Everyone has their own story about September 11th. “I was tying my shoe,” someone would say, “when the first tower fell. My white and blue Nikes. I was tying my left, white and blue Nike when the first tower fell.” Everyone has their own story, their little piece of the pie, their claim on the incredible, horrible, memorable day. Everyone frantically seeks to inject themselves into the vein of national tragedy. “I was cooking an omelet. I was cooking a ham and cheese omelet in my new red frying pan when the second plane hit.”
I don’t have much of a story. I was either asleep or showering or getting dressed when the first plane hit. I was on the bus to school when the second plane hit. I don’t remember where I was when the first tower fell. “I was packing my backpack” my friend informed me breathlessly. “I was packing my math book into my backpack when the second plane hit.” I nodded and feigned interest, trying to look as enthralled as he expected me to look, as if his packing his backpack with a math book played some desperately important role in the events in New York, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania.
“This is history in the making” our history teacher told us somberly. “This right here-” he pointed to the T.V. that showed jets relentlessly crashing into buildings, “this right here is history, folks.” We watched the flickering screen in awe. “It’s just surreal. Unbelievable” every newscaster said. “Surreal. That’s the only way I can describe it.” The day slid by, a muddled mess of CNN, NBC, Fox. People in suits yammering at other people in suits, interrupted by the smoking Pentagon, a marred filed in Pennsylvania, a commercial for the New Spicy Bean and Guacamole Taco Burrito.
The death toll numbers began pouring in. “An early estimation puts the death toll at 1000 people” the anchor nearly whispers. “The new death toll estimates about 2000 dead.” Then a scene of men jumping from the towers, their ties fluttering behind them, their bodies isolated against the sky. “What started as a beautiful, cloudless September day has turned into a nightmare…” My class swelled with secret joy when the death toll exceeded that of Pearl Harbor. We were proud. Our day was worse than that day so long ago, that “day of infamy” we had heard about in textbooks, watched in documentaries, read in magazines. This was bigger and deadlier and certainly more important than Pearl Harbor, and there we were, right in the thick of things, sitting in our 8th grade classroom. “I was brushing my teeth…” someone said.
Later, American flags would be everywhere. The news would be full of the still foreign scene of jets colliding with skyscrapers. The heroics on flight 93 would be lauded again and again. Conspiracy theorists would finally get something to work with. Images of the devil in the explosions would flood the net. A country singer would “put a boot in their ass, it’s the American way.” The Pet Goat would become one of the most famous children’s books ever. “9/11 will define this generation” the experts on the news said to each other.
Later, people would trade stories. “I was packing my backpack” my friend said to the group surrounding him. “I was packing my backpack with my math book when the second plane hit.” “I was just walking out the door” another says. “I was eating Apple Jacks” someone else says. I would stand there and not say anything. I was detached, as if I wasn’t alive when the planes hit and the towers fell. This wasn’t my tragedy, just like Pearl Harbor wasn’t my tragedy. I was excluded from all conversation concerning the attack because I wasn’t there. “Where where you when the first plane hit?” someone asked me. I looked around sheepishly at the eager faces, eyes wide, ready to hear my personal connection with the event that was so unbelievably important. “I was asleep,” I said.