There are few vividly distinct memories from my childhood that I remember with complete clarity. I am probably like most people in that regard. Things get fuzzier as time passes. Most of my vivid memories involve baseball or girls or getting attacked by a mama goose because my friends and I tried to steal an egg from her nest. You know, normal boy stuff. But then there was this. The day that changed everything...for everyone. I suspect I am also like most people in that I remember everything from that day as if it was just yesterday.
My story from that day isn't particularly interesting. It probably isn't very different from many other people my age or from my area of the country. They would never write a movie about it or anything. I wasn't a Wall Street trader running through streets of ash and debris in a state of total pandemonium. I wasn't a firefighter running into the Towers while everyone else was running out. I was just a regular 13 year old boy who started 8th grade the week before, growing up in a Central New Jersey (it exists) town in which almost everyone's parents commuted into "The City" for work.
It was an absolutely beautiful day. Everything you ever read or hear about September the 11th, 2001 is about how it was a perfect morning. The sky was abnormally crystal clear in the Tri-State area. This could not be more accurate. It was not the type of day that you would ever expect something like this to happen. Back then, no day was. We really had no idea that this was even possible.
Shortly before lunch time I stood in front of my buddy Dave's locker. Another guy, my best friend since kindergarten, came rushing over to exclaim "THE TWIN TOWERS FELL!" I had no idea what this meant. In the moment I was just completely confused. Fell? Like fell over sideways because they were so tall? This is what I thought as a dumb 13 year old. But those four words have stuck with me forever. I can sit here, as I write this, and hear my best friend's 13 year old voice utter them for the first time. I could walk into our middle school tomorrow, all these years later, and tell you the exact floor tile I was standing on when I heard the news.
The day went on and I still did not really understand what happened. The teachers kept things very hush and tried to go about business as usual. They did not roll in TVs and put on the news or try to explain it to us in real time. They had to believe there were kids whose parents were never coming home. Tragically, they were right. But you would hear little snippets. Terrorism? What does that mean exactly? I was not really familiar with this term but of course knew it was bad.
Then the dismissals started. Name after name called down to the office. Parents were in a panic. The parking lot was jammed with cars. A score of new names were called to leave early every other minute. I was not one of those students. I rode the bus home at 2:30 with my friends like it was any other day but something just wasn't right. We all knew it but just didn't understand. Yet.
When I got off the bus at the corner of my block around 3 o'clock the gravity of the situation really started to hit me. There was my dad standing at the end of the driveway rolling the garbage can down. Sounds innocuous enough, right? But he was NEVER home in the middle of the day. I was a really lucky kid - he only worked 20 minutes away and was always home for dinner. I did not have one of those NYC commuter parents who spent all their time at the office and then had a long train ride home. But nevertheless he was never home at this hour. Never ever. I ran down the street yelling "what is going on? what the hell happened???" It was clear he wanted to protect me but knew it was no use. He took me inside and that is when I saw it for the first time.
The image of the Towers on fire, the planes hitting, the collapse, the people rushing through the streets in a sea of dust, the second collapse. The panic, the fear, the total despair. All of it. We have all seen these images a million times at this point, over these past 19 years, but there are not words that can describe seeing those things for the very first time. Especially as a child. But it was in those moments watching the news coverage that I finally understood what I couldn't comprehend all day at school. People I knew, kids I went to school with, friends, neighbors...their parents were never coming home. It was like a punch right in the stomach. And everything was going to be different now, that much became obvious.
Over the following months my father completely immersed himself in the news. It was non-stop night and day. My mother would yell at him to turn it off and he would reply "I just need to see whats going on in the world." He eventually reached a point of mental over-saturation. To this day, he cannot even bring himself to talk about 9/11. I suspect he never will. I don't blame him.
The next few days, weeks even, after the attacks were just so different. No one knew what to say, what to do. What was okay and what wasn't. Especially here, in a place like where I grew up. Where everyone was affected. Where everyone *knew someone*. What do you say as a 13 year old to one of your closest elementary school friends whose uncle worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and did not make it out alive? (This same guy's father also worked in the Towers and it was later learned that he helped get a little boy to safety - a truly wonderful story for another day). But what do you do, as a 13 year old kid, when you get assigned a history project in which you have to present the major events from "1990 to present" and have to talk about the most cataclysmic event, perhaps in the history of the world, that occurred less than 50 miles up the road only a few months prior and with a boy whose father never came home that day looking you right in the face? The answer is none of us knew. The adults didn't even know. We just rallied around one another and drove forward. Day by day. It seemed to just come naturally. It was community at its best.
Like I said at the top, my story isn't unique or even particularly interesting. And I have surely rambled on a bit at this point but I've never spilled these memories out this way before. It really has a way of putting everything in perspective. As a 32 year old man who has lived longer in a post-9/11 world than a time before. And as a new father working for the past decade in the financial sector in Manhattan, trying to fathom all those men just like me who never got to hold their little boy again. Sometimes I look back and feel like that 13 year old boy again who just doesn't understand.
But this story closes by fast forwarding about 13 years. In late 2014, I was working in downtown Manhattan on the East River side of the island. Had to work late one night which was not common for me back then. By the time I left the office it had long been pitch black out. Everyday, I would walk across the Financial District to the World Trade Center and take the PATH train back into New Jersey. But tonight's walk was different. That walk was the first time I ever saw the WTC Memorial Pools lit up. These are two massive memorials which sit the footprints of the once iconic towers and are surrounded by plaques with the names of those who perished that day. They illuminate with white light at night. It stopped me dead in my tracks and completely overwhelmed me with emotion. It felt as if I was standing completely alone transfixed upon something so powerful that I could not physically move. And it was the first time in a long time that I thought about all those vivid details of "that day." It also made me proud to think back, of not just that day, but an emergence of the best of what it meant to be an American. The way our community, and the country as a whole, responded to our greatest moment of darkness. That kind of perspective makes you wonder what we are even really fighting about these days.
Thank you so much to anyone who has made it this far and read my story. This kind of thing is not something I consider myself to be very good at but I hope it gave a few of you a perspective to think on. Now, go hug your little boy or girl. Call your parents and tell them you love them. Don't wait for a tragedy to strike to be there for neighbors. And most importantly. Never Forget.
The Best Is Yet To Come.