Everyone has a story about that morning.
Mine began at the YMCA.
Oblivious to what would happen a mere mile away, I wore headphones and trudged and sweated to the beat of music on some kind of exercise machine while demons with first class one way tickets slit throats and prepared to do the unthinkable.
When I got to the locker room, the usual bunch of old men in towels seemed more agitated than usual. Huddled around a TV, they made the mistake of trying to make sense of what they just saw.
“Couldna been a jet! Had to be some kind of Cessna or something, run off course.”
“That’s a lotta damage for a Cessna,” said another.
As I joined the ring of men in towels, standing, watching local news coverage. A second plane. Live television. That clear, crisp, summery day with visibility for miles. Picture perfect evil.
I better get home.
None of us among the betoweled could really fathom what was going on, or predict the unfolding terror. I ran to the showers, got dressed and brushed my teeth as a young man wept and wailed at the adjoining sink.
“Melissa,” I said out loud. I really need to get home.
I rushed to our temporary home on 17th street in Chelsea. My friend Elsa was on an extended bike trip with her boyfriend and we were apartment sitting in her place, our fourth month as New Yorkers, putting down fragile roots in new soil after 13 years in Atlanta and one year around the world.
The television wasn’t working well, so we found ourselves at the neighbor’s downstairs. This time, in a fully clothed circle of people, huddled around a TV like a communal flame, listening to the free association that passed for news that morning. No reporter certain of what they were saying, but knowing for sure it was the biggest story of their lives.
Bodies fell like fiery rain. Our minds troubled most by putting ourselves in the places of the men and women trapped in the top floors.
I felt the tug to try to cover the event. Take my camera downtown and see what I could see. But I knew I needed to stay there.
And then it fell. That first tower. We watched it fall on television, even though it was a mile away.
“That’s not possible,” I said.
“Let’s go to the roof,” Melissa said.
You wipe your eyes because you’re seeing single when you should be seeing double. A solo twin giant, burning in anger.
But you still don’t believe it, too, would collapse. That would really be impossible.
“I’m going to get my camera,” Melissa said. And then I tugged her arm and pointed.
The second tower. The smoke and dust. Crumbled in slomo. Unbelievable.
The sound is what I remember most. The muffled din, echoing with the collapse of each floor. And, I swear, the screams of New Yorkers all watching from streets and rooftops.
I nearly collapsed. Melissa says she remembers going rigid as I slumped on her shoulder.
* * *
This morning, it’s overcast and rainy. It smells like autumn. Six years to the day and so much has happened in my life:
A career that followed the actions of a superpower provoked into lashing back with overwhelming force. In the following years, I would find myself on aircraft carriers, flying in giant bombers, on patrol with troops and covering an invasion nearly everyone now believes had nothing to do with the events on that day.
Travel to countries that were somehow never on my travel itineraries before.
A marriage that collapsed under the weight of its own stresses.
A year overseas to mend emotional wounds and try to do some good in a region where American actions in recent years have marred its image as a beacon of hope.
And now I’m back, on this muggy and drizzly morning, looking for the next step.
I step more cautiously now. That’s experience. That’s age.
That’s life these days.