I’ve enjoyed writing for many years. I'm dedicating more time to the craft in my retirement days.
Remembering Trauma in Technicolor
When I stepped outside this morning after letting my dog in, I already knew what day it was. But coincidentally, or ironically, or whichever is the right choice of word right there, there was a haze in the air, the smell of smoke, the smell of something burning and it was very strong. It's from the fires all around to the north, south and west of us, but today’s 9/11 so you can’t help yourself. You think of the towers, the Pentagon, the Flight 93 crash in Pennsylvania. I guess what I really mean to say is this: I always think of that on this day, every year for the past 19 years. It's a moment for me like this picture of me and my sister was for my mom:
JFK Shot - 22 November 1963
This picture of my older sister and me was taken the day after John F. Kennedy was shot. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for my mom as a young lady with two very young kids (3.5 and 2), so far away from her growing-up-home in Iowa and now living in Alexandria, Louisiana, such a long, long way away from anything familiar. She kept the appointment she made to get our pictures taken, of course, because that was what military wives did in those days. They put on the face they kept in a jar by the door, were diligent and dutiful, kept their schedules because to do otherwise would have just spread unhelpful worry. But let’s be honest and really face it: those were some hyper scary times.
In the early 60s, the Cold War wasn’t even two decades old yet, and it was threatening to turn into a hot war all the time. In the aftermath of JFK’s shooting, some people even thought the Russians were responsible for it; thought that our president, the leader of the free world, had been killed as part of a larger scheme to attack the US. This was, after all, not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis. That event, that series of events was a very big deal, a genuine walk-out-to-the-brink-and-look-over-into-the-abyss set of moments, and it’s probably safe to say that that was about the closest we ever came to all out nuclear war, toe-to-toe with the Russkes. Chapeau to Slim Pickens right there.
Toe to Toe with the Russkes
I Wish Mom Was Still Here
Anyway, I was thinking of that this morning, and I’m thinking of it now and wishing Mom were here so we could talk about that moment, that day, the day after, those few days before. I know they were stored there in her memory like a technicolor movie. I know it because she told me as much one time, but also because we all have moments like that, moments that are larger than life, that are defining moments in our time here on earth. It can’t help but be so methinks. Indeed, I truly believe it’s part of the human condition.
Pink Floyd: "Wish You Were Here"
Defining Life Moment: The Challenger Disaster, 28 January 1986
I personally have other moments, too, among which the Challenger disaster in early ’86 is one of the most significant. I was on my way from the middle of pilot training in Columbus, Mississippi to Iowa for my grandmother’s funeral. I changed flights in Memphis, and while I was in the Memphis airport, folks were gathered by the many numbers in front of the TVs scattered throughout the airport. I stopped at one little bar-type thing and leaned in as everyone sat there quietly watching. It had already happened, but I didn’t know it, so as I watched the shuttle ascend I kind of got a bit giddy at first, felt the adrenaline rush down the back of my neck into my spine because it was always super cool to watch the shuttle rise into the sky on its way…but then it just blew up. Just like that. It just blew up into a million little pieces of nothing, shreds of it slowly and awkwardly free falling away from a gawdawful stationary fireball and the spiraling smoke cloud in the sky. I was stunned. It literally took my breath away, made my knees go weak and I had to reach out in between two seated gentlemen to hold myself steady and upright.
11 September 2001
11 September 2001 was like that for me, too, of course, as it probably was for many others my age. But I was at home that morning, watching it from the comfort of my own living room right there live on national TV. I was supposed to fly that evening, a night training mission in the B-1 bomber, just routine stuff, probably providing instruction for a younger pilot since I was not a line crew member at the time, but instead the Chief of Safety for the base I was living and working on. Even though I had a night flight, I got up pretty early because I usually would take a nap before heading off for an evening go. I made the pot of coffee, went to the living room, sat on the couch in front of the TV, turned it on and saw there one of the twin towers smoking and burning. Before I could even comprehend what it was all about, the live feed I was watching showed an airplane heading for, then crashing into the second tower. Deliberately. That’s what struck me immediately. It was deliberate. At first I thought there had been this terrible accident at the one tower, but then I watched live as the second airplane flew right into the second tower. On purpose. Deliberately. This was an attack. Some fucking evil somebody attacked our country and chose these two buildings as their target.
Bigger Than Pearl Harbor
I did not hear the words of the TV announcers, I don’t think I could hear anything but my ears ringing. I went downstairs to my bedroom where my wife was still sleeping. “They just killed more people than we lost in Pearl Harbor,” I said, then turned around and went back upstairs. I didn’t actually know the numbers yet, nobody did and nobody was counting bodies and putting together a list of names at that point. But in my gut, I knew it was bigger than the surprise attack in Hawaii in 1941; and I also knew it was one of the biggest events I would ever witness in my lifetime. I knew also that it was one of those marker points, a spot where there would always be life before this date, and then life after this date. Left of 9/11 and right of 9/11. Indeed, it has most definitely come to pass that the world changed in so many significant ways that day. If you need any proof, just close your eyes and try to remember what it was like to go into an airport and board a commercial flight before that day. How simple, how nonchalant, how carefree and easy. Seems almost naive with the lenses we wear today because of the attacks on 11 September 2001.
Hate Is a Great Unifier
I look back on those times today and think: I don’t believe that I shall ever see a unifying moment as grand as thee, and by thee I mean 9/11. Our country came together in a very meaningful way during those dark, dark days as there hung overhead the ominous cloud of an attack at the hands of evil men right here on our very own homeland. Talk about scary. It doesn’t get much scarier than that. But scary as it was, it also became a pinch point that pushed us together, brought us to a place where we all had a common purpose, something we could all hate together. Think about that for a moment. When was the last time before that when we, the general masses of people of the US, came together and united almost unanimously in our support of a cause in such a positive, meaningful way? Whichever moment pops into your head, ask yourself this one question about it: Was it in the name of hate?
Hate is a great unifier. Remember Dubya’s speech on the rubble pile? Remember how he—and we—sent a message to the evil-doers? Through his staticky bullhorn Dubya said, “I can hear you. I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” This was followed by, “USA, USA, USA,” and Dubya blessing the US of A. It was, without question, one of the great unifying moments in history, and it absolutely galvanized our collective hate of the enemy, and our desire to push forward and right the wrong done to our great country.
9/11: Let Us Never Forget
What also came out of that same time period, and lasted right down to this very day was an almost universal love of the military by Americans. I mean, I still get thanked for my service on a daily to weekly basis, and I've not worn the uniform--other than for speaking engagements and other special occasions--for nearly five years. That love started in the wake of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, but it magnified after 9/11 and a guy like me couldn’t go into town for lunch without having ten offers from folks to buy. Indeed, in Abilene, Texas where I lived from 2002-2005, it got to the point where they’d stop offering to pay and just go up to the register and pay anonymously. It got so bad I stopped going to lunch in town because I felt awful about never paying for a damn meal. And though I felt awful, I must say I did enjoy the huge change in attitude from the time when I first joined the Air Force back in 1984. At that time, we, the US of A, still had a Vietnam hangover we needed to walk off.
So on this auspicious occasion am I putting forth a proposal to find something we can all hate together? Nah, nothing at all of the sort. If you want to find hate, you’ve really no further to look than social media, the nightly news, or some partisan website or radio show on either the AM or FM dial. There are places aplenty to find hate. Instead, I think I’m trying to say we should never forget. And when I say never, I mean never ever ever. Ever. Let’s not forget 9/11 and the wrongs done to our country and our way of life. Let’s not forget too, though, how good it felt to stand—and stand gladly!—shoulder to shoulder with a neighbor who voted for a different party’s candidate than you. Remember how you couldn’t give a shit back then who other people voted for? I mean, I do. I remember that well. I remember the thing that united us was we were of a kind, of a mind, thinking about a common cause, a common purpose. If we disagreed on politics, it was a disagreement aired through the medium of intellectual discourse and dialogue. Sometimes the conversation had to end with us agreeing to disagree and then moving on, but it didn’t end in abject hate. We disagreed and went on about the business of our day…and so it went.
And now? Now it seems different. It feels different. I mean, we have people naming other party members the enemy.
The enemy?! Seriously?
You mean like the old Soviet Union? You mean like the Taliban? You mean like those who struck our homeland in 1941? Or those who vowed to conquer the world from the center of Europe in the mid-20th century? Really? Is that really what you mean? Or do you instead mean that you don’t agree with them or their politics, and perhaps it’s better we just agree to disagree and move on to another place where we have some common ground…
Man, what I wouldn’t give to hear some of that on the nightly news this evening as I’m sitting down to enjoy my dinner…what do you think the odds are?
However slim they may be, I would ask this of you, personally, though: let’s never forget 9/11. For my part, I will always remember. Indeed, I could not possibly forget even if I tried.
© 2020 greg cain