Our Common Bonds
Americans know exactly where we were and what we were doing at the moments which stun and transform our nation and us as a people.
I was changing classes at Alexander Graham Junior High School in downtown Fayetteville when word came that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Two days later I was riding beside my sister in the back seat of our family car on the way home from church when a radio newsman broke in to say that Jack Ruby had just shot and killed Kennedy’s murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald. Americans, even young ones, understood immediately that while we might come to understand how our President died, Ruby’s deed meant that we would very likely never know exactly why.
I remember the eerie quiet that pervaded my college campus the day four students died and nine others were wounded in a hail of National Guard gunﬁre that lasted less than 15 seconds at Kent State University. We understood that if it could happen to American college students in Ohio, it could happen to American college students on another campus.
More than a decade later, I was picking up a Precious Jewel at a neighborhood church pre-school when we learned that the Challenger space shuttle had exploded a minute into its ﬂ ght, blowing up the lives of seven astronauts and Americans’ belief that our space program was invincible.
On the lovely morning of September 11, 2001, I was in Washington, D.C., on the second ﬂoor of the Cannon Ofﬁce Building, the oldest legislative ofﬁce building next door to the United States Capitol. Ten other colleagues and friends from the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce were also there, enjoying a continental breakfast as we waited for a brieﬁng on transportation infrastructure to Chamber representatives from around the nation from US Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.
The Secretary never showed.
He, like everyone else in Washington, New York, and throughout our country, was suddenly and astoundingly dealing with the reality that terrorists had just crashed two commercial airliners ﬁ lled with human cargo into the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan.
One member of our little band of Fayetteville Chamber folks received a call from home about the ﬁrst plane and then another about the second. We quickly gathered our party to leave the building and were on the way out when the order was given to evacuate the entire building and others around it. We were all too close to the Capitol, and no one knew what was coming next.
Near chaos reigned on the sidewalk outside.
Thousands of people had been turned out of thousands of ofﬁ ces, and no one knew where to go. Public transportation was shut down and no one knew what to do. Go one way and a terrorist event might occur. Go the other way and the same thing could happen.
Our group somehow got a cab to go back to the hotel we had checked out of before breakfast, and we piled in — three of us in the front and ﬁve or six in the back. Washington ordinances did not allow this, of course, but the cabbie said nothing. Soon it was clear that gridlock would not permit any movement at all, so we all piled out again. No one paid the fare. Nor did the cabbie ask for payment. In hindsight, he was as shell-shocked as we were.
I remember less about this than other Chamber travelers, because I was not focused on us but on the Precious Jewel who had started college in New York City just two weeks to the day before what we now call 9-11. Her college was far uptown, and I had no reason to think she was downtown on a weekday morning, but I did not know and could not know. Cell phones did not work because their towers were down or their systems overloaded.
By this time, we could see smothering clouds of dark smoke across the Potomac, and we knew it billowed from the Pentagon. Then came the news of the crash in Pennsylvania, and the immediate speculation that the US Capitol had been the target — a target that was within shouting distance of where, only hours before, we were chatting over juice and coffee.
Blessedly, by late that afternoon, I knew that Precious Jewel had indeed been on her uptown campus and was safe, and the Fayetteville Chamber delegation was homeward bound past the smoldering Pentagon in a van navigated by then Fort Bragg Garrison Commander Tad Davis whose arrival and guidance was awaited by several Military Police cars.
Surrounding the 10th anniversary of the day Americans suddenly and irrevocably understood what terrorism means, it is remarkable to hear diverse and poignant recountings of the day that continues to shape our national conversation and our common future.
No matter where we were or what we saw, none of us are the same Americans we were on the lovely and bright morning of September 11, 2001.
Photo: Americans know exactly where we were and what we were doing at the moments which stun and transform our nation and us as a people.