist attacks, hunting first for Saddam Hussein and then Osama bin Laden, trying to reconcile the tragedy of September 11, 2001 with water boarding and the torture and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It has been a very long decade.

No comments:

Post a Comment