Friday, September 11, 2015

It was a day like today

Originally wrote this back in mid-August 2013 - bumping to today

I had a memory triggered by not a place or person but by the very air itself today. The odd August day where the air was shockingly clear, the cool temperature bringing to mind a hint of the coming fall leaves, and the overall sense of peace - that did it for me today. It brought me back to a time in the not too distant past.

I was contracting at Lockheed Martin at the time at a facility about a mile from my house in Manassas VA. We were designing an autopilot system for the Navy’s Osprey class minehunter ships. I was spending a lot of time in the lab back then. Due to security restrictions, there were no radios and no internet in the lab, thus I was pretty much cut off from the world. I was ok with that, as most of the time when I’m really working hard, I cut the world off anyway.

That day I came out of the lab, sat down at my cubicle and went to look up some technical specs. As I started once again to sink into a technical stupor, I noticed my network access slowing. “Great”, I thought, “the denizens at Lockmart must be up to something”. I heard over the cubicle someone say, “hey, a plane just flew into a building in New York”. I must admit, I kind of tuned it out. My immediate thought was that some hotdog pilot had messed up. It was a crisis, but of incidental impact for me.

The network continued to slow and became unusable. People began to gather and talk as no one could get any work done. I tried to open up a web page to a news site and got nothing. Someone said they had heard it was a passenger plane. There was no internet or TV, so I joined the people going outside to listen to car radios.

I was shocked by what I heard. A plane had hit the World Trade Center. There were stories about a coordinated terrorist attack against all major cities. Planes all over the country had been grounded. I looked at the sky. Normally Manassas is in the flight path for Reagan and Dulles, and there are always planes in sight overhead. Now there was nothing, only clouds and blue sky. I think at that moment it came home to me that the world had changed. Then I watched as a passenger plane, lower than usual, crossed the sky heading east. I don’t know if it was one of the planes, the ones that ended up at the Pentagon or a field in Pennsylvania, but it could have been. My thought at the time was, “I bet he is hurrying to get someplace safe”.

I tried to call my wife on my cell to see if she knew what was going on. The call didn't go through as the cell networks were overloaded and fried. People had already started to leave, and I could see there wasn't much point in staying there. I did the short drive home, and joined my wife, along with all the rest of America, in watching the horror on TV. It is then that I learned that a plane had hit the Pentagon, though I remember there was a lot of confusion about that initially. Some reports had a plane hitting the Newseum in Rosslyn or one of the office buildings in Crystal City.

Then the first tower fell. Pictures of dust covered people, walking out of NY – ferries overloaded. Then the second tower fell. Stories of a plane crashed in Pennsylvania – a minor thing at first, given all the other death and destruction. Pictures of fire and a big black hole in the Pentagon. It all seemed so surreal with the sun shining down and the blue sky above. Death and destruction are only supposed to come on dark and stormy nights, when God pours his wrath out with wind and lightening. There was no 'god' or higher power here. Later, much later, the anger came when we understood what had been done to us by the same savages that are decimating Egypt today. More importantly, Bush’s resolve to never let this happen again resonated across all Americans. Like most times of crisis, it was our finest hour.

A couple of other things stand out for me from that time. A few weeks after, I went with my daughter to the Virginia State 4H Horse Show in Lexington VA. There was some talk, given all the uncertainty of another attack, about cancelling it. With some courage they didn't – and for that I’m glad. My wife didn't want us to go, but even then our feelings were that if we cowered in our homes, the troglodytes would have won (something to think about next time your being groped at the airport). After we settled the horses in at the stables, we went over to the main arena for the opening ceremony. It was sort of a grouping the way people gathered at that time. Even in the unusually packed and overly large arena, there was a comfort in huddling together – though no one came out and said that.

As with most of these things, this one was to start out with a mounted color guard, all 4H teenagers, at the center of the ring. The plan was when the National Anthem started; they would circle the ring while it played. I guess the guy working the sound was nervous and turned the volume up a little too much, so the opening bars boomed out just a little too loud. Predictably, this had a negative effect on the color guard horses. The horse on the end, the one with the American flag, jumped and bolted a little. The girl on the horse did what she was trained to do – get control of the horse first, and then deal with the other stuff. Unfortunately, this meant dropping the flag.

They cut the music right away, but there was the flag in the dust of the arena. The metaphor wasn't lost on anyone there. As I remember it, one of the grizzled old hands that you always see at these things hoped over the end gate, strolled out to the center, and picked up the flag. When he handed it to the girl, you could have heard a pin drop. Then the cheering started, followed by the national anthem. That metaphor was definitely not lost on anyone there. I don’t know when the cheering stopped, but I’m not ashamed to say a tear or two rolled down my face – and I was not alone.

The other memory that I got was from a year or so later. Our 4H group had a tradition of putting on a Halloween family day for autistic kids and their families at a farm in Culpepper. The people hosting the event were members of our group, and the father was retired military. He had bought the farm as a place to settle down after a long military career. He liked to say he bought it due to its history. It seems that after the civil war, the fellow who owned the farm, upon returning from the war, stuck his sword into a tree there, declaring that he was done fighting. That tree is still there, and has grown and swallowed the sword completely.

Before we got started, the father took the mike and explained what was going on with the opening ceremony. First he noted that the flag that they were using was one of the ones that were flying over the Pentagon that day, loaned to one of the parents who was in the Pentagon (but thankfully unhurt) that day. He then choked up a little as he noted that the boy carrying the flag, his son, a freckled faced, hard working kid we all knew, had signed up to enter the Army and would be leaving soon to defend the US against the savages. Oh – and they played this song as he circled:

In my mind's eye I still see Chris, circling that small ring at a slow canter, flag whipping in the wind, his father off to the side, not a dry eye anywhere. Listen to that song for just a bit and let it take you back...

(If you don’t have a tear in your eye right now check your pulse, you might be dead) 

As far as I know, Chris made it out ok, though I think he returned to Iraq working for Blackwater after his tour was up. We kinda lost touch after a few years.

Anyway, that’s the memory that came back to me today. Thanks for reading and sharing this with me.

1 comment:

  1. Tears....yes, I remember the cool clear sky too. I also remember seeing a low flying passenger plane that day and wondering later if that was one of the victims. Love you brother! TKU for sharing your heart here.