Eight years ago today, I was driving to class and had gotten about a mile down the road when I turned on the stereo, looking for some music to help wake me up. Instead, what I got sounded like someone was putting on a radio show – like War of the Worlds, only not as well-written. The DJs kept talking in hushed, panicked tones about something, about a plane crash, and making references to something that had happened earlier on the broadcast. Good radio-narration had gone out the window; they were forgetting to recap every few minutes for those of us who had just tuned in.
After a moment or two, my boyfriend and I realized that we were listening to something real and not a weird publicity stunt. A plane had crashed in the middle of New York City, and although it was hard to tell in the chaotic live coverage, it seemed that there might have been a second crash as well.
That was about the point in time when the third airplane hit. The DJs gasped. I heard them say that the Pentagon had been hit, and I knew that we were at war.
We pulled over at the first gas station we passed, and I bolted for the pay phone. I woke my parents up and told them to turn on the television. Then I called two other people: my best friend, who was enlisted in the Army National Guard, and my other best friend, who was male and draftable. I don’t remember getting through to either one of them. I don’t remember how many times I tried; Ryan – the second friend I mentioned – remembers getting something like 20 missed calls from me and from his mom that morning. (Proof positive that my husband can sleep through anything, I guess.)
(Thinking about it sends me right back to that pay phone. I can see the car parked two parking spots down from me, and the yellow glow of sunrise through decidedly un-ominous clouds. I can feel the cold clinch of fear and the itching desire to do something. It’s all sitting there on my mental TiVo, Do Not Delete. )
When we got to school, it was a ghost town. Practically every classroom had a sign on the door, cancelling class, directing students to the SUB. There was a television set up in every corner of the SUB, in every common area on campus. Everyone flocked. We got there just in time to watch news coverage break to a field in Pennsylvania, knowing only that a plane had crashed, not yet knowing the drama that had played out in the moments before. We watched the tiny polka-dots moving across the U.S. map: airplanes still aloft, every one a potential harbinger of destruction. You’d think that we wouldn’t be too scared, on a personal level, being in Boise, but we knew better. One of the country’s most important Air Force bases is just down the highway from Boise. Having grown up in the shadow of Cheyenne Mountain, I’m all too aware of how apparently safe parts of the country can actually be top targets.
The university became a trauma center. My English professors spent the next several classes sharing particularly well-written accounts, or having us write our own. Flags sprouted like clover. ASBSU sent student leaders into the field with collection jars for the Red Cross. I took one to band and ended up with more coins than I could carry – I forget now how many hundreds of dollars Blue Thunder donated.
I don’t remember recruiters descending on campus or anything, but I doubt very much that I was the only person wondering about enlisting. I knew that they wouldn’t take me under normal circumstances – a person with my vision problems is a liability, not an asset – but these circumstances seemed far from normal. If everyone I knew was going to go to war, surely the military could find something I could do.
In retrospect, I wonder where all of us would be today if that hadn’t happened. It’s an utterly inconsequential part of the big equation, but I kind of doubt that the chapter would have made it. We rode a wave of patriotic duty and service that year, bonding over bitter cold flag ceremonies in the corner of the stadium after discovering that the stadium flag was languishing in a wadded up garbage bag except on game days. Most of us couldn’t serve our country in a traditional sense, so we threw ourselves into serving our little community of band people. Heck, our football team won their game on September 22, 2001, starting a 31-game home winning streak. I’m not going to pretend that glory and vengeance and sheer physical catharsis wasn’t on their minds that day.
Where our country, or our world, would be… it’s hard to imagine. I can’t fathom what these eight years must have been like for Americans of Middle Eastern ancestry. Constitutional rights have been altered. Our thoughts about what celebrities should and should not say have changed. The price of gas, and the cost of war, have contributed to one of the worst economic situations our country has seen. Without 9/11, Bush likely would have served only one term – how would our country be different if another person had been at the wheel these past four years? September 11 cut a deep swath through global history. For better and worse, it’s pivotal to today.
It’s hard to believe that my students were seven years old on 9/11/01. That morning, they would have been safely tucked away in a first grade classroom. If their teachers knew, they found out by a phone call to the classroom, or maybe someone poking their head into the room. Maybe an email went out from the office. Maybe school got released early; I’m sure plenty of parents came and brought their babies home. Did their parents try to explain what was going on? Could they have possibly understood? How many of them had to say good-bye to a parent or sibling when their country called them overseas?
These kids are about to be adults in a world that exists, in its current form, because of 9/11 – and they can’t even remember it having happened. Now I know what it feels like to be old, to be a parent. The things that made my world are ancient history to the people who now inhabit it.