Over the weekend of September 6-7, 2001, we visited Manhattan to see a play. In this space on September 13, that year, I recalled the two sunny, bright, un-Vineyard-like days.
“In lower Manhattan this weekend, along Canal Street and on Grande, the strangest people crowded the sidewalks. It was bright and warm, the refuse was in bloom, and the curbside vendors sold whatever you wanted. Lighthearted, semi-clothed, workweek dweebs ate lunch in restaurants whose doors and windows opened directly on the passing crowds, the better to show off the downtime glad rags. Others, at least temporarily unemployed, slept against the buildings where it was shady. EMS tidied them up in the morning.
“The September couture for the weekend, when the power suit rests at home in the closet, is apparently tattoos and green hair. Obviously, no one knew that death and chaos impended.”
But, of course it did. Back home, at work, on “Tuesday morning when I booted up the computer on The Times network, and because thankfully our web connection, which has been giving me fits lately, was up and running, I did the usual looking around on the news sites. Nothing much at first. It was early … Shortly after nine, there was a headline on the screen: Plane Crashes into World Trade Center. Wow. But, no details. Little while later: Second Airliner Plows into WTC; Buildings in Flames; Terrorist Attack Suspected.
“That was attention-getting, but the real tip-off that this was big, and appalling, was the thunder of footsteps on the stairs as Times staff hurried up to watch CNN…
“Soon the airport was closed, the Steamship Authority was checking bags and making folks carry them on the ferry, and the schools were making plans to talk to kids about what was going on.
“Before long, Elaine Pace, [then] the newest principal on the Island, had consulted with clinical psychologist Nancy Brightman and written a letter to parents and teachers with suggestions about how to talk about it.
“‘It is with great regret,’ Ms. Pace, who came to the Vineyard from New Jersey, wrote, ‘that I send home this letter regarding the tragic apparent terrorist attacks that occurred in our country today. We have been working hard all day to inform the older students that some terrible events had occurred, but no direct communication was made to students in kindergarten through fourth grade unless they asked specific questions. Those students who had friends/relatives who worked or lived in the New York City or Pentagon areas were invited to call home. Some parents elected to come to school to pick up children.’
“The principal’s letter connected the dense, odd, colorful, weekend Manhattan street scene and this week’s stunning carnage with home, lots of homes. It was a link that was not merely news. Instead, it connected that island with this one, those people with us.”
When one of these ghastly intrusions on good people living their good lives — Monday’s bombings recall in many respects that Tuesday morning in 2001 — it is always a surprise, and there are always connections.
Within a few days of the September 11, 2001, attack, I was at a funeral in Gay Head. “…the sun shone brightly on the modest hilltop where they had opened the ground to receive this father, husband, friend, and neighbor. The sky was fiercely blue and careless, as if nothing bad had ever happened. Though they had not been forgotten, there was not a word spoken during the committal service about the events in New York and elsewhere or about the thousands who are missing and probably dead. Not a word about revenge or war or heroism or terrorism. Life had been so cloudy since that Tuesday’s mayhem that the glittering afternoon must have stunned us all and momentarily erased the possibility of evil. It did not erase sadness… [But] for a while, on a splendid afternoon a week before autumn, it had been comforting to remember together how things had been over so many years as we all grew older but before we were attacked.”
And, there were stories. After an event like 9/11 or like the Patriot’s Day bombing of the Marathon crowds Monday, there are always stories. Every one of them is important to distinguish in the memories of teller and listener that what happened was not merely a mass event. It was an intensely personal and unique transition for each of us from the person I so happily and carelessly was to the chastened, wounded person I have become.
The Times invited people to send us their 9/11 stories via e-mail and made a place on mvtimes.com to receive and publish them. We received dozens.
“The stories were often like this one, most from people who were not at the scene but felt its impact nevertheless. Geoff Currier wrote: ‘We received a phone call last Tuesday morning from my daughter Polly. She was at work and wanted to know what I knew about the plane crash at the World Trade Center. She was understandably concerned because her husband worked on the 100th floor of one of the towers. Like most of America, we watched the horror unfold over the next few hours and when we still hadn’t heard from Jonathan we were packing clothes and getting ready to pick up our son Spike from school so we could head down to New York. Finally, the phone rang and it was news that Jonathan was all right. He had taken a later train than usual and had narrowly missed being in the building. At last count, over 200 of his fellow workers are still unaccounted for. This weekend, Jonathan, Polly and Jonathan’s sister Jessica came here to the island to get away from the city. When the ferry departed from Woods Hole they all went up on the deck as the sun was setting, collectively let out a sigh of relief and hugged one another as if they had managed to escape from somewhere. The fact that that somewhere is their own home is a frightening thought and something we’ll all have to live with for a long time to come.”
Certainly, the writers needed to say something consoling, for themselves, and for us. And, of course, when you say something consoling, the circuit must be completed for it to have any value. Someone must hear or read what you say. Stunning events like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombings needn’t be left to the memorials, the investigations, the politicians and the television news, the arrests, the trials, nor to the collective shock and dislocation. There will be stories. Your stories are welcome here. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, use the Letter to the Editor submission form on the website, or post them to the mvtimes.com Facebook page. We want them all.
Quoted portions of this column appeared in this space on September 13, 20, and 27, 2001.