Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11, JFK: Etched in memory

A U.S. flag flies over New York Harbor.
(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
It’s difficult to write about journalism or adventures in under-employment this weekend, as the nation turns its eyes and collective memory to the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks

Many if not most Americans will spend today remembering where they were, what they were doing, when the attacks began.
They’ll recall their own reactions, as well as those of the ones around them. Or they may choose to avoid doing so, because their memories invoke such pain, regret, anger.

As a journalist, my emotions ran the gamut just as everyone else’s did. Regardless of what some may think of those who take up this craft, I am, after all, human.

During my career as a journalist, I have learned to compose myself in the midst of tragedy — some call it detachment, I’ve heard others call it going into news-gathering mode. I prefer to think of it as simply as trying to understand what the hell is going on. A journalist must be a lifelong learner, if nothing else — our jobs demand it.

I was very proud of most of the coverage I saw, heard or read on that and in the subsequent days. As a profession, we demonstrated why the Fourth Estate in America is essential to preserving freedom. We disseminated and interpreted information that is crucial to understanding the events that were transpiring around us. By spreading accurate information, journalists help effect change to guard against such things in the future.

But professionally, I also felt pangs of regret that it took a calamity of this magnitude to draw people back to news. Certainly, on a national scale this was a huge event. But newspapers have suffered declining readership for decades, and 9/11 seemed to emphasize the perception that local news coverage was boring and increasingly irrelevant. The truth be told, I believe local news is just as relevant as it ever has been, perhaps more so given the plight of the industry and the evaporation of local news outlets.

Commemorating 9/11

As I write this, I’ve not decided yet how I will commemorate this day. Certainly it will be touched upon in the church service my family and I will attend this morning, and the media certainly will be saturated with coverage — there will be enough reviews, retrospectives, introspectives and other kinds of “-spectives” that surely will prompt many to plug in a DVD instead, or perhaps even turn off their televisions.

In the past weeks, I’ve edited any number of touching, very poignant stories containing the recollections of people in the Chicago area who were caught up in that day’s events — some were in Manhattan that day, others were traveling by air when the president grounded all nonmilitary aircraft. All were well-written recollections of a day that shook a nation to its core and brought home the idea, finally, that America was no longer out of the reach of overseas terrorists. As Americans, I think we have thought of ourselves as the world’s good guys for so long that we find it difficult to comprehend that that view is far from universal.

So I’ve already kind of had my fill of reliving those days through the eyes of others.

I know that I will spend much of my afternoon and evening working, and therefore will miss much of the day’s 9/11 coverage. Still, early last week, I learned of a website that has archived much of the original coverage from that week in 2001, and I offer it here to those who might want to otherwise skip today’s coverage. The Internet Archive’s Understanding 9/11 page is a television news archive of much of the coverage from Sept. 11 through Sept. 15, 2001. Sometimes, I think, it is best to review original coverage, rather than rely on a more recent interpretation. There is something about that raw coverage that is far more vivid.

Like JFK’s assassination, etched in our memories

That’s because, for those of us who were alive for it, just as with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the events of that day are etched so indelibly in our minds. They remain ready for us to pull out the file and review them again at a moment’s notice, as if they had occurred.

I was less than two months shy of 5 when Lee Harvey Oswald fired the rounds that brought down Camelot. I remember that Walter Cronkite (at that age, I did not know his name, but who could ever forget his face) so rudely interrupted the cartoon I was watching on our small, black-and-white television set, and announced that the president was dead. I also remember angrily walking out of the den and into the kitchen to complain about it to my mother. I remember the dismay I felt when, after telling her the president was dead and they had stopped my cartoon, my mother rushed into the den, listened a moment or two, and burst into tears.

To this day, I experience a twinge of guilt each time I recall that moment, the first significant hint that the world did not revolve around me. I also recall trying to comfort my mother the only way I knew, by patting her on her back in much the same way she and Dad would comfort me at that age.

Beyond that, I really did not truly comprehend what was going on. That would not come for some years yet. One thing I find intriguing about my memories of that time. They are quite vivid, very specific moments, but like our television then, all my memories of that seem to be in black and white.

Sept. 11, 2001, Dateline: Green River, Wyo.

Ten years ago today, my family and I were visiting my wife’s parents and sister and having a wonderful time doing so. Lisa and I shared a bedroom in the basement with our oldest daughter, then nearly a year old. Our three boys slept in another room.

Because everyone today will be sharing their memories of that, I’ll share just short vignettes:

  • Myself, in a robe as I headed to the bathroom for a shower, when my mother-in-law came downstairs, telling us to turn on the basement TV. I’d not ever seen that kind of anger in her face or in the tone of her voice before.
  • The first image I saw on television with no words yet to give it context: One tower of the World Trade Center, with billowing black clouds of smoke bleeding from a jagged hole. I wondered what had started such a fire. Then a jetliner slammed through the second tower.
  • Shock as understanding dawned that this was the second jet, and it seemed apparent that both had been deliberately flown into the twin towers.
  • Sitting with members of my family, mesmerized by and terrified at the scope of the horror. And anger. Initial news reports that day indicated tens of thousands of people typically were inside the two towers each day. It would not be until later that I would begin to feel actually grateful — that the nearly 3,000 killed that day easily could have been much, much more.
  • A new level of horror as it became apparent that people were jumping out of the towers to escape the smoke and flames.
  • Trying to understand what was happening. At one point, after I’d broken away to shower and to dress, I sat down with my family in front of the TV. I grabbed a legal pad and pen and started watching, intently writing down each new fact, as well as the speculation that ran rampant among the media that day, hoping somehow that if I could write about what had happened, I could somehow understand it better. Ten years later, that understanding still eludes me on many levels.
  • My oldest son was 14 at the time, and I was struck by the maturity and the intelligence he displayed as he shared his observations throughout that day and those that followed. It was not a surprise. Brian’s always been mature for his age as well as smart. Nonetheless, this stood out.
  • Later over the next weekend, a long drive from Green River, Wyo., to Estes Park, Colo. The drive was punctuated by several stops to calm our baby girl, who was not accustomed to long rides. Our destination was Denver, but we did not know yet whether the flight we had scheduled months ago actually would depart. We stopped in Estes Park because my parents were staying in a cabin there, a drive they used to make each fall. They invited us to stay with them until the nation’s airports reopened.
  • Arriving at Denver’s airport. It was quiet and there were few people about. Today was the day flights were supposed to resume, but no one was certain whether the president’s order grounding nonmilitary aircraft actually would be lifted. We did end up flying home that day.
  • Back home in Elgin and noticing how empty the skies were. I had grown up in this city, and the sounds of airlines heading into or away from O’Hare International Airport had been a constant. Now, the occasional overhead flight didn’t seem loud enough to drown out the birds singing in the trees.
  • Stopping to fill up with gasoline several days after we’d returned home at a gas station whose manager appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent. His accent might have been Pakistani or Arabic or something else, for all I knew. But his demeanor was somber, and his expression grew sad when I asked him if he was OK. He was bearing up, he said, but apparently he’d had at least one or two customers who had said something related to the attacks, and the words obviously had not been kind. “We don’t all feel that way,” I told him. “I hope you have a very good day.”

There are other memories as well, but this will suffice. Today is an occasion to remember our losses, to pursue continued healing from that attack 10 years ago, and to acknowledge the great evil mankind is capable of committing. But at day’s end, it will be time to close that file and move on, reminded afresh that we must live with greater vigilance.