I wrote this back in 2009 because everyone at the office was sharing their “Where we you when the planes hit?” stories. Even now when I read this or think about 9/11, the feelings are overwhelming. Yet, what we’ve learned about national unity in the long run has been overshadowed by what we’ve forgotten about national unity.
“So, do you think the Army’s going to call you up because of this?”
“I sure as hell hope so.”
That was the big question my supervisor at the E! Channel asked me on 9/11. While I did eventually get called up, I’d gladly give up all the financial and professional gains which resulted if it had never happened. But that’s not what these words are going to be about.
I was awakened that morning by a phone call from my mother-in-law who told us in frantic, disjointed words that something bad was happening. As a native New Yorker, she was understandably shaken at learning that Manhattan was under attack. The message was related to me by my spouse at the time who slammed into the bedroom and shook me awake and said “Wake up! The Pentagon’s under attack!”
I got up, rushed to the TV in a groggy stupor and saw the story as it was still in chaos. Information was rolling into news agencies willy-nilly and much of what was heard and reported was unconfirmed. I dressed and hurried to work in the Wilshire District in LA, near the La Brea Tar Pits. The streets of Los Angeles were relatively deserted – not empty as they were during the LA riots in 1992. But it was clear that people were staying home. Businesses closed for the day and many more operated on essential staff only. Which is why I was going to work.
When I arrived at E!, I could see that many of the national cable networks which shared our satellite space had either gone dark or were carrying coverage from one of the big three networks. It was at that moment that the enormity and the immediate practical impact of this event on this Nation became apparent. Even commerce stopped for a time – shopping networks were carrying round the clock news coverage. Sports channels and others had full-screen graphics up telling people to tune to a network broadcast and follow the news.
One of the positive things about working at a TV network with all measure of high-tech TV equipment is that we could monitor as many TV stations as we had monitors. And we had plenty. CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC all raced to get pictures and firsthand accounts of the unfolding tragedy on the air. I flipped back and forth from moment to moment and channel to channel trying to find the best pictures. No one had a lock on the best, so it was back and forth from channel to channel.
As for what I was doing in between times, E! was trying to decide whether to take coverage from a major news network or stay with the on-air schedule without regard to the situation. My job was to design on-screen graphics in support of either option. Ultimately, E! chose to stay with their own programming rather than switch to one of the majors. I will not debate that decision, but I will observe on my own behalf that I had no interest in entertainment fluff at that point, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else feeling differently.
From the moment it sank in just what was going on, my heart was heavy, but my fists clenched in preparation. When my terrific boss, Ken Mason, asked me if I was going to get called up, not only did I hope so, but I was hoping it would be within the hour. For the rest of the day, most of us sat in network control going about our business with about as much feeling as the machines supporting us. It was quiet and the sounds of our air signal were mixed with the sounds of the coverage coming from ancillary equipment racks where the carnage of the day was being replayed over and over.
I would be many months before I actually got called up and reported here to Washington, D.C. in January, 2002. I spent the next 71 months assigned to the Pentagon in various assignments, some 9/11 related and others not.
A year after the attacks, our office moved into the rebuilt section of the Pentagon and shortly thereafter, the small indoor memorial and chapel was opened. Whenever I thought I was being unfairly put upon, I’d stroll the 30 seconds down the E-ring to the 9/11 memorial and stand for a minute or two.
It gave me perspective in two profound ways. It made me recognize that getting picked on that day wasn’t really so bad, and that any one of these people whose biography and photo were in one of two books would give anything to be in my predicament. Alive. Within reach of those about whom they cared. And it humbled me. Standing there for only a moment made me remember why I was there and that I had better do the best job I could.
Eight years have passed since the attack on our Nation. Today, while driving into my civilian job, I listened to replays of the coverage from that day and remember what it felt like that day. How shocked and horrified. How angry. How resolute. I suspect that will never change. I suspect that I’ll always feel the intense mix of emotions on this day. And I’ll fight back the tears on this day just as I did on this day eight years ago.
For many, the feelings we experienced that day have already escaped us, relegating the horror of the day to a collection of historical facts, figures and stately memorials to those who perished. It is right that we recall the facts and honor those who were murdered that day. However, it is my wish that somehow the shock, horror, anger and resolution I felt – that most everyone felt that morning – stay with us and unite us as it did on 9/11 and in the shadows of that day.
Eight years hence, we find ourselves a divided Nation when in truth, there’s so very much more about us that is alike than those things which divide us.
I wish we weren’t so divided and I have no solution as to how to unite us. I just know that we have it in us. The days following September 11, 2001 were some of America’s finest.
Remember what that was like. Not just today on this horrific anniversary. But every day.
It would serve us all well.