There have been hundreds and hundreds of mornings over the last five years, but none I remember more than Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001.
That day, I awoke around 4:30 am to join a group of co-workers at Smith Gym on the WSU campus to play volleyball starting at 5:00 am. We played until approximately 7:30. I then returned home, showered and got ready for work. I got to my office around 8:15.
September 11, 2001 was a beautiful late summer Palouse day, just like today. So I found it somewhat unusual that the building that I work in was totally empty. I looked out the window and observed dozens of my co-workers walking up the hill towards the then-new Manufacturing building, just as we do every Friday for lunch. I walked outside, stopped someone I knew and asked him what was going on.
He told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I immediately remembered the B-25 bomber that had slammed into the Empire State Building in the late Forties. Then he told me a second plane had hit the other tower, another plane had crashed into the Pentagon, and others might be headed towards Washington, DC. Then the enormity of it all hit me: it was terrorism.
In the lunch room, SEL executives brought us up-to-date on the tragedy and how it affected SEL: Ed Schweitzer was in Washington, DC but was okay and the best thing that we could do was to keep doing our jobs.
My immediate thoughts, as I'm sure most people's thoughts were that morning, were for my family. I had just flown back from Arizona two nights before. I had spent the weekend with my wife and stepchildren in Tucson, where she was attending the University of Arizona. My children were with their mother in Richmond, VA, just 125 miles from Washington, DC. I also thought of the Pentagon, where I had been so many times before, and the people I knew that worked there. I remembered when I worked at the Office of Naval Research, just a couple of miles from the Pentagon. My office had been on the ground floor. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, we looked anxiously out the window to see if any large trucks were stopped on the street. The Naval Investigative Service agent across the hall would openly wear his sidearm and search the parking garage for strange vehicles.
I called my wife in Tucson. She hadn't heard either and was incredulous. She watched the coverage on TV as I tried to access CNN on-line in vain. I finally got through, but all CNN.com had up was one scaled down web page, with the basic details of what had happened. The 1,500 miles between Pullman and Tucson never seemed so long.
I distinctly remember later that day how the blue sky was totally devoid of jet contrails. It had been so full of them the day before. The ban on all air travel made Pullman seem even more remote than ever. It was alternately reassuring and frightening. That evening, I attended the packed vigil at Reaney Park. How could things ever be normal again?
Over time, things did get back to normal. I made the trip to Tucson again in a couple of weeks. The nervousness of flying the first time after 9/11 was somewhat alleviated by the presence of two armed U.S. Marshals escorting a prisoner on the flight. My wife and I attended the WSU-Arizona football game as F-16s kept watch overhead.
Five years later, Americans are as oblivious and self-absorbed as ever. The national unity we witnessed in the days after 9/11 is long gone. The president who was revered at the time for his strength and character is now reviled and ridiculed for the same convictions. Polls even show a shocking number of people who even believe that the U.S. government was behind the attacks.
It seems so strange to me now that everything happened that morning before I even knew about it: the hijackings, the towers being hit then collapsing, the Pentagon being hit, the crash of Flight 93. All of that happened in the first four hours I was awake that morning. I have since learned of the stories from that morning; stories of the police officers, the firefighters, the workers, the ones who fought back, and the widows. I am stunned by the tragedy and awed by the bravery. That bravery has continued with our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But America now is like I was that morning: awake but ignorant.