We all carry some part of September 11th with us.
There’s raw memory, of course: what we recall about where we were, our experiences that day, the devastation as we saw what unfolded.
And there’s something I’ll call “considered memory”: how we see that experience through the prism of all we’ve lived through, both privately as individuals and as a nation, since that date.
For me, honestly, I’m still puzzling over it. I’ve had an absorbing interest in our history for almost as long as I can remember, since a kids’ Civil War book was put into my hands and I pronounced Potomac as “POT-oh-mack.”
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that one attraction of history, especially the history of war, of conflict, of tragedy, is the recounting of the battle and the exploit in much the same way the epic-singers of old traveled from court to court to relate “The Iliad.” The battle and the exploit, the courage or failure of courage, themselves become the moral of the tale.
Often the recounting goes no further. The Light Brigade is forever charging the guns, always fulfilling a heroic destiny. But what then? What happens after Pickett’s Charge is broken, after Appamattox, after the arms are stacked and the banners furled? What happens when we move beyond the sepia-tinted memories, the strains of elegiac strings, into the life that follows the battle?
The “what then?” is what I’ve started to think more about lately. To the extent I’m thinking about September 11th today, that’s what’s on my mind.
My brother John and his family lived in Brooklyn, 2.4 miles southeast of the World Trade Center, on September 11th. The attacks and their aftermath, things heard and seen, were intimate and immediate. They were downwind from the towers, and the blizzard of dust and paper unleashed when the buildings collapsed littered their neighborhood. John told me later he would go around and pick up bagsful of litter from the towers. At one point, he sent me a small bag with items he’d found. I haven’t The items from that bag are pictured above and below.
Again, I puzzle over these fragments. They’re mundane: Part of a financial firm’s rules for handling trades. A blank visitor log for a government office. Design drawings for airport terminal signage. A page from a desk calendar (the date happends to be my birthday).
There’s not a human mark on those scraps of paper. But they were handled by someone, somewhere, in a place we all saw destroyed. Touching those scraps is like touching that place, touching that destruction.
I went up in the World Trade Center twice. Once during a visit in 1985, once in August 2001, about four weeks before the attacks. I was with my son Thom and John and his son Sean. We were on the top of the South Tower. It was a high place with a view and some history: We talked about the guy who had climbed the tower, and the guy who had walked a high-wire between the towers. Watching an airliner fly north over the Hudson, John recalled the story of an airline pilot who had, on a clear day, gotten off his flight path and flown his plane far too close to the towers and apparently lost his job over it. In fact, that conversation was the first thing that came to mind September 11th when I saw the first pictures of the North Tower after it had been hit.
One other memory. I was on a plane at Kennedy, taxiing out to take off. The sun was just rising. I looked out my window and, far to the west, the towers caught that first golden light. I still see them shining.