Thirteen-year old Richard worked on his model train and listened to his favorite radio show which was interrupted with an alert that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. At first, actual witnesses at Pearl Harbor thought it was a training exercise. As if it happened yesterday, Richard still remembers the day. It became his first exposure to the true definition of terror. What would happen next?
For Richard and the next generation better known as the Baby Boomers everyone knew exactly where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot. When first announced, some thought it was a mistake; the President would be fine until the second fatal announcement that confirmed his death. I was in the grade school library when it was announced over the loud speaker. I even remember the agonizing cries followed by a deafening silence that stifled the country. It was the first time school was dismissed early without the sounds of celebration. No one knew what to do, what to say but they moved through the days ahead with caution; immobilized by fear. I remember watching nothing else but the dramatic events of our President’s death unfold on television. At the scene of JFK’s shooting, Governor Connelly’ wife, had cried out, that they would kill us all. What would happen next?
Ironically, both American tragedies mirror the perfect responses and actions of the American people years later as they witnessed the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001.
While remembering my own place in time when the Twin Towers fell, I decided to ask others about their memories of 9/11. One recalls sitting in a Freshman English class in college and someone running into class to say that the World Trade Center had been attacked. Class, too, was dismissed for the day. And another was asleep but awakened by his hysterical father who was telling him to get up and watch the news, that the country was doomed. What would happen next? But then someone who overheard my curiosity about remembering 9/11 spoke three quiet but penetrating words, “I was there.”
She began her recollection of 9/11 describing a gorgeous, cloudless day on Church Street in New York City, visiting a friend from school, when she saw the first plane crash and thought it was an accident. And for a brief second, I remembered that one moment the President was still alive. When the second plane hit, she knew that it was not an accident. A fireman grabbed her and her friend, having them hide; protected underneath a fire truck. It seemed like time had stood still under that truck…would they kill us all? She listened to the desperate screams, sirens blaring but then an eerie silence along with the smell of sulfur. Days later, it was like a disaster film as people wandered the streets of New York. It changed her life, her dreams and she joined the police force because of its effects
Though many feel that Pearl Harbor or the assassination of John F Kennedy cannot be equalized to the events of 9/11, any American tragedy leaves a lasting impression; creating nation-wide emotional pain encompassed by mortal fear; always prompting the question where were you that fateful day. Unless your memory has been altered or too young to develop those mnemonic skills, we all get a perfect score when answering that question.
However, as we remember the 17th anniversary of 9/11, will we express thanks for our own and be grateful for the ones who continue to fight for us today? Can we give ourselves high marks for reflecting on the lives lost, families stricken and the brave responders who didn’t think twice about their own welfare but tried to create calm within the storm?
If we can always remember exactly where we were at the time tragedy claimed our attention, we can take time to increase our participation grade and honor those whose lives will be forever impacted by the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
(Originally published in the Chicago Tribune)