(Published in the Gettysburg Times, 9/13/2013)
I was crossing Baltimore Street on my way into the Adams County Courthouse when my phone buzzed. It was my spouse calling from work. A second plane had crashed into the Twin Towers.
When she called about the first one, I thought some pilot was going to be very glad he’d died for that mistake. But two was not a mistake.
“We’re at war with someone,” I said, then hung up and made my way to the emergency communications center in the courthouse basement, where I remained the rest of the day, watching an endless loop of passenger jets slicing into the two towers in lower Manhattan, and the towers collapsing on themselves, killing, at that time, untold thousands of office workers.
A year later, I visited Ground Zero, and talked with a Gettysburg College graduate who had been in California, on a tele-conference with colleagues in New York, when one of the planes plowed into their office. Back home, I met a couple who had met at the Pentagon, tending dogs searching the rubble for bodies, and were married and became my friends, though the latter two events were coincidental rather than cause and effect.
A friend mentioned this week that it seems every generation has its “death imprint,” some significant catastrophe that causes people to never forget where they were, what they were doing, when “it” happened.
For my generation, it was John F. Kennedy being shot to death by a sniper, Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. I was a high school Junior, and we were called into an unscheduled school assembly in the gymnasium to get the word. Some students cried, and others just sat there.
I think for me the importance of the event did not sink in for a few hours, not until I began noticing the effect it had on the adults. Most of our parents were veterans of World War II, a war fought, in part, to keep such things from happening.
I was angry when Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Alabama Gov. George Wallace were shot – Kennedy and King killed, Wallace paralyzed. That’s not the way we are supposed to settle our disagreements, I remember thinking.
I cried on a January morning in 1986, as I watched Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just over a minute after liftoff, killing the entire crew – including a 37-year-old New Hampshire high school teacher on her way to collect some very unique experiences for her students.
Other events I was only aware of remotely – when Timothy McVeigh set off a truck bomb in 1995, killing 168 adults and children in the Alfred P. Murrah Building, I was angry. But the event lost some of its impact when it was reduced to posturing by politicians and prosecutors swearing to kill McVeigh.
I remember little about the killings at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, but I remember well the 1996 bombing at the Olympics in Atlanta, Ga., and the FBI bragging how it had caught the guy, then having to back off when it was learned it wasn’t Richard Jewell who’d done the deed after all.
And in April, two young men set off bombs in the finish line crowd at the Boston Marathon, killing or maiming hundreds of spectators and racers.
Most days, I am happy to live in the world I inhabit, though sometimes I wish it could be a little more peaceful. I wish history could put more emphasis on the waste of war than on the warriors who wage it.
With the exception of the Challenger explosion, all the sequence of deadly events has proven is that the only thing proven by fighting is who, in the end, is still standing.