Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Eleven Years and One Day Ago . . .

Yes, I know I'm a day late commemorating 9/11. But I didn't know if I could bring myself to remember that horrible day. I thought about commemorating the anniversary yesterday, but somehow I just couldn't . Then Thomas McEntee, the host of GeneaBloggers, suggested that all the members of that blog ring should write a commemorative post. Perhaps it will do me good. Here goes mine:

As genealogists, we all know that history is important; but so often we tend to focus on history on a small scale. What happened in our family? Our town? Our county? The doings of the great and powerful, events on the world stage that get written up in history books, sometimes seem to be of interest only insofar as they affect our ancestors. There are other times, however, when history in the largest sense reaches out and affects everyone of us. We can recall exactly where we were and exactly what we were doing when we heard that some great and terrible event had occurred. For people of my parents' generation, it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941; for my older brothers and sisters, it's probably the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy in the 1960s; for me, it's 9/11.

On September 11, 2001, I had just gotten to work at my still new job as the Technical Services Librarian (cataloger) for a small county-run public library system in rural South Carolina. The weather was sunny and mild, much like it is today. At first, there was absolutely no hint that anything was wrong.

I had just stepped into our tiny break room to pour myself a cup of coffee before beginning the day's cataloging when the phone rang. My boss Salley, the library director, was calling from her home in the nearest city, about 45 minutes away, to tell Margaret, her administrative assistant, that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. It was only later that I learned that Salley had a daughter who was living and working in New York and trying to make it as an actress. No wonder it was so personal to her.

At first I thought this was perhaps just a tragic accident; perhaps the pilot of a small plane had become lost or disoriented or had suffered some catastrophic instrument failure. As Margaret rushed into the break room to turn on the TV and details of the crash began to emerge, it became clear that this was no accident. This was a large commercial jetliner. Minutes later came the second crash. As I watched in horror and disbelief, my mind reeling from the implications of the first two collisions, there came the news that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon.

I tried to stay calm and go about my daily routine, but it didn't do much good. My concentration was gone. I think I managed to catalog only two books that day. Every few minutes I would stop and sneak back into the break room trying to get more news. When I heard that the authorities had grounded all air traffic and effectively sealed off New York and Washington, D. C., I e-mailed two dear friends of mine who live in the greater Washington area to make sure they were all right. One of them, a professor at Gallaudet University, a school that serves the deaf, wrote back, "Please pray for our students. Many of them are scared and don't understand what's happening." They were not alone in that feeling. I e-mailed my nephew who is a federal employee. Suddenly I couldn't remember if he was still an Army reservist, and I was afraid for him. He was no longer in the Army reserves, but much later he was eventually deployed to Iraq for several months without incident.

I also e-mailed my immediate predecessor in the cataloger's job, who had moved on to another library.  I still felt like a rookie cataloger at the time, and I would frequently ask Melissa's advice on how to catalog a troublesome item. Our e-mail conversation naturally came around to the events of the day. "It's so horrible you can scarcely believe it's real," I wrote.

At lunchtime everyone piled into the break room, still glued to the TV. The library director, my boss, had asked me to dress professionally for work and wear a dress shirt and tie each day. That day I wore a light blue shirt and what I thought was a handsome copper-colored tie. I made the mistake of bringing a small tin of ravioli for lunch that day, and I was so preoccupied by the events on TV as I ate that I paid no attention as the ravioli spilled onto my tie. Every time I wore the tie after that, I managed to spill something on it.The tie eventually became so stained and discolored from repeated spills and dry cleanings that I eventually threw it away. Cursed, it seems, by a bad beginning, the tie came to a bad end.

I can remember pacing up and down in the staff room and murmuring, "This is war," when I should have been cataloging. Yes, you can pace, even in an electric wheelchair. That night I called my parents. "I just wanted to hear your voices and tell you that I love you," I said.

In the days after I can remember feeling the urge to sing patriotic songs such as the national anthem, "America the Beautiful," and "God Bless America," while fighting back tears as I sang. My country, my home, had been attacked as it never had before in my lifetime.

We are still living with the results and the aftermath of these attacks. What their ultimate results will be, no one can say. But we should never forget what happened that day.