“Where were you when…?”
There are a number of moments throughout history that seem to mark the time for generations. They’re the moments that are seared into our minds. We’ll never forget where we were or what we were doing or who we were with when we heard or saw the tragic news. Those who are much older than me can remember the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Personally, I remember watching from a classroom as the Challenger space shuttle exploded only seconds after lift off.
And I was a senior in college when the Twin Towers fell.
It was a Tuesday morning and I had a 9:00 class I wasn’t ready to wake up for. I mean, when was anyone ready to wake up for a morning class on a weekday?
During the fall semester of that year, I shared a room with three of my friends: Mark, Brandon, and Derek. At the start of the school year, we decided to do something clever with our rooms. Technically, Mark and Brandon were roommates while Derek and I were roommates. But instead of having two separate rooms with a bathroom between us, we moved all the beds into one of the rooms and turned the other into a living room. It was pretty awesome.
I honestly can’t remember who was the first one up that morning. I only know it wasn’t me. Whoever it was called dibs on the shower. This was fine with me as I intended to sleep as late as I could before rushing to get ready for class.
Somewhere in that zone where you’re not fully awake but not quite asleep, I could hear the shower running and the radio in the bathroom playing. And that’s when I heard the report that a low flying plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Hearing that news come from the radio in the bathroom was enough to get me out of bed. I turned on the small TV we had in the bedroom and saw the image of smoke and fire pouring out of the North Tower. There was talk of it being a tragic accident. But as I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder if it had been planned.
When we watched the second plane collide with the South Tower in real time, all doubt was erased. This was a blatant attack on the United States.
It was difficult to find the motivation to go to class after that. But I got dressed and grabbed my books and headed out of the dorm anyway. On my way to my World Religions class, I ran into another friend and former roommate, Dave. We both had somber expressions on our faces. I’m not sure which of us suggested it first, but we made the decision to blow off class and return to my room to continue watching the news unfold.
Most of the rest of that morning was spent in our awesome living room watching CNN. We were watching when reports came that another aircraft had crashed into the Pentagon. We were watching when a fourth plane seemed to randomly crash in a field in Pennsylvania.
We didn’t take a break from watching the news until lunchtime. I remember the cafeteria being uncharacteristically quiet that day. Someone had decided to move the big screen television from the Student Activities Center over to the dining hall so we could all stay up to date while we had our lunch.
I remember some teachers deciding to cancel their classes while others wanted to carry on in spite of the attacks. In part, I understand that desire to keep on going… These attacks were designed to tear America down… to bring us to a halt. I guess by not going to class or by canceling our day we were giving the terrorists what they wanted.
The rest of that day is mostly a blur. I know we continued watching the news, though I’m not sure why. Was it a morbid fascination? Were we hoping to hear some good news that could counter all that bad we had already seen?
It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years.
I’ll say this about the nation we were 20 years ago… America rallied. And maybe I’m looking back through a lens of nostalgia and hope… but I’m certain that we came together as a people to comfort those who suffered loss and to support those who risked everything by running toward the disaster to help rather than run away.
If 9/11 happened today, how would the American people respond? Would we find ways to come together once more or would we continue to allow our petty differences and polarizing opinions divide us? I pray we never have to find out.