Where were you? I was at work. The first one to arrive that morning, I settled into some serious spreadsheeting in my quiet office. They called me a wizard. Back then, I could make a spreadsheet do just about anything. Around eight, Dorothy came in. I thought of her as an old lady, pushing retirement, but in truth, she was younger than I am now. Undoubtedly, most of the people at my work think of me as an old dude, too, counting the months until I can give up my job for good.
Almost nine o’clock, still the only two people in the office, Dorothy called to me. “Jeff, come look at my computer screen. An airplane hit the World Trade Center.” I didn’t understand the perspective. I saw what looked like a small, neat hole in the center of the building. I thought a single engine propeller plane, piloted by a hobbyist, somehow crashed into the building by accident.
“That’s weird. I wonder why they couldn’t avoid the building.” I envisioned one, maybe two casualties. A few minutes later, a plane hit the other tower, and we were deep into what will forever be called 9/11.
Twenty years, it still seems like yesterday. Memories of the day linger clearly in my mind. Sitting around the conference table at work, watching TV when the towers fell. A frantic phone call from my brother telling me he wasn’t in the Pentagon when the plane hit. Could I help him track down our father to let him know? A cop walking through my neighborhood with a shotgun propped over his shoulder like a batter in-the-hole. The sky above Washington D.C. void of airplanes.
Twenty years. It seems like a lifetime ago. Still in my thirties, my future stretching out like taffy on a candy pull, endless. My children still unborn. My OCD and Tourette Syndrome, undiagnosed. Our desire to live in a small town, unknown. I’ve become a whole new person in those twenty years.
Susan and I went to the beach. The trip was already planned. Sitting in a coffee shop Saturday morning, reading the three-inch-thick Washington Post. The reporting finally caught up with the events. After an hour I looked up from the paper glassy-eyed, “Wow, a lot to read,” suddenly realizing that Susan was pissed because I hogged section A all that time. We went to church. Not something I ever envisioned doing at the beach, but it felt right in the moment. The congregation sang America the Beautiful—the first time I noticed our our soon-to-be out-of-control link between patriotism and Christianity.
Twenty years. We’re pulling out. We lost the war. Or we didn’t win, anyway. The Taliban picked up right where they were when we occupied Afghanistan two decades ago. I’m not making a judgement. People much smarter than me need to make these decisions. The nuances are far too delicate for me to understand. When I was younger, still in my thirties, I knew all the answers. Now I don’t know anything except that hundreds of thousands of people have died in the 9/11 wars. In a few weeks, it will seem like those wars never happened.
I know what’s happened here in America, though. We’ve settled into warring tribes. Party, religion, skin tone, nationality, accent. Almost three decades of peace crashed down with the twin towers, and the lasting stress broke up our family. When I first considered this essay, I thought of 9/11 as the day America grew up. I see instead, it’s the day we descended into our darker selves. A journey that hasn’t ended. Amazing how fragile we really were.