by Will Vunderink, editor; illustration by Eleanor Anderson, staff artist
When it was first thrust into my consciousness, it was a simple fact like any other: the earth revolves around the sun in an elliptical orbit, the United States of America is comprised of fifty states, my very own Village of Hastings on Hudson, New York, was incorporated in 1879, and a pair of planes had just crashed into the World Trade Center. So.
It was the head guidance counselor of our middle school who interrupted my Earth Science class that second Tuesday morning of eighth grade. She quietly walked over to our teacher at the front of the room—a loud, bearded, oversized man who barely squeezed into his little chair with its attached desk and armrest, a sight that would have constantly elicited jokes from the class if we hadn’t already discovered how quick he was with witty comebacks and putdowns—and, shielding the workings of her lips with a thin stack of colored paper in her right hand, whispered something into his ear. His eyes slowly widened, almost cartoon-like, and as she left the room he haltingly announced that the World Trade Center had been hit. He was just as confused as we were, muttering uncomprehending questions—“why?”s and “who?”s that nobody, least of all our teacher, could answer. No one in our class had a parent who worked in the towers, but there were murmurs about a girl at school who did. Class continued, but we weren’t paying attention, only wondering about the intangibly catastrophic event that had just occurred. My younger brother was home sick from school that day, and my mom turned on the TV news only when she was sure he was out of earshot.
After school that day I walked home, as always, with my next-door neighbor and long-time best friend. We went to his house and scanned the cable news channels, watching the same few video segments over and over again. The towers burning, billowing dark smoke, then the towers collapsing—sighing, spitting dust everywhere, softly imploding with a low rumble, sending apocalyptic gray clouds of dust and debris rushing down the canyon-like downtown Manhattan streets. People covered in dust, having trouble seeing and breathing, people crying and wandering aimlessly in shock. For us, it was only conceivable as a fiction. There was no way we could even begin to contextualize it, to understand how it happened or what it meant.
After a while we went out on our quiet street to do something else, something fun. The moment is still so vivid to me: we were riding the Razor scooters that were so ubiquitous back then, going up and down driveways and jumping up curbs as we always did, not saying much. We circled toward each other at one point and my friend said, “Isn’t it weird how we can have so much fun on such a terrible day?” I replied with a distracted “Yeah,” not quite sure how to respond.
Later that afternoon we walked down to our town’s public library, which sits atop a promontory overlooking the train tracks and the Hudson River below. A crowd had gathered on the south-facing end of the lawn, which has a view of Manhattan fifteen miles south, past the George Washington Bridge. We ran into other kids from our grade as they left and asked them if they could see anything, as if the sight we came to see was a movie shoot or an eclipse. We joined the crowd looking down the Hudson; the two plumes of gray smoke twisted slowly and determinedly west toward New Jersey and still we made no sense of what had happened: it was more fireworks than tragedy.
I heard, many times, about the thousands dead, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania victims, the endless MISSING flyers posted throughout lower Manhattan. Perhaps what made the biggest impact on me—besides onlookers’ accounts of office workers jumping to their deaths from the hundredth story to avoid dying in flames—was the common report that, for some reason, countless sheets of paper had survived the conflagration and collapse. Memos, data sheets, and letters fluttered to safety and blanketed the streets when the towers fell: weightless, meaningless records of thousands of lives lost.
In the years since then, New York has almost completely reverted to normal, with only a fenced-in pit to mark the former location of the two imposing towers. Subway and airport security is tighter, there are seemingly endless wars taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan, and everyone has a story about where they were and what they did on that day. It’s mostly just a far-off specter of some indefinable, unfathomable evil.
And now, September 11, 2009. Eight years later and 1,800 miles west, the wind violently shakes the trees with unflagging urgency all morning under a bright blue sky, a muted echo of the chaos and horror of that day playing above our oblivious heads—heads too busy tracking the paths we walk or talking with friends or making plans for the weekend to consider the weight of those eight years. And I hope we don’t all feel too far removed simply to look up for a moment and remember. ~