"We Must Cultivate Our Gardens" - What I Wrote on 9/11/01

ON SEPTEMBER 13, 2001, I TOOK THE ADVICE OF A TRIBUNE COLUMNIST AND COMMITTED MY THOUGHTS FROM 9/11/2001 TO PAPER.  LOOKING BACK, I THINK ABOUT CHANGE, HOW THINGS EVOLVE, AND VOLTAIRE AND CANDIDE.  HERE IT IS/WAS:

Today is Thursday, September 13, 2001.  Two days ago, terrorists hijacked four airplanes.  Two were flown into the World Trade Center buildings in New York City.  One was flown into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and one crashed into a field in western Pennsylvania.

This morning I read a newspaper column in which the writer recommended that people commit their thoughts of that day to writing for their descendants to read and because even though we can remember what happened two days ago, thoughts are fleeting and memories fade.  I agree.

On Monday night, September 10, I attended a meeting and returned home late, around 11:30 p.m.  Before going to sleep, I watched a little television, read a bit and probably fell asleep around 12:15 a.m. on September 11.  That morning, I got up and caught the 6:51 a.m. train from Davis Street, Evanston to the downtown Metra station in Chicago.  It was just another workday, but notable because of the beautiful weather.  The sun was shining, no clouds were in the sky and the temperature was in the 70’s.

I got to my office on the 2nd floor at 28 North Clark Street, Chicago at 7:45 a.m. and immediately noticed that several people were sitting in front of the television in the break room.  The picture on that television is not very good, but it was clear enough to show that an airplane had slammed into one of the buildings of the World Trade Center.  Those who were watching were reacting with fear and sadness, but because it was so early, not much was known about the details.

I came into my office to try to access one of the two national websites that might provide more information, either CNN.com or MSNBC.com.  It was impossible to get to either site because of all the people who must have been trying to do the same thing.  By now, it was about 8:15 a.m. and the second plane had hit the second tower.  More people were arriving for work and more people were in the lunchroom watching that little 13” television with the bad picture.  People were also turning on radios trying to get information, but like the bad TV picture, radios in a downtown office building can barely pick up an AM signal.

At that point, I went into our conference room to watch a large television that is used primarily for showing training videos.  I think the last time employees packed that conference room with the TV on was to watch the OJ Simpson verdict announcement.  Only one other person was watching that television when I walked in and I closed the door to avoid this becoming a gathering place (without knowing yet the severity of what was going on.)  Once I started watching the horror and as I would find later in the day, it was extremely difficult to pull yourself away from the picture.  As horrible as the images were and as much death that you knew was resulting, there was something that drew you to watch.  I sat in the conference room for about 20 minutes, saw the aftermath of the plan that crashed into the Pentagon and went back to my office.

At about 9:00, when it became obvious that this was going to be an awful day for the country, word started filtering out that our office may be closed.  I was told that the Sears Tower was being evacuated and I was also told that it looked like the Daley Center would be shut down.  At around 10:00 a.m., I was told that I should tell my employees that they should leave as our building was being evacuated as well.  Some employees were concerned about rumors that mass transit was not fully functional or that some of the CTA’s rapid transit lines were not running.  None of this, however, proved to be true.

I stayed around the office until everyone else had gone, and at about 10:30 a.m., I headed to the Metra station.  Although I anticipated a certain level of chaos or disorganization at the station, everything was very calm.  Metra was operating on a “load and go” schedule where as a train was full, it would pull out of the station.  I was fortunate because as soon as I got to the platform, an employee was announcing that a northbound train was loading and ready to go.  I got on, got my spot in the aisle and arrived back home by 11:15 a.m.

Of course when I got home, I immediately turned on the television.  By that time, the media had video of the second plane slamming into the second World Trade Center tower.  No matter how many times they showed the video, it became more disturbing and more sickening.  Also by this time, if my memory is correct, both of the towers had collapsed, the plane had hit the Pentagon, and the fourth plane had crashed into the field in Pennsylvania.

After about two hours of watching the televised reports, I had to stop and find something else to do.  Because it was, ironically, such a beautiful day, I changed out of my suit into shorts and a t-shirt to sit outside and read a book.  As I sat down, I noticed that my neighbor’s daughter had pulled up with her station wagon full of bags of planting soil, mulch and plants.  She pulled some tools out of the garage and was going to work on the perennial garden she was helping to create for her mother.  I had grown up in the house I now live in again and had known my neighbor’s daughter, Tricia, since when she and I were kids.  She is probably five to seven years younger than me, but in all that time, I’ve really never done more that wave or say hello or Merry Christmas.  Given the day and the moment perhaps, I decided to ask her if she wanted some help with the garden.

About five hours later, sweaty, dirty and tired, she thanked me and I wished her good luck on the rest of her work.  During the course of the afternoon, I commented to her that the planting we were doing may have been similar to how Europeans felt while they tended their gardens during World War II as the planes flew overhead and dropped bombs nearby.  At first she laughed, but then said how she could see how that must have been so crazy and “dichotomous” at the time.  It’s strange how events create other events.  It’s strange how I spent an afternoon with someone I never really knew, but who was so close.

It really wasn’t until today, Thursday, when cameras and television reporters have been allowed into the area they are now calling “Ground Zero” thus allowing the true nature and impact of the devastation to translate over television.  They are dealing with massive hunks of steel and concrete, constant dust and smoke, fears of surrounding buildings collapsing, and the horror of finding body parts of an estimated 5,000 people.

For many years, Americans have watched televised reports of devastation from earthquakes around the world.  Countries like Turkey, India, Bangladesh and Japan seem to suffer from natural tragedies all the time and the pictures remind me of that reports of those incidents.  But this is America and the circumstances are far different.  It is impossible not to feel deeply for those most affected; the people who died, their families, the people who survived, the rescue workers, and even the eyewitnesses to all of it.

It is more than a “tragedy” that took place on Tuesday (a word being used quite a bit).  It is a horror, a disaster, an attack on freedom, a new era.  As of today, we don’t know who did it and I don’t see right now how that really matters.  Eventually, the terrorist who was the mastermind of this attack will be identified and action will be taken, I am certain of that.  After two days, it is clear that the spirit of American people hasn’t been broken, but I do fear for my children and their future.

My four kids, ages 16, 14, 10 and 7 all reacted differently, but with a common thread.  Each of them worried that this could happen in Chicago.  My 16 year old had the most insight, my 14 year old daughter personalized things by showing concern for her friends’ parents who were stranded outside Chicago, my 10 year old commented on how “smart” the terrorists were to pull this off and my 7 year old had the most questions.  I tried to answer the questions, but mostly let them talk.

Someone who may read this years from now may think my thoughts are simplistic or lacking deep substance.  Nevertheless, it is my reaction – as someone who “witnessed” events through newspapers, television, and talking amongst friends, colleagues and strangers.  And through the planting of flowers.

I went to the bank on Tuesday morning shortly after our office evacuated and spoke to a stranger while I waited in line at the ATM.  He asked me, “What’s the latest?”  I told him, “One of the towers just collapsed and the other seems ready to go any minute.  Plus, a plane hit the Pentagon.”  He looked at me when he finished his transaction and said, “Things will never be the same.”  I couldn’t agree more.

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