I was six months into my first job, excited to be going to an off-site conference early that Tuesday morning. I left the apartment quietly, as I was the only one of us out of college, getting up for work. The only radio station that came in was the worst, goofiest morning show. Suddenly they started talking about a plane that had hit a building – then, as I listened, they exclaimed over a second one. It didn’t make any sense, and was unfunny even for them, so I called back to the apartment and asked my sleepily annoyed boyfriend to turn on the TV. He quickly yelled to wake up the other five guys. We didn’t understand it.
The conference was already unraveling when I arrived. The exhibitors had been cleverly set up as a giant Monopoly board around the room, but they – many from Manhattan, most of the rest from out of state (having flown into Newark) – were distracted and confused. The organizers had – unbelievable in hindsight – removed the television that had proven “too distracting”. Calls weren’t going through, smartphones didn’t exist and laptops weren’t the norm. Very little filtered in, but still, after a couple of hours, everyone gave up all pretense and dispersed. On my way back to the apartment, my father managed to get a call through to me. He told me we were at war and to get off the road because at that point there were eight planes believed to be unaccounted for. I was terrified – but still bewildered.
You see, I hadn’t seen any images all morning. Nothing but snippets of rumors. As hard as it is to imagine now, I had no concept of what was going on. In my confused understanding, airplanes had hit the tops of the towers, which had broken off like dandelion heads. I didn’t – couldn’t – understand that the Twin Towers, the ones I had known my whole life as indelibly a part of the skyline as the sun itself – had imploded down, self-contained waterfalls of glass and steel and dust. I didn’t understand until I got back into the apartment and saw the television – that images we all saw for a week straight. That’s when my knees gave way and I started to cry.
It seems so odd to me that people – nearly adult people now – can’t remember a time before 9/11. Odd and unfair and horrible. They’ll never know any different. They’ll always understand, unlike me.
But some things they won’t understand. They know the hundreds of handmade flyers as memorials, not desperate hopes as they still were in the first hours and days. They didn’t walk the post-apocalyptically empty streets of Lower Manhattan. They didn’t freeze like a rabbit in a field the first time they saw a jet overhead after days of silent sky. They can’t still, to this day, see the images of the towers burned like negative images in the skyline. They don’t get a twinge when a fall day is too clear, too crisp, too perfect.
The further away in time we pass, the more people know September 11 as a history date. They understand what it meant. But in understanding so well, they lose so much. Those awful memories, yes, but also the naïveté that came before.
I’m glad that I got the chance to not understand.
…they are ignorant of what is to come; for who will make known to them how it will be?