Never a distant memory
As I was driving into Camden from a meeting in Lincolnville Tuesday morning I passed Lincolnville Fire Department. Four fire engines were parked in a neat line and the flag flew at half mast in the light September breeze — I thought about another bright September Tuesday 11 years ago.
While I have few personal connections to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, it is still a vivid and heart-wrenching anniversary. I was 18 years old and had arrived at Wheaton College just a week earlier; my homesickness was tangible, although I was adjusting to life on the idyllic campus. I had an 8:30 a.m. Sociology class with a painfully boring professor, I was munching on a contraband apple from the dining hall when a shaggy sophomore boy — running late — slid into the desk behind me.
“Dude, something weird is happening in New York,” he said to anyone who would listen. The professor glared at him from the lectern.
When I exited that big campus building an hour later, it was apparent that the world had changed. I made my way toward Meadows East — a grubby dorm where most freshmen lived — and by the time I reached lower campus I knew the gist of it. The television in the lobby of our dorm was blaring and a small collection of students had gathered there.
Matt, a nice upperclassmen who lived on my co-ed floor was hunched over in a chair. His head was in his hands, his body wracked with sobs. His beautiful girlfriend — also in tears — clutched his shoulders as her eyes moved from him to the television. Her expression, which I could not then place, I now recognize as one of total despair.
Even though I barely knew Matt, his girlfriend locked eyes with me.
“Matt's dad has an office in the South Tower,” she said. “And no one can reach him.”
And at that moment the talking heads on the back-lit television screen gasped and the South Tower began it's terrifying, gut-dropping collapse into dust. Panic —sickening anxious panic — threatened the stability of my legs.
Matt wasn't crying, he was still and ghostly. His eyes were riveted to that television screen as though there was nothing else in the world to see.
And then his phone rang.
“Dad? Dad?” Matt said. “You're still in Connecticut?”
Color, like some kind of magnificent blush, returned to his face. It may have been the most beautiful thing I saw that day.
I had two “good” college friends by then. Sarah from Vermont and Bridget from Pittsburgh. Bridget's mom worked in Washington D.C. and refused to leave her office. Classes had been canceled and we sat on the grass behind the dorms, alone and clueless.
At some point I called home, even though making contact hadn't been the first of my worries. I knew my family was safe in Maine, and few around me had the same luxury.
I grew up hearing my dad talk about the Boston bar he was in on lunch break from the Triumph motorcycle shop where he worked on that fateful November day in 1963 when Jack Kennedy was shot. He can still remember the thick Boston accents of both bartenders and the moment where they realized — and announced — that Kennedy was the politician that had been gunned down.
“This day will be your Jack Kennedy,” Dad said that night on the phone more than a decade ago. “You will always remember where you were, your whole generation will.”
The next day I rode the train into Boston; everyone made eye contact and held doors. That cheeky, unmoved New England city — even for a moment — was taken to its heels, unified and equalized.
So 11 years later — as Dad suggested — I do remember. I've told the story so many times that it's become a piece of my vernacular, a quilt square in the patchwork of my life.
What I remember isn't just the panic and the pain. It's not the homesickness and the confusion. I remember the humbling realization that there are moments when no one knows what to do, moments when not a single person has the answer.
I also remember being overwhelmed by my deep gratitude for Maine, for the perception that safety enveloped my family as the nation collectively shuddered and began to pick up the pieces and strive to become whole again.