We were living in Virginia Beach, Va. Sometimes I think that many folks in New York and New Jersey think that the rest of the country was not affected by the events of 9/11, but we were. I was teaching at Norfolk State University. Norfolk, Va., is home to the largest military bases in the world. As I drove to work that day I was listening to talk radio. Local radio personality Tony Macrini delivered the news that a plane had struck the first tower. What a terrible accident, I thought. I arrived at the campus and parked my car and heard Tony tell me that a second plane had hit the second tower. I stayed in my car, listening. When Tony announced that a plane had hit the Pentagon, I knew something terribly wrong was happening. I got out of my car, went into the Social Work building, where my office was located, and told everyone to turn on the televisions. No one who arrived early that day knew what was going on. We watched together in horror.
By the time my class met, at 11 a.m., at least 75 percent of my students had husbands, brothers, wives, sisters, mother, fathers, or children who were on Navy ships leaving port. I canceled class and told everyone to go home and be with their families. It occurred to all of us that, as we sat in the midst of a very large military installment, Norfolk also might be a target. All of the bridges and tunnels in the area were shut down, and people were stranded on either side of the water, with little hope or getting home that day if they needed to cross a body of water.
No way to call home
I drove home immediately. There was no way to make cell phone calls and reach family far away because the cell phone lines were jammed. Somehow I learned that my brother-in-law had taken a train into the New York City that morning for a job interview. When he arrived, he saw people running uptown, so he ran too. I think he finally made it home to New Jersey the following day.
I spent a good part of that day calling my son’s school, to see if it was closing. My son was 7. The school did not close, although many Jewish day schools did close that day, for fear that they might be targets of attacks. When I picked him up, he knew something was going on because some of his classmates had been picked up early by frantic parents, and some had parents who shipped out immediately aboard Navy ships.
I told him what had happened, in words that a 7-year-old could understand, but that (I hoped) were not too terrifying. He asked to watch what happened on TV. I let him watch, together with my husband and me, exactly once. Newspapers were hidden from him for the next few weeks. We talked about it, but it was a challenge to be truthful and at the same time be comforting, when even the adults were unsure of what to think. Most of us were pretty terrified ourselves.
One of the moments I will always remember is that after my son had seen the images on TV, he ran to his room and got a snow globe of New York that he had bought the previous January, when we had taken him there for the first time and we had visited the observation deck at the Twin Towers. My son shook the snow globe and said it looked like the scene on TV after the towers fell. He said we should throw the snow globe away, because the towers were gone. I convinced him to save it to remember that we had been there. He, and I, wondered if there were people just like us there that morning, visiting New York and taking in the grand sights, who died. I imagined that there were. And we cried.
Loud, but comforting
That evening, I was scheduled to teach another class at NSU’s Virginia Beach campus. With no way to make contact with my students, I decided to show up just in case any of them did. As I parked my car and walked into the building I heard something – the sound of Navy jets. If you’ve never lived near a naval air station, you can’t imagine how loud they can be. In fact, before 9/11, many Virginia Beach residents were signing petitions to force the Navy to reroute their jets because the noise. But that night, after the skies had been quiet all day, the sound of Navy jets was the most comforting, sweet sound I could have imagined. In the next days and weeks, bumper stickers began appearing on area cars: “I Love Jet Noise!”
Living in Virginia Beach, I had the privilege of getting to know many people who serve in the military and their families. My family and I had friends who were in the Army and the Marines and were Navy SEALs. These people are the bravest people I have ever met, and I admire each and every one of them for their service – and their families as well. Six months after Sept. 11, I was picking my son up at school and one of the other kids’ fathers was picking his son up. He had just returned from being on a Navy ship, the USS Leyte Gulf, and as he stepped out of his car everybody, and I mean everybody, in that parking lot stood and applauded.
Living in that area, we often had the opportunity to watch Navy ships returning from deployments. We never took for granted that these men and women had returned safely. This was, after all, the community where the funeral for those killed on the USS Cole had been held.
In the weeks after 9/11, I learned that a friend had lost her brother and that many others lost family and friends. Since moving to New Jersey, I know many more people directly and personally affected by that day. I have worked with Tuesday’s Children, an organization that helps children who lost parents that day, and as I occasionally drive by the World Trade Center site, I am continually in awe of our ability to recover and move forward.
Slow to believe
I’m not sure what the lessons of 9/11 are. There was a time, immediately after the attacks, that I think we came together as a nation and were able to see our commonalities more clearly. Ten years later, I’m not so sure. I do think security has gotten better, but I also think that if some other evil force wants to do us harm in the future it will probably succeed. Immediately after the attacks, I remember an Israeli friend saying, “Now America will know what it’s like for Israelis to live with the threat of terror.” The difference, I think, is that Israelis understand that there really are people out there who wish to do evil to them just because they are Israelis, whereas Americans are slow to believe that there are people in the world who seek to kill us just because we are American. Americans feel a need to understand why these events happened (as we should), but too many of us come to the conclusion that somehow we brought this on ourselves, through our foreign policy decisions, our economic policies, etc. While we learned that day and the days that followed that there are many truly good, brave, caring people among us, we also learned that there are evil people out there as well.
May we all be safe this Sept. 11, and always.