Twenty Years

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.  

38 thoughts on “Twenty Years

  1. a sad, but beautiful, essay, Jeff. Like most people, I remember where I was on 9/11, and laong with 1/6, it is one of the two worst days in my life. It is a shame to see what is going on in Afghanistan, and like you, I don’t fully understand what is going on there. I just wish people would learn to live in peace with each other, even if they think differetly from each other.

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    • I was reading about Taliban atrocities a few minutes ago. My knee jerk response is ‘we gotta stop that.’ But then I consider the impacts of a twenty year war and I wonder what is more atrocious. Once in a humanities class in college, a student lamented the same thing sentiment as you–why can’t we just live in peace? The teacher snapped at him and chastised his ‘peace and love hippy thinking.’ Fighting is the default for way too many people.

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  2. Definitely a day to remember. I was reading about some of what’s happening in Afghanistan today… I have many jumbled thoughts.
    Has America ever really been at peace? Are we really more divided now or are we letting our ugly side just show more?
    Is it just human nature to divide into “us vs them”?

    I don’t have any answers, but this post has me thinking.
    Do I thank you, or curse you?😂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I get the point you’re making, but sometimes peace is enduring others opinions and not battling over them. So while we’ve always had strong descent, our ability to suck it up and deal with others has evaporated., At the same time, I can say well good. Minorities (nationality, skin tone, religion, etc) absolutely should be standing up to racist and exclusive actions. But IMO, bombing a country “back to the stone age” is never the answer. The innocent pay too high a price.

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  3. I also remember aspects of that morning as clearly as yesterday — the gorgeous weather, especially.

    And I remember the phone calls you describe during my little cameo in this essay. Along with the phone calls from my wife (no TVs in her workplace) asking what was really true that morning.

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    • I guess you were probably a student at that point. Such a horrible time to come of age. I’m sure quite similar to my daughter graduating high school during a pandemic. Folks your age really don’t know that feeling of not being at war. Those days are gone for good, I assume. I guess I always had the cold war lingering in the back of my mind. Such a stupid time. I guess it never really went away.

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      • Yes I was 16. To be honest I didn’t really understand much of what followed, at the time it didn’t disrupt my daily life. (I know, it’s incredible privilege and I now know much more than I did then.)

        I do feel bad for all the kids, like Sophie, whose lives have been totally disrupted by the pandemic. It sure is a different world for them than it was for us. I also feel the pre-pandemic days are gone for good.

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  4. I was so self-involved with a work issue that morning. When I heard what had happened I couldn’t quite grasp the magnitude of the event. Not until later that night when I could sit and watch the news. I’ve been following the news and reading about what is going on in Afghanistan. I’ve thought the same thing – someone knows more than I do for things to be the same as they were 20 years ago. We lost a lot and for what? I never really considered 9/11 as the root of where we are today. But you have me thinking about it.

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    • Because I worked for a government contracting firm and we did *nothing* of importance, work shut down for the day and we simply watched the news coverage. When I got home Susan and I went for a trail run in the central park of a silent DC. Coming back to our car is when we saw the cop walking by with his shotgun. It’s probably the most sobering memory of the day. I thought we were suddenly going to be that nation where soldiers walked around armed in our streets. Surprise, the armed people now are idiots protecting the confederate flag.

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  5. I remember driving my 12-year-old son to school that morning, then watching in horror on a TV at the gym. It’s difficult for me to realize that there are kids in college, like your daughter, who weren’t in the world that day. So many lives were lost that day … and for us survivors it will never be the same.

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  6. I think the aftermath of 9/11 is hard to fathom from the inside. This country has changed so much the religious right and the hero worship of the military eroded freedoms here and around the world and at the end of the day the terrorists are still out there some in uniform, wearing a cross or some other symbol of oppression. There is still beauty and truth and singing birds and maybe one day we will all get along.

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  7. That day…so disorienting and upsetting. I’ve never watched so much TV, but I couldn’t stop, trying so hard to digest and understand what had happened, what the implications were.

    I absorbed so much, perhaps too much for my sensitive nature. New fears I’d never imagined having. That single event led me to question so much about life, my own in particular and “life” as the big picture. I still feel echoes of its impacts.

    As you so eloquently describe, it feels as though the divisions we’re experiencing in the US today are simply the same old, same old divisions that created the Taliban and every other authoritarian/quasi-religious movement of the past, all seeking power and control. For what? A few years of…? History repeats, and we’re doomed to relive it, in all its permutations.

    This is an anniversary I can do without remembering. Nothing good has come from it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Not going to be an easy anniversary to get through. I expect stories to be everywhere over the next month (hmmm, I’m just like everyone else). Eli was playing with a new phone app yesterday: “Dad, we can get plane tickets to Seattle for $195 on September 11.” Me: I’m not flying anywhere on 9/11/2021. Eli: “Oh, right.”

    Just one more excuse for our fractured nation to fracture some more. Peace to you.

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  9. Hey thanks for this reflection and vignette Jeff. The going to church and link between Christianity and patriotism is interesting, I experienced that too as I was working in the Starbucks HQ at the time and scripted a voicemail for one of the executives to send, he happened to be in Seattle but oversaw all the stores on the east coast and was based out of NYC. We ended the script with “god bless” and I knew it wasn’t right to do that but felt compelled to. Funny ha? I think it’s interesting too, the look back at who you were then and what hadn’t happened yet (like the moving to a small town or the diagnoses), and how those events shape us in retrospect. Anyhow, it’s another Tuesday! Just like then but not at all.

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    • Thanks Bill. I’m really pleased with this essay. It’s been quite a while since I wrote anything opinion-y. You get much of the credit since it started out as a comment on your blog. When we sang America the Beautiful in church, I thought it was a nice unifying touch. It all just got so out of hand so quickly. A week later a friend told me about being at a keg party and everyone joined hands and sang Proud to be an American. That was my uh-oh moment.

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      • Nationalism against a common enemy is the oldest unifying force for our tribes isn’t it? Now the enemy is truly from within, and equally as fabricated as it was then. Well, in a sense. Nothing’s that tidy or convenient.

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  10. As a well travelled global inhabitant (who just happened by chance to be born British) I just can’t get my head around how we as humans have ended up hating each other so much, when we live on such a beautiful planet. I was working at my son’s school on 9/11 and saw the news on my computer, so unbelievable I thought it must be a hoax … my son was 10 … I remember the horror I felt … how would he feel when he found out? The utter disbelief spread around the school in minutes … just about the time the terrified workers in the towers had left in this world. From an innocent newborn to deluded and ruthless terrorist … where does the wickedness creep in? If only we could press a reset button and get along as one global nation, but I’m not that naive, just determined not to give up hope. We are all in this together, so let’s cut all this nationalistic crap and unite as the human species. Peace to all good souls, whatever your creed or colour, wealth or poverty, abilities or disabilities.

    Liked by 2 people

    • And now with Kabul being taken back the day after I wrote this, the finger-pointing has started in earnest. No one takes any blame and therefore they won’t investigate how we could do things differently. I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but I can say with high certainty, America will never learn. Our foreign policy needs a complete reboot, which I know won’t happen, I find it really hard to be hopeful for the human race. Everything we do seems to be shooting ourselves in the foot.

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