For Scott Simon, and for Bill Craven
Yesterday was the fifteenth anniversary of September 11, and for those of us who lived through it, it can be dizzying to realize that there are now high school students who weren’t born when it happened.
It has been one of the two signal public events of my adulthood. The other was the inauguration day of President Obama. The minutes and hours of each of those days were suffused with a sense of historical moment: on one, I was a thirtyish new bride; on the other, I was a massively pregnant forty-year old, hoisting a celebratory thimble of champagne with neighbors while the television and heating blasted.
In both cases, just about everything turned out differently from what we expected.
Fifteen years later, my sense is that in the rest of the country that is not New York or Washington, September 11 is so distant that it is merely a touchstone of rhetoric from political discourse: “If we don’t X, the terrorists will win!”
But for those of us who lived there, the memory of the event courses on, like an underground river that can flood back up at any moment.
The New York narrative of the event has passed into the realm of literature now: September 11 related novels include Falling Man by Don DeLillo; Jay McInerney’s Brightness trilogy; and The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (the best one, in my view).
Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin and Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire examine other events (the Philippe Petit tightrope walk between the Twin Towers and the 1977 Blackout, respectively), but September 11 is the locus of the free-floating anxiety behind plot events in both. And these are just the books I’ve read and can recall off the top of my head.
I’m sure I’m wrong, but I don’t recall seeing any novels that cover the Washington story. So here is mine:
I was newly married and working at National Public Radio, which was where I had met my husband, who is an audio engineer there. (Until now, I have never written about the day-job life I live under another name.)
That morning was as blue and clear in Washington as in New York, and I can even remember a bare moment—probably around 8:46 a.m.—on my commute when I drove past National Airport and turned onto the 14th Street Bridge. I got to the office and immediately went into a Human Resources meeting on crafting performance review goals. At the end of the hour I shared an elevator with two colleagues who noted that something bad was happening in New York. Then I popped by the Master Control facility on the sixth floor to kiss my husband, and saw the burning fire raging from the towers as the brilliant sunshine of that morning still reflected off the Trade Center’s glass, and heard word that the Pentagon had been struck.
In my office, we scrambled. It was said that the Metro was closed. Because I lived on the opposite side of town from my colleagues, I was asked to take home our departmental administrative assistant, an aging hippie who we think had a substance abuse problem, and who lived on the still-then-dicey back side of Capitol Hill.
Of course I didn’t have any gas in the car. Of course I did not have any cash. It took us an hour to get from K Street NE to Florida Avenue, and I paid for a couple of gallons of gas in quarters that Carol (now of blessed memory) gave to me.
After I dropped her off, it took another two hours to get home. I can still recall that brilliant sun illuminating RFK stadium and once, when another car wanted to merge onto my lane of I-295, a young African-American woman on the driver’s side of the car rolled down her window and we both said we hoped each other got home OK.
As my car crawled down the road alongside the Anacostia River, I had the radio on. There are corners on the Internet where you can find audio files of NPR’s wall-to-wall coverage that day, of the sober and measured tone of then-Morning Edition host Bob Edwards realizing along with his audience the magnitude of the disaster. I was about to cross the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge when it was announced that the entire airspace over the United States was being closed down.
But the Potomac was touched with light as my car crept across the bridge, and I turned onto Route 1 to the little townhouse where we lived then. I bought a bottle of wine at the 7-11, put on my nightgown, switched on our tiny no-cable television, and wondered if the world was going to end.
My husband did not get home until 3:30 a.m. There was still a plume of smoke billowing out of the Pentagon—a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. We later learned that Pentagon correspondent Tom Gjelten was there and had been escorted out by marshals.
National Airport had been closed, and would remain that way for three weeks, though for much of that time, we thought it would stay closed forever.
We knew in an instant everything about our lives had changed, but we did not know how much, or that everything would be different from what we had thought.
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Written by: Caroline Langston
A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.
Image above by PH2 ROBERT HOULIHAN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.