September 11, 2001 As often as I think about that day, I also think about the several days before it. If you were in Washington D.C. then, I wonder if you remember the weather? In the days before that Tuesday, the sky was a perfect blue and the temperature was (for Washington) unseasonably pleasant for early September. The organization for which I worked, the National Center for ESL Literacy Education (NCLE), and the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), U.S. Department of Education convened a symposium, The National Symposium on Adult ESL Research and Practice. This conference was held September 4-7 at the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution. As I remember it, planning and conducting the symposium was hectic, but exciting. My colleagues and I were proud to offer the attendees—adult English as a second language teachers and administrators from the fifty states and the territories—a nonpareil venue and we had the weather to match. One of the random memories that still remains in my mind is that—because the U.S. Department of Education had no authority or budget to provide afternoon snacks—my colleagues and I baked cookies for the symposium attendees. That was crazy; we were already working day and night as educators, but when we finally got home we had to swap our school clothes for aprons. It was crazy, but everyone enjoyed the cookies, so it turned out okay.
The symposium concluded on Friday and several of the participants were planning on getting some sightseeing in on the weekend before they headed home. In addition to the usual Washington offerings, a brand-new event would be going on that weekend. On Saturday, September 8, the Library of Congress and First Lady Laura Bush were hosting the first National Book Festival on the East Lawn of the Capitol. NCLE was hosting a booth offering information and materials related to teaching English to adult immigrants. I can see it now, my friend MaryAnn and I in the early morning, revived overnight from the stresses of the symposium, trundling our signs, flyers, boxes, and bags up to the Capitol lawn, waved through pro forma security. This was not a day for Republicans or Democrats. It was a festival—in all the meaning that happy word suggests—for book lovers. The sun shown, people heard authors talk and give readings, and there was food. Unlike carnivals with Tilt-a-Whirls, this was my kind of event.
After I was released from booth duty, I met my husband and we wandered around listening to several authors. We listened to a presentation by some of the Navajo code talkers. They explained in some detail the code they developed and which successfully confounded Japanese efforts to crack it during World War II. One of the code talkers commented on how he didn’t think most Americans had heard of their service to the country. After the talk, I asked one of the code talkers if he would autograph my program. I assured him I knew about the work of the code talkers. He thanked me for remembering, signed my program, and shook my hand. I have not discarded that program. There’s a website now, so you could find out more about the Navajo code talkers.
Blue, calm weather continued through Tuesday until we heard the news. Actually, I think the good weather continued after Tuesday, but we were all crying so much that the whole world seemed filled with smoke and death.
In the evening when it was finally, finally time for sleep, our son Billy—just starting 9th grade—hauled an old mattress into our bedroom and plopped down to sleep near us. Such a good idea; let’s all stay close together and hug.
Maybe you had to be in Arlington to hear it and maybe you never read about this. Very early in the morning of September 12 we heard huge, ugly airplane noises and we thought we were being attacked. It turns out that it was U.S. military planes at National Airport, a little over eight miles away from our house. We were already on tenterhooks, but I think this noise helped solidify the case of trauma I was developing.
The next night, Tom and I dropped off Billy with friends and headed into Washington. We were going to a memorial concert to be held on the west side of the Capitol. This was our small attempt to stand in respect and solidarity with those who had died in New York, Pennsylvania, and our home of Arlington. No one knew what was happening yet. We felt there was a slight chance that it was dangerous to hang out near the Capitol, but we wanted to stand up (a little shaky) to our enemies. Only four days since the book festival, the world had changed. We sat on the Capitol steps and looked across the river back towards Arlington to where the Pentagon was still burning.
Thousands of people surrounded the Capitol Reflecting Pool. We lit memorial candles. I think I still have my candle stub. There didn’t seem to be a formal program. Someone would start a song and it would travel around the pool in a wave until we were all singing together. I remember that we were standing by several people who sang beautifully—a well-worn modifier, but true here, nonetheless. We sang patriotic songs and I liked that fine because I have always loved those songs and I loved the United States. I was satisfied though, when someone was starting with “God Bless America” and someone else said something like God bless the world or God bless us all. A latter day Tiny Tim had come to save us from our own parochial—albeit understandably traumatized— selves.
We sang many other songs, but the only one I remember for certain is Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” It’s like she wrote it for this special occasion years before we had any idea this world would come to us:
If the sky above you
Grows dark and full of clouds
And that old north wind begins to blow
Keep your head together
And call my name out loud
Soon you’ll hear me knocking at your door
You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there
After that night, we never had easy access to the government buildings or grounds or festivals ever again. I understand this, I think, but I haven’t liked it.
My workplace in Northwest Washington was about four and half miles from my home in Arlington. My friend and officemate Carol, who lived near me in Arlington, and I used to plot how we could make our way back home across the Potomac River if terrorists bombed the bridges. I thought that maybe I would be able to swim across the river at Chain Bridge. I stocked up on Ricola cough drops and had enough to be able to share with Carol. I am not sure what that was about, but I still have more than enough decaying cough drops scattered about my remaining possessions. In the face of the millions of people worldwide who faced and do face calamities every day, particularly the immigrants and refugees I had met, I am not particularly proud of being so upset about my own circumstances after 9/11. I do not like terrorists, I want people to act right, and I want to be brave, but generous. There, maybe those are my final words for now about September 11.
Adapted from Losing It: Deconstructing a Life. Unpublished work © 2012 Lynda Terrill. All rights reserved.