It was the first day of school, and my second year as a teacher. The bell summoning the students to class hadn’t rung yet, and I had A-Block free, so I sat in my office perusing the news on my laptop. It was the perfection of September outside; the sky was a shade of blue that cannot be replicated by paint or pigment or memory, and everything was still green save for a tinge of Fall color in the oak leaves, like the first streaks of gray in your hair.
And then the reports started coming in. At first it seemed like a horrible accident, until the second plane hit, and then the penny dropped. I raced to the library, hauled the TV cart out of a closet – you know what I’m referring to: one of those big rolling TV stands you’d watch fuzzy “educational films” on in class when your teacher didn’t feel like working that day – and found a station … and saw. By then, word had spread, and the room filled with teachers staring at the screen with mouths agape. A co-worker said my face was the color of old cheese.
After the second tower fell, I actually had to go teach a class, as if the world hadn’t changed and everything was normal. It had to be, though, on this day, because the students were already terrified. Normal is balm to kids, but we never found normal, because I had to raise my voice to be heard above the sound of fighter jets flying a racetrack pattern over the city of Boston. Our school was below the outer edge of their curve, and they hit the afterburners to make the turn. I bought a bottle of whiskey on the way home and did serious damage to it while watching the footage over and over again. I don’t think I tasted that whiskey once, and I never found drunk.
My friend Brian was in San Francisco that day, three hours behind the news and three thousand miles away. When he walked out his door with his big headphones on to go to work, he had no idea what had taken place. As he sat on his bus listening to his terrible music (sorry, brother, it’s true), I’m sure the attacks in New York City and Washington DC, as well as the plane downed in Pennsylvania, were on the lips of every passenger around him. He didn’t hear a word of it.
He got to his office at a major financial firm, took off his headphones, and began making his routine daily phone calls to the sister office in the World Trade Center in New York. No one was answering. He finally got fed up and went to ask his boss why he couldn’t get anyone on the phone. He found his boss at his desk with his head in his hands. “Don’t you know what’s happened?” he asked. After he explained, Brian realized he’d been calling dead people. He’d been calling ashes and dust. He’d been calling a hole in the sky. The bone chill of it never really left him.
These are our stories – each and every one of us has one – and they are all simply awful. Fourteen years later, that nerve is still as raw as it was on that flawless September morning.
We are not the only ones with stories, however.
The families of the lost from that day have stories, but they’ve had to tell them enough times already.
The five-tour Iraq veteran with permanent brain damage from the IED that flipped his vehicle and killed half his platoon while they were bodyguarding a private oil company convoy has a story, but he can’t speak any more. His wife could tell you, but she’s weeping in their bedroom, again.
The ISIS fighter preparing for another attack has a story, but he’s busy cleaning his US-made assault rifle loaded with US-made bullets.
An unmeasured group of civilians in Iraq who came under fire from US troops and US missiles have a story, but they’re dead. We would know how many there are, but “we don’t do body counts.”
The mother who fled Iraq for her life and escaped all the way to Europe in the droves beside her has a story, but she’s too busy running and trying to find shelter for her children.
The guy next door who lost his job and his savings when the economy melted down thanks to profligate war spending and trickle-down tax cuts has a story, but he’s too busy reading the want-ads with a low dread for his family’s future sitting like a sickness in his gut.
The NSA tech collecting your phone calls and emails has a story, but you’ll never hear it.
… and the men and women who made a gold-plated mint off of all that misery, suffering, sorrow and death, who used it against their own people to win elections, who lied and connived and colluded, also have a story. They won’t be talking, though, unless someone gets them into a courtroom where they belong.
Osama bin Laden had a story, as well. It’s a story about the US teaching him in Afghanistan many years ago how to upend and defeat a superpower, about how he used that training against his teachers, about how he facilitated our entry into two fruitless and costly wars that decimated our economy while shredding untold millions, and about how his actions created the crass impetus to make us abandon our freedoms and our constitutional privileges in the name of fear. Were he still among the living, his story would be two words long: “I won.”
All of this, and so much more, rained down from that blue morning fourteen years ago today. It was a terrible day … and we made it worse. We are still making it worse. We still have those ashes in our hair.
That’s the story.