The Day Laughter Came Back from 9/11
I was in 8th grade when 9/11 happened.
My mom was homeschooling my brother and I, a decision I appreciate more and more with each passing day, and our routine was pretty much the same every day. We’d get up early and do some of the easier work, say bye to Dad and have our breakfast, go find Mom again to watch the end of the WGN Morning News--as good midwesterners are prone to do--then work through the material at our own pace until we finished in the afternoon.
When my brother and I wandered back to see what was happening with our remaining parent, we found her in her bedroom, transfixed on the TV. The first plane had just hit the tower, and nobody quite knew what was happening. We stared at the tv in this kind of calm horror, knowing that our own house some 750ish miles away wasn’t in immediate danger, but feeling a sick, sinking feeling for the people in the building and on the plane, who we were already sure were dead of a tragic accident.
Then the second plane hit on live television, and that was when everyone knew we were under attack.
The rest of the day was surreal. We went outside every now and then, but we weren’t especially interested. Everyone on the planet knew something major was going down. We didn’t go into a COVID style lockdown, but everything hung in this almost unreal limbo. The DC plane hit. The Pennsylvania plane crashed. George Bush addressed the nation. Day turned to night, and then back into day.
My mom and I would both go on to have some pretty serious struggles with depression as we got older, but credit to her strength as a person, I think this was the only time she ever really let my brother or I see it. And why wouldn’t she have been put into a state of shock? My dad was the only one old enough to really remember the heyday of the duck and cover drill. For my entire life, and really for the entirety of my parents’ lives, America had been invincible. Dad said the only time he remembered the nation just stopping like that was when he got pushed home by his mom in a shopping cart after news broke about the Kennedy assassination.
Like every other adult in the nation, my mom was transfixed on the news for days. And in reality so were us kids. I didn’t know them yet, but I later made friends in high school who told me they remembered school being just moving from class to class and watching the news.
Each passing day seemed to bring some new horror, some new spectre of death from the middle east. News stations both local and national brought on terrorism experts--a job I theretofore had not even conceived of as existing. Anyone with even a tangential connection to the military seemed capable of being put onto the television or radio.
Sports even briefly stopped.
An uneasy pall began to fall over everything. People didn’t seem to have the same joy as before. Television became unfunny. Not in the bad way it is today, but in kind of a “blank sheet of paper” way. People didn’t know how to be happy any more, it seemed, and in retrospect that was understandable, because everyone’s sense of who we were as a nation and a people had been ripped out of them on live television.
As time passed, a new fear swept the nation: biological warfare.
I don’t remember what day it specifically was, but sitting in the living room, the aforementioned WGN News was on as had become normal. Then anchors Larry Potash and Roseanne Tellez were interviewing a “Biological and Chemical Weapons” expert, another position I theretofore had not even conceived of existing.
As the anchors pleaded with him to explain what to do to protect ourselves in the event of a biological or chemical attack, the expert calmly explained that we needed to duct tape visqueen all around the windows and doorjambs.
Remember that I lived just outside Chicago, and very close to Lake Michigan. It rained all the time, and basement seepage was very real. We were in the middle of some pretty serious basement remodeling, so I knew that visqueen was a relatively breathable plastic used as a moisture barrier between your cinderblock and the drywall. It couldn’t protect you from a stiff breeze, much less a cloud of chlorine gas.
Who laughed first was lost to the mists of time, but soon all four of us were rolling with laughter at this man and his suggestion to stop chemical warfare with what was effectively plastic painter’s tarp. The suggestion was ludicrous on its face, and we all took turns mocking this man from the comfort and safety of our living room. It was like all that pent up fear and nervousness got washed away in a sea of hysterical tears, as we pondered how ridiculous everyone would look, they and their houses wrapped in a polyurethane film.
I feel a lot different about our country today than I did back then. I feel a lot of hatred toward New York and New Yorkers that I didn't back then. But I can look back to those dark days post 9/11 and have hope for the future.
Because my family healed.
Because the nation healed.
Because we were once strong enough to rise up, unite in the face of those who would destroy America, and beat them back with unrelenting force.
Because one day, it’s going to be okay to laugh again. And I want to be there to slap backs when it comes.