in Columns Published in the Asheville Citizen-Times

The Long Road Back to 9/11

Asheville Citizen-Times 09/09/2014 –

Households in the New York suburb where I lived at the time were shredded, with parents, sons and daughters missing.

(Photo: Tom Hanson/AP-)

A stray dog was chasing the bullets strafing the beach. He thought the puffs of sand were the footprints of an invisible, escaping animal.

My uncle, an army officer, told me that story, but refused to talk about anything else he’d seen that December morning in Pearl Harbor.

Some believe that discussing trauma makes it easier to handle. Maybe so, but not for him. At the time, I didn’t understand why.

I was at a huge outdoor agricultural trade show in central Nebraska when an associate walked over to me.

“I just heard on the radio that a plane accidentally crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.”

I realized instantly it was no mishap, but people unfamiliar with the buildings couldn’t know that.

I called my family. At that moment they were safe in the city suburbs.

I was one of only a handful of New Yorkers present at the show. A radio station announcer immediately interviewed me simply for that reason. I managed to convey my impression that the incident was not the result of a navigational error and that I suspected the sleeping giant would soon be awakened.

Seventeen minutes later, when the second jet trashed the south tower, everyone understood the country was under attack. Within the hour, the Pentagon was hit and a commercial aircraft crashed in Pennsylvania.

The entrance way to the show was lined with American flags, and I was asked to help lower them all to half-mast. Once that was completed, the company president told me to go home.

I knew all flights had been grounded for at least 24 hours. My suspicion was that they’d be down longer and that my only choice was to drive from the Heartland to the outskirts of the Big Apple. I checked out of my hotel, loaded the rental car and was on the road by noon. The plan was to drive for as long as I could, find a motel, rest for a few hours and then finish the journey.

As I traveled through Nebraska listening to the radio, I heard my interview, positioned by the announcer as if I were some kind of authority. The station was still struggling for fresh content and at that moment, my brief 60 seconds seemed to be the filler needed between emerging points of information. Supposition was intense — facts few.

When I passed Sioux City, Iowa, I spoke to my wife and daughter again. They were safe, but in mid-conversation my cell battery went dead. I hadn’t packed my car phone charger, thinking I wouldn’t need it.

Hours later, between Chicago and South Bend, I pulled into a small all-night gas station, filled the car and then walked inside to the convenience store. I’d heard endlessly on the radio about the airliners going into the Twin Towers, but hadn’t actually witnessed the incidents. Without that visual, I was sure what I imagined was far worse than what actually occurred.

I was the only customer, and the blond cashier wearing a Moody Blues T-shirt was focused on a fuzzy TV screen. As I looked over her shoulder, I had my first glimpse of the aircraft destroying the towers, followed by the buildings collapsing. The destruction was far worse than I anticipated.

I was shaken. I’d been inside the World Trade Center just three weeks before.

The cashier turned and stared at me. “I’m so sad,” she said.

I nodded. “Me too.”

Back on the road, I kept thinking I should stop at some motel, but I was so fired up with adrenalin, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. The cell phone suddenly rang. My daughter wanted to know my progress. I was very grateful for the call — a hand reaching out, but had no idea how the phone operated with a dead battery. Thirty seconds later, it died for the second and final time.

The radio reports were redundant and the early morning hours turned surreal — 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock, with only the occasional tractor trailer or car accompanying me on the interstate. I gradually felt as if I were underwater, staring through the darkness with occasional electric-eyed fish swimming toward or away from me.

I listened to two different radio commentators, one implying that the United States might be at fault and another suggesting we bomb the Middle Eastern countries back to the Stone Age.

But here’s the thing — no one could confirm that it was over. That was my biggest fear. Nobody was sure we’d seen the end of the devastation. As I drove on, I grew more on edge, more isolated.

Somewhere in eastern Ohio, I could sense the curtain coming down and halted at a rest stop, cracked the two front windows, reclined the seat, and closed my eyes.

In what I thought was only moments, I heard tapping on the glass. An elderly couple was staring at me. “Are you OK?’ he asked in a gesture of kindness and concern. I nodded and glanced at my watch. I had only been asleep for an hour, but was ready to roll.

Pennsylvania was a long state to travel across and the last major geography before entering the home-turf radius. I stopped again, and for the first time saw gas lines forming as people anticipated an emerging oil crisis. There was little talk — faces were drawn, tension was high. Road rage had disappeared.

The George Washington Bridge reopened an hour before I arrived, and for the first time I could recall, the toll was waived (as was the rental car drop charge later). The police just kept directing the bumper-to-bumper cars through the gates, urging everyone to keep moving.

Twenty-six hours after leaving Nebraska, I landed back in the New York suburbs.

Once home, it was impossible to sleep. I walked outside into a late afternoon of a gentle Indian summer day, a quiet space of time enhanced with green grass and pale blue hydrangeas fresh from recent showers.

I ended up standing by the side of the street with two men from my neighborhood — three of us quietly trying to make some sense out of the disaster. It was difficult to believe the drama of 9-11 had played out just 36 hours before and only 30 miles from where we were standing.

The local repercussions were many. Households in the community were shredded, with parents, sons and daughters missing. Families anxiously called to check on other families.

Pete Ganci, a high school friend and the New York City Fire Department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, died with his men on the front-lines in the collapse of the towers. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had been standing, talking with him just minutes before.

Folks I knew who had been in one of the towers and lived never returned to their jobs, or even the city. Many left the state. Some of the dead were tallied by their cars remaining untouched, day after day, in the commuter parking lot at the railroad station.

The acrid odor of burning plastic from the collapsed towers could be recognized from miles away, and a grainy newspaper image of a pancaked fire truck remained a bleak reminder of the force of the attack.

The reverberations continue, the ripples widening, expanding, their power still able to taint and maim after thirteen years.

Now when someone mentions 9/11 to me, I make a conscious effort to avoid rethinking the unthinkable, airliners decimating the Twin Towers, stranded people having to make last-second decisions to jump to their deaths or be burned alive in flaming jet fuel.

Instead, I concentrate on the truck-stop cashier with the blond ponytail and the Moody Blues T-shirt. Strangers become friends under fire, and the first time I witnessed the massive destruction, her presence helped me absorb the impact. We were alone together, and the honesty of her words, her sadness, rang true and mimicked my own unspoken thoughts. In my head, we had bonded for life.

Occasionally 9/11 still gangs up on me, and when my first line of defense, my truck-stop cashier, isn’t enough, I listen to Springsteen’s words of hope, “My City of Ruins,” or John Williams’ timeless arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” a message of freedom.

And somewhere along the way, I’ve figured out why my uncle would only talk about a dog chasing bullets strafing the Pearl Harbor beach. To relate the breadth of his experience, to focus again on the damage, would only cause him to remember what he needed most to forget — all the senseless deaths, and a lost innocence stretching from sea to shining sea.

Ted Alexander lives in Asheville. His first novel, “The Fall of Summer,” a 1960s coming-of-age story, is scheduled for release this month.