Sunday, September 11, 2011


I've been hard at work in the studio this weekend, honest. Today will be the long haul, with no delays on the horizon. No groceries, no football (editor's note: I thought I was joining a friend for lunch at the Pub to cheer for Iowa State until such a point as the score at halftime would tell me the inevitable truth. But that didn't happen. Tied at the half, taken to triple overtime. Big win for the Cyclone. Sour loss for the Hawkeyes. And my Rams won it too. Good day for the land-grant universities. Except the Jackrabbits. Sorry about that one, guys. 56-3. Yikes.). I anticipate more throwing this afternoon, with maybe a glazing break. I still haven't decided. Pictures will come, but I have other words and thoughts and nothing deep and nothing profound, I don't think.

Just one more voice in the innumerable stories and testaments to a 10th anniversary that we'd rather not be marking.

Ten years ago I was a junior in high school. In retrospect, I mark that year as one of my favorites - socially, academically, lifewise. Not yet burdened with the responsibilities of impending graduation, no longer an underclassman. I had a pretty good courseload set up for myself, with engaging classes that never hurt too much. Other than a 1st period Algebra II class, that is. Math at 8:15 in the morning is a bad deal for anyone, I think.

First period let out at 8:57. First bell was at 8:15, 42 minute class periods, 4 minute passing periods, 2nd period began at 9:01, our school aired 15 minute news broadcasts from Channel One every morning, class would begin at 9:16, second period would get out at 9:58, four minute passing period... Schedule sticks with you.

First period got out and I was on my way down the main hall from one end of the building to the other when a friend hollered at me in passing, "Hey, didja hear someone attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon?" I don't remember who it was. Maybe Curtis, maybe Khan. But I remember that that's where I heard it first.

And I was cavalier.

"Oh great," I responded over my shoulder, "Lauters should have a good time with that one!"

Mr. Lauters was my 2nd Period American Heritage English teacher - one of the best educators I've encountered, though challenging and difficult to work with. He was passionate about what he did, and I now know that he was every bit good enough to be teaching college English, but he loved what he did here and with us. He was known for his excitability - notably, for crazed reenactments of Hamlet's more gruesome moments. Also, for being slightly unhinged. But that's probably just an English teacher thing. He was also a veteran, having served active duty in Vietnam. He rarely spoke about it, and there were moments in his class where his silence told you all the stories you needed to know.

Normally I'd be headed to English for 2nd period, but on this day I remember that we were scheduled to flip-flop the team-taught Heritage English/History periods to give the longer period to History. I think we were scheduled to complete our viewing of 1776. So rather than the left at the end of the hall, I swung right for Mrs. Schumacher's classroom at the end of the hall. The TV was turned to CNN and the room was near silent, despite the 20-odd students still shuffling into their seats.

Mrs. Schumacher was another of our school's gem teachers. Passionate about education and students, she was probably overextended in her commitments. In addition to teaching several sections of history and government, she also led, passionately, the Mock Trial and Model UN student groups. She was the faculty leader of the annual junior trip to Washington, DC, and led many trips each year for Model UN student delegate conferences to places like Chicago and New York City.

The towers were smoking when we got into the classroom and Schumacher was at the front of the class, doing what she always did best: teaching.

"Unbelievable," she uttered - not just an observation, but a dictation, a proclamation. "I was there this spring, it's just so unbelievable."

We watched as the smoke billowed and rolled, dark over the city. Shocked to discover we were watching hundreds of people throw themselves from the 103rd, 104th, 105th floor of the tower, watching the little specks fall and fly on network news. Unbelievable.

Though it seems like we sat and watched the towers smoke for an hour, a recent fact-check tells me that I couldn't have been in the room for more than a couple of minutes before the first tower collapsed. So bizarre. An odd puff of smoke at the point of collision and the top of the tower started to lean, crooked like an arthritic finger. And the tower collapsed on top of itself.

"Oh. My. God." Schumacher's hand went to her mouth.

This was unexpected, and I remember feeling sick to my stomach at the, yes, cavalier response I had had only moments before. As a privileged midwestern American I had no frame of reference for what this meant, would mean. As a 16 year old kid, I had no frame of reference. No perspective. I had never witnessed national disaster, national catastrophe. It wouldn't be long before we would start referring to this day as "Our Generation's Pearl Harbor." I remember the pundits would tell us that even that isn't an appropriate historical comparison. That you have to go back to the War of 1812 before you get to a foreign attack on ratified, stateside land, that Hawaii was still just a territory, as if they needed to give a little more gravity to the day.

Surreal, I think. That's where it was after the first tower went down. This can't be real, can it?

And then the second tower collapsed, swallowing itself up.

I'm not sure if we tried to engage in a discussion about the impact of these events.

Class was dismissed and we headed, collectively, to Lauters for English. He was sitting in the dark, alone, perched on of a desk in the front of the class, eyes glassy and intent on the news coverage on TV. Hands over his mouth, praying? Holding in the words he didn't know to say? Did he acknowledge us? Did he greet us?

Now that it was over, the newsreel could replay. The footage of the 2nd plane coming in. The collapse of the towers. The smoking Pentagon. Emergency crews on the ground in Pennsylvania.

By fourth period we had to get back to work. Did we have a choice? We began to identify and define that American response: to pick ourselves up and go back to work, go back to normal.

At the end of the day I headed to the house where I watched a family friend after school several days a week and turned the news on in their living room. Was it there or later that night that the third WTC building to collapse would go down? I still had the news on when Justin made it home - 10 years old, a fourth grader. I turned it off, but not to shelter him. I asked if his teachers had told them what happened, and he said they had. Did I have to reassure him that we weren't at war, that we'd be ok, or am I overdramatizing my memories? These are conversations a boy should have with his parents. I made him practice piano, and then we played Madden and he kicked my butt. Mashing your fingers on the buttons does not make strategy.

Mom was scared that night. Is this the end of things? Will we retaliate? What will that look like? My brother was living outside of DC at the time, and by outside of DC, I mean I think he had an internship on the Hill, or maybe had just finished one. He was recently engaged and a senior, ready to graduate and head into politics. I don't know what her question had been, but she shared his response, that he'd said he still planned on pursuing a position on the Hill after graduation, that he was still going to marry and someday would bring children into this crazy world and that we have to keep looking forward, we have to get back to normal, we have to be stronger than that because if we're not, then they win. Maybe that's more dramatic in my memory than it was at the time, but the message is still there.

And ten years later we've made a new normal. "United We Stand" has given way to an insanely partisan political climate where House Speakers deny Presidents their requests, and Vice Presidents call (or don't?) opposing parties "terrorists." Where political parties mark incumbent opponents with rifle-sights. Where each election cycle begins before the last has ended, where any twit with a Twitter fancies themself a pundit. I'm no longer awed by the sight of M-16s and SWAT-geared enforcement in public places. The scrolling news ticker is on every channel.

I guess, like in life, there's no conclusion here. These are my memories, and ten years in we are still dealing with it. It still hurts. I watched a video on of their coverage from the day this weekend. I haven't seen it since then. I haven't watched any of the 9/11 movies, and most networks are more reasonable than to replay it for no reason. It was surprising how painful it was. How chilling. How it took me back there, but now knowing what it meant, what it would mean for 10 years. For how much longer?

As I was throwing yesterday, music is what brought the memories back. Creed's Weathered released in November 2001. I know in the years since (and even at the time) they've become a punching bag and a mockery in the wider music community. At the time, the worst anybody had to say was that they were Pearl Jam knock-offs. The wheels fell off their train not long after, but at the time they were the top. And they're still my greatest guilty pleasure. By September, the lead single was already out, already a number one, the video on MTV every 20 minutes (back when MTV was still Music TV, not just Moron TV) and they'd wrapped up the recording sometime in the summer, and I'm not even so sure that this song meant so much to me then, but it carries such an honest yearning to it. So I guess these will be my closing thoughts on this day of remembrance.

Don't Stop Dancing
At times life is wicked and I just can't see the light
A silver lining sometimes isn't enough
To make some wrongs seem right
Whatever life brings
I've been through everything
And now I'm on my knees again

But I know I must go on
Although I hurt I must be strong
Because inside I know that many feel this way

Children don't stop dancing
Believe you can fly

Am I hiding in the shadows?
Forget the pain and forget the sorrows

Am I hiding in the shadows?
Are we hiding in the shadows?


Rebecca said...

Luke, thank you for posting this. I always appreciate your thoughtful and careful analysis of things.

You really should see United 93. I watched it again last night and it's a touching, fitting tribute. It inspires me and it makes me cry because of the courage of everyday Americans.

The Journagraphist said...

Wow, your account was much more detailed, whereas mine was more impressions and images. It's kind of hazy for me, suffused with emotion.

I'm glad you remembered Lauter's reaction so well, I can picture it again with your description. And I chuckled at his characterization - spot on.

Funny, I was into Creed then too (a little ironic, perhaps). I think they're still buried somewhere in iTunes.

I think where our two posts converge is the emotional impact 9/11 still holds. "Chilling" is really the only word for it.

It was an important, though bitter, trip down memory lane. Thank you.