I remember being in elementary school and having either an actual assignment or an extra credit assignment to ask a relative about a historically significant event they could recall. (Honestly, I may have actually just imagined this assignment happened and have a false memory.)
“Ask your parents what they remember about the first man on the moon, the end of the Vietnam War, the assassination of President Kennedy,” etc.
As I grew older, I started to wonder if there would be a historically significant event in my lifetime. Would I ever have someone younger than me ask where I was when event X occurred?
As you know, this weekend marks 20 years since the twin towers fell. When there was a shift in our nation – for the first time in decades there was a physical attack on the United States.
Sept. 11, 2001 – I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. It was a Tuesday morning, which meant working in the government documents section of the university library beginning at 8. The first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center at approximately 7:45 a.m. central time; I was probably walking across campus to work when that occurred.
At work, my supervisor always had the radio in the backroom turned on. I heard the words “plane crashed into building” and thought it sounded awful. But, airplanes did occasionally have mechanical failures so it was not unheard of for planes to crash and I went out to return items to the stacks.
It was at work that I learned two planes had crashed into the twin towers. This was not a tragic airplane accident – this was deliberate. I wish I could remember if my co-workers and I were sent to the stacks to do our tasks or if we sat around the table in the backroom, listening to the radio.
My 9:30 a.m. class met briefly before being dismissed. Most of us already knew something terrible occurred. The rest of my classes that day were also canceled.
My roommate was afraid her brother, who was stationed in Hawaii, would be deployed overseas. And just five months earlier, she had been at the World Trade Center as part of a high school music department trip to New York City.
A university campus in the fall, within the second week of the semester, shouldn’t feel somber. Every TV shouldn’t be tuned into news. The cafeteria shouldn’t be as quiet as the library during finals week. But that’s what I remember. It was as if laughing and smiling would have been disrespectful to the people who lost their lives.
I saw those planes crash into the World Trade Center again and again and again as TV networks kept updates coming. Then there were the pictures: President George W. Bush being interrupted while reading to children at an elementary school as he was informed of the attack, the rubble of the twin towers, first responders tending to those who were injured, and the look of devastation on the faces of countless people.
That day left me feeling a bit less safe; that this could happen almost anywhere. It probably didn’t help that the terrorism threat levels, which had existed prior to Sept. 11, were now being broadcast each day and it seemed like we were in level orange for days.
For children like my niblings, Sept. 11 will be a few pages in a history book. It will feel as foreign to them as the assassination of Kennedy feels to me. They’ll ask their parents and grandparents “Where were you on Sept. 11?” as part of their homework or extra-credit assignment. And perhaps they will wonder if they will ever live through a historically significant event that changes the nation. If so, may it be one similar to putting a man on the moon – a moment of wonder that reminds us anything is possible. Then again, the attack in New York also reminded us that anything was possible – though not in way that provided us positive thoughts.