It was illusion, that glorious morning in the waning days of summer.
Hurricane Erin had remained well off the East Coast, and thunderstorms and the murk of just hours before had given way to clear, sunny skies.
My day started early, when I arrived for check-in at Harrisburg International Airport and waited to get on a plane for a short hop across state on my way to San Diego for vacation.
Meanwhile, at airports in Boston, Newark, New Jersey, and suburban Washington, D.C., others feeling excitement and anticipation prepared to board four California-bound commercial aircraft, maybe to see family after a long separation, for a restful break from their job, or on a business trip to land a potential new client.
Once in Pittsburgh, around 9:30 a.m., and buckled into my seat on a larger jet before takeoff for the West Coast, hints of uneasiness started to emerge. The flight attendants seemed distracted; they whispered among themselves. Fragments of information had begun to pass among passengers:
“A plane hit the World Trade Center.”
Then, “a second plane ....”
And yet another had struck the Capitol. Inaccurate, that rumor was replaced soon enough with a report the Pentagon had been hit. There was a fourth plane too, some said, flying somewhere overhead. It had already by that time, or would imminently, go down in a cornfield less than hundred miles southeast, near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, short of an intended target in the nation’s capital.
Soon we were summarily ordered off the plane, joining a sea of likewise displaced passengers. On a television screen somewhere in the airport, I got my first glimpse at smoke billowing off one of the Twin Towers. Those of us without cellphones — they weren’t ubiquitous in 2001 — scrambled for an open line at a public phone kiosk.
After securing a rental car, I fled the frenzied scene for a hotel room in a town nearby, awaiting the official OK to return to a heavily barricaded airport days later to retrieve my luggage. Planes were still grounded at this point. I didn’t care. I had no desire to leave solid ground anytime soon.
Driving home, on a whim, I decided to stop where history was made, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and then Sharpsburg, in northwestern Maryland.
Sharpsburg’s the site of Antietam National Battlefield, where a Civil War clash on Sept. 17, 1862, resulted in the bloodiest day in American history, with 22,717 dead, wounded or missing. While the battle is viewed as tactically inconclusive, it was enough of a Union success that President Abraham Lincoln soon after announced his Emancipation Proclamation.
Antietam is significant for another reason. It opened eyes and stirred emotions across the land to the horrors of war like nothing before when woodcut images from graphic photographs of the carnage appeared in newspapers; the public had never seen anything like it.
One imagines they must have felt a jolt to the psyche like we did 139 years later as video of weaponized jets, collapsing skyscrapers and billowing clouds of smoke and debris was played and replayed by TV networks.
A Country United
A unified country mourned the nearly 3,000 victims, on the planes and in the targeted buildings, who perished. John Ogonowski, pilot of hijacked American Airlines Flight 11, which struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center, was among them. A Vietnam War veteran and an agricultural advocate in Massachusetts, Ogonowski sported a bumper sticker on the pickup he drove to work that day that read, “There’s no farming without farmers.”
We were awed by the valor of first responders, many of whom died that morning or days or even years later from related health complications, and inspired by the volunteers who scoured the ruins at Ground Zero for signs of survivors.
And we hailed the grit of passengers on doomed Flight 93 who, famously signified by Todd Beamer’s rallying call, “Let’s roll,” refused to go down without a fight.
We learned, also, that our enemies would like nothing more than to eradicate us. It was an urgent call to wake up, the start of the ongoing War on Terror.
A whole generation not alive in 2001 is now maturing into adulthood. They can’t know the shock Americans, and the world, felt after this assault on our homeland but we should do our best to enlighten them.
Too many these days brush off history as not worth their time, believing that focusing on the here and now is all that matters.
They’re wrong, I’d counter. The cautionary phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is made no less true with recurrent use.
Notable anniversaries like today present prime opportunities to teach and learn, as well as reflect.
This morning, I’ll travel back in my mind to where I was on that awful day 20 years ago. More important, my thoughts will focus on those whose lives were cut short or forever altered. And I’ll grapple, again, with how a manifestation of such utter evil turned a bright day so dark.