As this day of limited national mourning comes to an end, I am reminded of something I bring out sometimes.
Not every year on September 11, but often, because I need to find some sort of strength in what we – as a nation – experienced nineteen years ago. And this year I choose to make this personal observance at the 19th anniversary of the attack because – frankly speaking – I’m not sure many of us know where we will be on this date in 2021. For all we know, we may not be in a position to observe – or perhaps even remember – what happened in 2001.
I remember because (and it’s a story I don’t often tell) I was in a client meeting at the Pentagon early on the morning of September 11 and I experienced what can only be remembered as one of the most eventful days of my life. And why haven’t I told the story? Because each of us has a story and I’m not so sure mine is so different or so much more important that anyone else’s story.
It so happened mine started in an office at the Pentagon. I was in a meeting and once the news was conveyed to us, it was decided that we should leave as quickly as possible. And it was while we were leaving that the third attack plane (of the four crashing into America that day) dove into the Pentagon. By the time that happened, I had made it to my rental car in the parking lot and I was driving around the building, seeking a way off the grounds and back to my hotel in McLean, one of the Northern Virginia suburbs.
I spent the rest of the day glued to the television in my room, becoming very engrossed in Peter Jennings’ first-hand reporting and his analysis and all he and his staff could pull up to keep us citizens informed. And, lucky fellow that I am, I was able (after being on “Hold” on the phone for most of the remainder of the day) to reserve a seat on the first Amtrak train leaving Washington’s Union Station for Penn Station early the next morning. The train was full of emergency workers, construction workers, medical personnel, military people, and far too many other types of people to try to name.
We didn’t talk much – no one seemed to be interested in conversation, which is not surprising – yet when we got nearer and could see across the Hudson River, things changed. The smoking ruins of the twin towers – the rubble – were right there, just across the river from us, and it was an extremely emotional crowd that gathered on that side of the train to see, to cement in their minds forever a sight that would never leave our memory. All the people on the train were coming to New York to help and from my observation over the next few days, they were put to work (or put themselves to work) to do their best to bring our city back to life, just as our emergency personnel had done during March, April, May, and June of this year (and are still doing across the United States).
Why bring this story up now? For a couple of reasons. As I say, I’ve never told it before except once, when I was working in Melbourne in late November 2002. At the urging of a best friend there – still a best friend – it was arranged for me to speak to an assembly at the university where she was on the faculty. I was asked to talk about my experience with 9/11, to give Australians a “New-Yorker’s-eye-view” of the tragedy.
So I gave the presentation, even throwing together a few slides to illustrate some of the points I was making, but I’m not sure exactly what I said (my notes have not survived). And in any case, about three-fourths of the way through the presentation, I realized that I didn’t want to be doing what I was doing. Of course I didn’t stop. I just kept going because I didn’t want to be rude to my friend, so I completed the presentation. And I suppose I was a pretty good representative of our American point of view since everyone who spoke with me afterward was very generous and went to great lengths to let me know how grateful they were to me, for sharing my experience with them.
But for me, I went private with 9/11. I continued to talk about our experience with friends when the subject came up, but not much. And I got very expert at changing the conversation, simply because it became too painful. In fact, over time I came to realize that as a New Yorker, and as an American, I needed solace. I didn’t need to be talking about my experience. I needed consolation. I needed to be thinking about others and hearing from them, to hear their reactions to the disasters they experience. And that brings us to today.
I don’t know how far we’ve come. Or how far we have to go. I want to continue to be the optimist I like to think I am, and, with some people, I’m reputed to be, but there are things happening that make it difficult. We’re trying to stay safe, but for us Americans (in fact for everyone all over the globe but, I think, especially here in America, at the present time) everything seems to be falling apart. These are (at the risk of stating the obvious) very difficult times, with events all coming together to worry us: our need for racial social justice, the epidemic (with nearly 200,000 deaths at present – who knows what that number will be by the end of the year?), raging fires in Colorado and in the West – even forcing a city the size of Portland to evacuate 500,000 people – 30 million people unemployed, and a floundering economy. Add to this the disruption caused by what one writer refers to as “a madman in the White House” and the polarization in our society that has us at a point Garrett M. Graff in the September 10 issue of the daily report from The Atlantic describes as “a splintered nation [that] lacks the collective resolve it once showed,” and as a society – even as a democracy – we’re in a pretty sorry state.
Will we ever come back with that collective resolve? Many are saying that we won’t. For me, I continue to be optimistic (although it’s a lot tougher than I thought it would be when I was taught optimism as a child). Nevertheless, it’s there. And sometimes, on September 11, I pull out something I wrote about and shared a long time ago. At the University of Virginia, where I studied, William Faulkner was Writer in Residence when I was there, and for most of us students in those days, our attraction to and our interest in his work was pretty serious. Certainly I was among the students who looked for every chance to learn as much about the man as I could, and from the man, when I had the opportunity. But it was only much later when I learned, through studying even more about him, about the importance of his career and his famous remarks later published as his “Address Upon Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, 10th December 1950.”
I’ve shared this paragraph from his address often. To me, it represents thoughts worth noting, and when the troubles continue and the very idea of optimism seems a stretch, it does me good to re-read this (and, as I’m doing tonight) to share it with others. I hope it will be as helpful to you as it is to me.
“It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
There’s a lesson here I don’t want to forget.