Sunday, September 11, 2011

September Mourning

I awoke this morning to the sound of the TV.

My friend Jeff, a firefighter, lay sleeping beside me. We’d gotten in late, stumbling in earlier this morning from a night out spent with the gang from Protect and Defend, a group of gay cops, firefighters and service men who’d gathered for a barbecue and night out on the town.

My friendship with Jeff is a platonic one, still our bond runs deep, over 13 years now. Few men can make me laugh or worry as hard as he can. Jeff confessed yesterday that he’s been dreading this day, and as I lay gathering my wits about me, here in Tacoma, already the East Coast is well into this brutal day of remembrance.

We are three time zones departed from ground zero, and I’m over 400 miles from my home. Yet I feel suspended and linked to more places, and more memories than I can wrap my mind around.

As I rose to get out of bed, stumbling through twilight darkness, already a reassuring sky reached out hinting of change. Sunrise summits the peaks of the mountains to the east and in that act, the mileage of unrestrained dawn is revealed as an image stating immediate serenity. Deep hues of magenta, red and orange signal that already morning marched in our direction. This was how our 10th Anniversary to 9/11 would roll. Grabbing my phone camera, after I’d successfully eased out of bed and avoided waking Jeff, I walked out onto the balcony.

Looking east, far across the Cascade Range and the still waters of the Puget Sound, I listened for urgency but instead found the whisper of the slightest breeze drifting up from the water. The only other sound came from the tousling response of fabric meeting fabric, that faint rustling, the scratch of old glory kissed by stirring air currents as she continues to dust herself off from the tantrums of this world. I crept back into the bedroom and lay down, and then, in that moment, I made my peace with the solemn broadcast of CNN Headline News, accepting the anchor’s preparation for the events to follow, and the introduction of the reading of just under 3,000 names.

The broadcast held my attention and as the room became a sea of red washing over white sheets, and subtle colors, I found myself in a bloodbath of surreal, intense color. I thought-- so this is it. The long awaited unveiling of our national memorial, and a final vision of just how we will pay tribute to that evil day, the one that would change everything.  My friends, my family, and my life, all altered. And also altering countless other lives all across the globe. This event is now that bookmark in history where homeland security, patriot acts, and still unfolding wars finally hold our attention far longer than Survivor reruns and HGTV remodels.

And yet still, catching me completely by surprise, via this morning comes this—a simple bible verse, from the Old Testament words of the great prophet Isaiah. Delivered by the most unexpected messenger, and in all of scripture, these words have been my steadfast and most favorite offerings of gentle comfort. Today, these words serve as the basis for President Obama’s speech, commemorating this, our national gaze back into the historical wreckage and agony of that awful day. They are found in Isaiah, 54:10.

New International Version (©1984)

Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed," says the LORD, who has compassion on you.

I sit blinking away the sleep still clouding my vision, amazed that President Obama would turn to Isaiah to lead us beside the falling waters of the new memorial, with names of the lost etched on stone, and our tears joining those captive waters as they fall away from the light into the holes of two giant footprints, ghosts of foundations representing a darkness from which we still haven’t entirely emerged . I remember 9/11 even as I wish not to.

Although some of the people who endured that tragedy with me are already gone, others remain. We still regularly talk about that day. The horizon is not completely removed from that ominous sense of worry. I do not look down on the river without expecting a jet to catch me by surprise, and that worry to return with the question "what has been bombed now?", immediately following in afterburn.

~ ~ ~

On the day of  9/11, I was in Pend Oreille County, Washington. I’d just returned from Montana, after taking my grandmother Billie there as her 85th birthday present. We’d returned to two of her former homesteads, one long fallen into dust and gravity.

We’d rolled across the Hi Line, through Glacier, and been put up by ranchers we’d never met, and rekindled relationships with other homestead families, people who’d stayed on, taking over my family’s former holdings. We’d been to Whitlash, Galeta, and Devon-as well as Browning, Cutbank, and Shelby. My grandmother seemed to sense this would be her last trip, she breathing in Alfalfa scents as if it a recitation come straight from God, and as she came back to life, gazing out at the Rockies rising like Shiloh’s jaw bone, we stood near where Glacier becomes the Blackfoot Lands.

Billie remarked that this country restored her soul. Giant Whitetail Bucks sprinted out of the brush before us, prayer flags marked the trail to gaze on Chief Mountain, and the mechanical rhythms of oil drilling rigs, kept time with the wind, the horizon, and our passing.

Out of our vision field, life was already turning curve ball--it’s just we didn’t know it. The same early morning Billie and I returned to my small ranch at the conclusion of that trip would be the same dawn that my roommate Chase, returning from the end of his shift at the lumber mill, called to inform me that a jet airliner had just crashed into one of the two trade towers.

As I struggled out of bed, on a beautiful morning not unlike this one, I did not know if I could or should believe the boy. Chase lived to get me riled up with tales of raccoons stuck in the clothes dryer, goats on lend, and a herd of cows he'd acquired through some sort of spit shined flirtation, and could he borrow $2,200 for fencing?

Yet the morning of 9/11, by the time Chase bounded into the front door, I'd confirmed the first tower was already in flames. We awakened my grandmother and the three of sat watching in disbelief and horror as the rest of the day’s events unfolded. By sunset, friends and family would be stranded all over the US and Canada. The airfreight airline I managed at the time, saw all the carrier's aircraft grounded in three states, our pilots stranded, and extremely time sensitive freight remained undelivered. 

Across the northwest, events thousands of miles away, impacted everything and everyone locally. Every one of the airline ground support vehicles broke down that morning.  As my father struggled to keep the operation running in my absence, I found it increasingly difficult to stay in communication with him.

I remember losing one such call, and I looking down in shock as a jet fighter raced below me, traveling at hundreds of miles per hour, buzzing the cliff. As what I witnessed slowly registered, the aircraft became first a dot on the western Selkirk Crest and then nothing.   The pilot scrambling. Already far into the first missions patrolling the airspace in my humble, mountain-guarded valley huddled against British Columbia, Canada.

Also already dispatched, sharp shooter snipers sat posted at Boundary Dam north of me, and because we supply 70% of Seattle’s power, should Microsoft and Boeing go down, the Port of Seattle loose power, and the city grind to a halt, another of America’s powerful shipping points would be severely handicapped.

In the coming weeks those jets would became as familiar up at the ranch as other “Homeland Security” measures that followed impacted the rest of the nation. On many a first pass, the jets that flew up the Pend Oreille River Valley cruised lower than the cliff upon which my house rests. Always, by the time I registered and aligned the site of these aircraft with the deafening roar of their jet engines, they'd already disappeared out of sight. I’d scramble to cover my ears, get my heart to quit racing, and reassure myself that the world was not ending.

The Air Force Survival School, located across the river from me, saw increased troop activity, and later that summer and during subsequent summers, we began to encounter entire platoons navigating the woods as we sought a camping site.  The Northwest Geophysical Observatory, hidden just behind me, which is a former SALT Treaty listening post, also saw increased activity. Despite the rugged isolation of where I call home, we remained either quite protected or under surveillance (depending on your perspective) over the coming weeks, a reality that only seemed to reinforce our sense of vulnerability.

In the Northwest, we’d already grappled with a loss of innocence and a sense of powerlessness. Terrorists seemed hell bent on utilizing our border crossings to blow things up and target seemed to be in flux. Was it the Space Needle? LAX? U. S. Customs intercepted an explosive laden vehicle crossing over from Vancouver Island at the Port Angeles Ferry Terminal mere months before 9/11.

We’d dealt with new eruptions of Mt St Helens, the early 2001 damage resulting from the Nisqually Quake, and the man-made quakes of both the “Battle for Seattle” –better known as the WTO Riots, and the deadly Mardi Gras Riots.

Our locally based airline, Alaska/Horizon Group had recently lost a jet airliner over the Pacific Ocean within spitting distance of Ventura, California. The plane had flown upside down, en route between Mexico and Seattle, and prior to that final loss of control with the aircraft ultimately disintegrating as it hit the water, a childhood friend of mine, a tech for Alaska Airlines, frantically spoke to the pilots. All of them desperately trying to find a way to stabilize the aircraft. Everyone aboard the aircraft was lost.

The local papers, for the first time in the region’s history, recognized the survivors and partners in obituaries published by local papers. In a bold moment of change, these accounts paid equal tribute to the universality of the grieving process regardless of the decease's sexual orientation.

We were still mourning all the dead from that Seattle bound flight, the riot, and our loss of serenity, when 9/11 fell on us like that last straw, stealing what little normalcy we retained. In the months that followed 9/11, the careers of my pilot’s would stall. Security tightened. Badges and credentials replaced familiar, first-name recognition, and the skies, the highways, ferries and bridges, even our ports became potential wild cards-- loaded weapons of uncertainty. We worried over dirty bombs, nukes, and anthrax. We lived by color codes.

We gave away our civil liberties and punished those who would not blindly follow the Bush Administration. On the day after 9/11, I will never forget my NPR producer at the time, Marty Demarest, scolding me that I needed to support President Bush, just as he was already blindly doing. My immediate thought in response to his admonition was that America was screwed.

A prophetic, if not accurate response to that moment. I would never record another radio program for him.

~ ~ ~

And so it is that this morning I find solace just in watching my friend Jeff sleep, prior to his later participation in fireman related 9/11 commitments today.

There is no happy ending, no moment of affirmation, as we have lost far more than we are capable of recognition as a result of our 9/11 experience. I still find it alarming that the original sense of unity vanished in the wake of 9/11, but I am not sure that sort of blind allegiance is ever healthy.

It’s been a mere ten years but already the greed manifested by Republicans and the collapse of many of our financial institutions affirm that as Helen Keller once offered, security is always an allusion. My local representative Cathy Mc Morris Rogers, a tea party Republican, has no problem waving flags and appearing at VA Hospitals, but she stands naked, her immorality her greatest accomplishment.  She is a wolf in sheep's clothing and even recently voted three times, without remorse, to deny medical benefits to first responders who now suffer from post 9/11 health complications-- the results of their health conditions suffered entirely due to the sacrifice of their heroic rescue efforts.  She is a self-proclaimed patriot even as she destroys everything this nation was founded upon. Her allegience to greed is unlimited.

~ ~ ~

Now, as I look around me, and see the landscape in full daylight, even as the sun is warming the northwest, I am reminded that on the morning of 9/11, it was also such a beautiful, cloudless, September morning. The sky infinite, reflecting an immense perfect blue, and with no hint of what was coming.

Jeff, in full dress uniform, taken just before he left to participate in the memorials and tributes honoring the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy.

So I am pensive as I look outside this morning. Jeff stirs and begins to dress in his best fireman's attire and I am struck with an unsettling notion. Being surrounded by such natural perfection as the Sound and these mountain, range after range of perspective, can itself be disarming.

Yet, I also realize that being truly disarmed is a luxury none of us will ever know again. We, none of us, are no longer the same people.

And I’m OK with that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a friend of mine said
9-11 yeah I remember, that's the day freedom died.

Pat from NY