Monday, September 10, 2001 was cooler than usual in Rockwall, Texas. Temperatures are normally in the low-90s but that day only got up to 83. There was no rain, though it was partly cloudy in the afternoon. I was twelve years old, having just started seventh grade, and I was still in the process of adjusting to middle school after seven years of kindergarten through sixth grade at the elementary school. That day ran pretty much like the first ten or so days of the school year: my mom drove me to school, I went to class, I had lunch, I went to more class, from 3:00 to about 4:45 or so I had football practice, and my mom picked me up and we went home for dinner and homework.
Of course no one in Rockwall knew it at the time but September 10, 2001 was going to be the last normal 24 hours we would have for a while.
The next day, Tuesday, September 11, 2001 began like most others for us in Rockwall. My sister was in elementary school and had to be there by 8:00, but my classes didn’t start until 8:45. My mom went ahead and took me to school directly after dropping my sister off, and I thought I would pass the time in the library because then, as now, my default time-killing tactic was reading. When I got to the library our school librarian (whose name I have, regrettably, forgotten) was watching an old tube TV strapped down to a rolling cart and looked concerned.
“What’s going on?” I asked, having seen billowing smoke on the screen.
“I think we got attacked,” she replied. At this point it was probably 8:15 or so in Texas, so 9:15 in New York, maybe ten minutes or so after the second plane flew into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. “I’m not sure, though,” she said. “No one knows.”
She wheeled the TV where more people could see it because by then some teachers (who of course did not have TVs in their rooms back then) had begun coming in to watch news footage. Several people looked shocked, some looked angry, still others just looked sad. I, however, still didn’t quite get it. The radio on the way to school had said something about a plane “accidentally” flying into one of the Twin Towers, which I only recognized from establishing shots on Friends. I wondered how someone could accidentally fly a plane into a skyscraper, but then again I was twelve and didn’t (and still don’t) know the first thing about flying planes, so I assumed it happens from time to time. The second plane hitting did make it seem more deliberate, but for some reason it didn’t cross my mind that a terrorist would do that. It seemed like the act of a crazy person, not of someone just filled to the brim with hate.
Then class began. I walked to Reading, which was held out in the portable buildings at my school. Mrs. D________, my teacher, had wheeled a TV in there and had the footage on. No one really talked about much, though I do remember some people asking Mrs. D________ what was going on and trying to figure out why this was happening. Of course, that’s not unique. At this point only a handful of people in the entire world knew exactly what had happened and why. By this point there was also footage of smoldering wreckage at the Pentagon, but the focus was still primarily on the Twin Towers because of how dramatic it all seemed. Then, as we all sat in those desks with the chairs attached, we saw the South Tower collapse right before 9:00 Texas time. No one really spoke that I can remember. Or maybe it was chaos in the classroom. I have no idea, really. I remember being shocked, and I remember dead silence, despite whatever the truth is.
But still, I wasn’t getting it. I didn’t know anyone who worked in any skyscraper, and I had never been to New York, and frankly I hadn’t spent much time in any congested area other than the occasional trips to downtown Dallas for Mavericks’ games. I didn’t comprehend the full scope of what was going on in Manhattan.
Class changed, and I went to Science with Mr. B________. I don’t have much memory of this class except that maybe another class came into our room because there weren’t enough TVs for every room to get one. Mr. B________ might have talked to us about what was going on, or maybe he didn’t. It didn’t matter. No one was listening much. By this time some kids were starting to get pulled out of school because parents were nervous there was going to be another attack.
Science ended and it was off to English with Mrs. G________, who taught her class as if nothing else was going on. Parts of speech, subject-verb agreement, maybe some discussion of prepositions, who knows? That was the one class I remember seeming somewhat normal, which I still have mixed feelings about. Should she have talked to us about what was happening? Should she have wheeled a TV in and talked about destruction and terrorism and international politics? Should she have tried to get our prepubescent brains to comprehend the death toll and the chaos and horror that would grip the families of victims for years to come? Or did she do the right thing by explaining that “whom” is proper when it is part of a prepositional phrase or the object of a sentence? I still don’t know.
After English the day gets blurry. I know Spanish and lunch came after English, but I don’t remember the order and I disliked the Spanish teacher so much I’ve blocked most of that class out. My fifth period class was History, taught by Coach C________ in the portable building next to where I had Reading that morning. Coach C________ was prone to turning red when he was agitated, and by the time class started he looked like a pitcher of cherry Kool-Aid. There was dead silence in the classroom except for the TV, which was showing footage of the Towers, both of which had long since collapsed, the Pentagon, which was being evacuated still, and a random field in what I later learned was Pennsylvania. Suddenly Coach C________ slapped the top of his desk and made everyone jump. “We are at war! We’re at war! Don’t you see that? We’ve been attacked. America is at war and got attacked. This,” he said, volume increasing and face transitioning from Kool-Aid to eggplant, “is an act of war.”
That was the moment. That was the moment it started to feel more significant. And look, to be perfectly honest, I was no fan of Coach C________. He was my football and later basketball coach, but he didn’t know anything about either sport (he was a baseball guy) and the only subject about which he knew less than basketball was history. All I’m saying is please don’t think this is some impressionable middle schooler having a Eureka! moment because of someone he loved and respected. This was someone finally saying what happened in terms simple enough for my small brain to understand. War is a concept I understood. Civil War, Revolutionary War, World War I, World War II…I understood the concept of those things. One country attacks another, and the attacked country fights back with an army, navy, and possibly air force. And if planes flying into buildings was war, then I could start to conceptualize that.
Coach C________ probably kept talking like that for the rest of class, but I can’t be sure. By then a larger number of students had been pulled out of school. Maybe 15% or so of the class was gone. We were also starting to see more statements from politicians on TV, and there was news of school football and volleyball games getting canceled around the country. We knew planes had been grounded. There was a rumor that the school nurse lost a brother in the attacks, though I’m afraid I can’t substantiate that one. But it all started to click in Coach C________’s class.
During sixth period (Math), we got confirmation that football practice would be canceled. If I remember right we were allowed to use school phones to call our parents and arrange for rides, but I’m not sure. I do know that my mom was parked outside the school promptly at 3:45, so somehow she knew. (As an aside, she couldn’t remember for sure but she believes I called her from a school phone, so I think that’s most likely what happened.) Math is also a little blurry, but Ms. S________ was obviously distraught. From Math I went to Football. My recollection is that we just sat in the locker room until it was time to leave, but a friend of mine thinks we congregated in the gym. Either way, we all just kind of sat in one place. I don’t remember much conversation.
Once I got home from school the full weight of what happened finally hit me, and it was from an odd source: the guide channel on our TV. For those of you younger than me, TVs used to have a specific channel you went to (ours was channel 1) that had a nonstop scroll of what was on each channel. You couldn’t select a channel, mind you; you could only see the information. And you couldn’t see very far into the future; it only showed about an hour or two of scheduled programming, so if it was 4:00 when I got home I could only see what was on until about 6:00, and possibly not even that long.
The guide channel showed the normal, regularly-scheduled programming. The Rosie O’Donnell Show, SportsCenter, Total Request Live, Boy Meets World, etc. But when I would change to one of those channels, it was nothing but coverage of the attacks. Even MTV had news footage and analysis of the attacks. I couldn’t believe it. Then I found out Bug Selig canceled all Major League baseball games scheduled to be played that day, and the three days after it. Then the NFL canceled its games scheduled for September 16. NCAA football games were canceled. The Canadian Football League canceled its games. NASCAR and the PGA each canceled events in the aftermath of 9/11. There were no sports. Everything was 9/11, and 9/11 was everything.
Monday marked the last day of the old normal. Tuesday was a day of tragedy and continues to alter the trajectory of American lives even today. But what about Wednesday?
Wednesday was the first day of the new normal. News coverage dominated for the following weeks. President George W. Bush spoke about the attacks and the US response. Non-news channels eventually got back to their regular shows, but it was gradual and over the course of a week or so. Sports eventually came back, and in fact one of the more impactful things I’ve seen a president do in my lifetime occurred when President Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch of Game 3 of the World Series on October 30, 2001. Of course, President Bush also did several other impactful things in the days that followed 9/11, such as visiting Ground Zero and saying the United States would not distinguish from the attackers and the countries that harbored them, but to me the first pitch was a moment of American pride and resilience and not just a moment of comfort. Instead of helping find bodies and search through rubble, it was a giant middle finger to people who wanted to hurt us, and a signal of getting up off the mat to those countries that supported us.
What’s funny is that I have no solid memory of Wednesday, September 12. I don’t know if football practices resumed, I don’t know if I had homework to turn in, I don’t even know if I went to school, though I’m about 99% sure I did. I had only been on an airplane once before then so I didn’t really feel the impact of the changes to airport security. I wasn’t military age so I wasn’t worried about grabbing a gun and taking a plane to Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else. We didn’t live in New York so I didn’t understand the increased security and the years of extensive cleanup 9/11 would lead to.
The Internet tells me September 12 was slightly cooler than average in Rockwall (87 was the high when 91 was normal), and that from 8:00 a.m. onward the day was clear with very slight winds. I can’t tell you what I was doing in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. We subscribed to Sports Illustrated and I can remember the iconic “The Week That Sports Stood Still” cover on the late September issue, but I don’t have any specific recollection of reading it. I don’t know what I wore or who I saw or even when the next time I felt “normal” again was. In a lot of ways, the new normal was pretty similar to the old normal in that I didn’t feel the need to remember many individual days.
I do know I learned a lot of names and places over the next few years. Al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Guantanamo Bay. Abu Ghraib. PATRIOT Act. Mohamed Atta. Jalalabad. Kabul. Baghdad. All these names and places and things most Americans might never have heard about but for the 9/11 attacks. I remember a surge of American pride shortly after. T-shirts with flags on them saying “these colors don’t run,” the CD single of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A” being on sale at Walmart, Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” playing on the pop as well as country stations, military flyovers at sporting events, people all over the country wearing NYPD and FDNY clothes, and a million different bumper sticker designs that all said “Never Forget.”
Of course in the years since we’ve learned a lot more about what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and how the responses were sometimes right on, sometimes way off, and often times based on bad information. We know the negatives that eventually came to light, with domestic spying, denials of rights at Guantanamo, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a lack of direction in the Middle Eastern combat theaters, and widespread bigotry against Americans of Middle Eastern descent. But that would all come later. On Wednesday, September 12, 2001, we were just trying to figure out what normal would be from now on.
In the days immediately after 9/11, the United States was vulnerable. We were the lion with the thorn in its paw and Achilles bleeding out from an arrow to the heel. This wasn’t the 1940s where America was trying to recover from the Depression and was attacked by a foreign power, which ultimately led to a surge in patriotism that turned the US into a military and political powerhouse. This was the mightiest country on earth being brought to its knees by 19 men from different countries who hated America for reasons we couldn’t fathom. This wasn’t conventional war where one country declares war on another and professional soldiers go fight. This was a group of cowardly men led by a different group of cowardly men who killed thousands of innocent Americans who had no part in shaping foreign policy. This was dirty pool, and the tragedy was deep, wide, and heavy.
But we have recovered, kind of. We can now complain about the TSA and the nonsensical travel rules at airports. We can marvel at the 1,776-foot One World Trade Center that stands where the rubble of the Twin Towers once stood. Osama is dead, al-Qaeda is not the threat it once was, troops are no longer in Afghanistan, and President Bush is a painter.
That said, it’s still a new normal. The old normal is gone. A lot of people still measure many aspects of their lives as being either pre- or post-9/11. We might still have those clear September afternoons, but now people are cognizant of terror. We don’t know (and perhaps don’t want to know) how many terror attacks have been thwarted by US intelligence agencies, but we do seem less vulnerable than we once were.
I can’t believe it’s been twenty years. When you’re twelve, you haven’t even existed twenty years yet so it’s a difficult amount of time to even comprehend. My parents used to talk about things being twenty years ago but they were talking about the 1970s, well before my time. But now there’s a huge, life-altering event that occurred twenty years ago and I remember what I was doing that day. It’s in textbooks. My sister teaches middle school and her students weren’t even born until 2009 or so. They literally have to learn about 9/11 in their history classes. This must be what it felt like for people who were around when the Pearl Harbor attacks happened. One day a person was twelve years old in 1941, and the next they’re 32-years-old in 1961 and everything seems simultaneously recent and distant.
What I miss about late 2001 is how supportive we were to each other in the United States, for the most part. I can remember that it felt like we were really on the same team, and it was a USA-versus-the-world kind of mentality. It was nice seeing American flags hanging from the rafters at Home Depot and seeing those FDNY hats in places like Casper, Wyoming, St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Ponca City, Oklahoma. Texans and New Yorkers aren’t natural allies, but when New York was hurt, Texas was ready to stand up and defend her. Normally you won’t hear me say much nice about Louisiana, California, or New Mexico, but back then if someone had said California is stupid and Louisiana is just bad roads and rude people, I would have told them that even the worst parts of Louisiana are better than wherever they came from.
I can’t believe it’s been twenty years. But it has been. I hope we’ve grown and I hope we continue to grow as a society. I also hope we take more time to come together and learn about each other instead of having these I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong fights over trivial crap, stoked by politicians who want the office but not the responsibility. Let’s capture that feeling and that spirit without the need for unifying tragedy. Most importantly, let’s remember what it’s like to know that almost 3,000 innocent people were viciously murdered just because they were American. Let’s remember that at the end of the day, all we have in this world is ourselves and the people around us. Let’s remember that we’re stronger as a nation than we are as individuals. Let’s remember to be kind to one another and to help those in need.