Apr 162011


by David B. Axelrod

Note: I know this memoir/story has no direct bearing on my work as a poetry doctor, but I am proud to offer this remembrance of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

    The neighbor says “Did you hear the news? Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.”

    It’s 9:10 at the bus stop. His wife told me he hits her. He seems like such a nice guy. The Chinese have a saying: “Every family has a hard book to read.”

    “Two planes?” I say, “It must be some kind of beacon problem. They went off course.” Terrorism doesn’t even come to mind. It’s the corner of Here and There in suburban Long Island. All we worry about around here is too many Canada geese in the little pond nearby. They are turning the water a sickly green.

    Who thinks of terrorism on such a beautiful sunny day? Terrorism: 1. a belief in terror? 2. Terrifying things done on purpose? 3. My brother jumps out from behind a tree screaming as I walk to school. I run home crying.

    We put our kids on the bus. His nine year old son hugs and kisses him. “I love you, Daddy.”

    “I love you too.” he says.

    I think of how his wife confided that some nights she lies awake, terrified. “He told me If you ever leave me I’ll kill you.’“

    My own daughter clunks up the steep bus stairs with her oversized red book bag. She hardly looks back. She has her mother’s eyes, sometimes her mother’s caustic tongue. For four years since the divorce, I’ve been Mr. Mom and she still argues with me that I don’t know how to do her hair.

    Inside the house I forget the news, start a breakfast of too much red meat, greasy fried potatoes. As I reach for the Times I remember the neighbor’s bulletin and get up to turn on the TV. Smoke flame billow from the twin towers. An urgency that is usually inappropriate edges the voice of the news commentator. A camera zooms in on what we’re told is someone falling. It isn’t clear if it’s a man or woman but the arms flailing indicates it isn’t a piece of debris.

    The screen splits to show a replay of a large plane approaching the twin tower, angling to impact with a giant ball of flame. I’m surprised at how stunned I am. I’ve seen a lot, more than you’d care to know. “Hi, how are you, “ is just a ritual. Don’t ask is good advice. Don’t tell is better.

    Just as I’m adjusting to what announcers are calling “a possible terrorist act, “ someone with a handheld camera screams “get back” and a tower begins to collapse. It’s just like a slow motion filming of a demolition scene, layer after layer flattening downward faster and faster into a cloud of dust and smoke. It’s so much like the special effects I’ve seen in movies that I’m bothered. It can’t be real.

    The people running, screaming must be movie extras. Only there’s the overweight cop who weaves around other panicking people, shoves a woman and runs out ahead of the billowing cloud of debris and smoke. Much later there will be the video footage of cops beating a fellow who “tried to pedal his bike past a police officer who told him to stop.” The announcer explains, “Impatient, tired, the police seem to be taking their frustrations out on him.” I doubt there will be an investigation.

    The entire World Trade Tower is gone. I feel a surprising tightness in my jaw, hear a ringing in my ears. I’m amazed at how amazed I am. And then the TV voice asks, “Do you think the other tower is leaning?”

    Almost as quickly it’s coming down, only this time the huge TV tower on top is visibly falling in the center. I remember being out on the observation deck atop the South Tower, looking over at the other building and how huge that broadcast antenna was. There as was Frenchman who strung a cable from one tower to the other and walked across the chasm! What gall! I always pictured him walking with his balance pole and the cable tied to the top of that antenna.

    Now it’s falling down, falling down. With it goes the indifference I had recently worked so hard to cultivate. “Who gives a damn. It’s no big deal; all just part of life.” It isn’t nihilism, just a desire to detoxify, to shake loose from too much pain and too much striving. But I feel first a great uneasiness rising out of that dust cloud and later an anger.

    The news coverage goes on and on with details. I place a call to my employer and say I won’t be coming in. I say I have an ear ache–not completely untrue as I realize I’ve tightened my jaw so much I’m in pain. Later they will cancel the day’s work and close up anyway. I’m saved a sick day and a small lie.

    A parade of officials come forward to promise “everything we can do to help.”

    It occurs to me that people inside–one estimate in the thousands–won’t take much consolation from all this, their bones likely ground to dust with the buildings’ collapse. The President comes on to say “We’ll get the folks who did this.” Not exactly inspirational.

    The phone rings several times. Older daughters reassure me they and their spouse, fiancé, friends are okay. Close calls. One might have been down by the WTC but decided to head up-town instead. She tells me later that she walked five miles, from mid-town, over the 59th Street Bridge and all the way to Astoria to get home. “It was a beautiful day. I felt guilty because I was enjoying the walk.”

    The woman who’s husband beats her calls to ask me if I can get her kid if the elementary school closes. “Don’t worry, “ I reassure her. “I’m always here for you.” If only it were that easy, I think. I gave her numbers to call–women’s groups, domestic services, and an attorney. That was a year ago and they’ve stayed together. What can a person do?

    Before I notice, it’s time for my daughter to get off the bus. There she is all flush with the news. “The teacher didn’t give us any homework tonight. She was too busy with what happened and forgot.”

    I bring her in and settle her in front of the TV but every channel is playing and replaying the plane that crashes into the towers and then the towers falling down.

    “Wow, “ she exclaims. “I went there and now they aren’t there.” And then it dawns on her, no cartoons. We experiment and even the shopping channels are either off the air or showing news. A couple satellite channels are still replaying the usual cartoons. Disney has an old Donald Duck cartoon in which, ironically, Donald is parading around in his World War II uniform trying to be heroic.

    When I saw that cartoon for the first time we were still being asked to buy liberty bonds. I think how many times during the day people compared the events to Pearl Harbor. For me, it was a bit like the assassination of JFK, as for the magnitude of people’s reactions. We live through so much. It’s a crazy existence and it’s amazing who does survive.

    Not long after my daughter’s return we decide to head out–upset by the continuing coverage, longing for something to do. We drive toward a department store where I’m scheduled to pick up a new vacuum cleaner. Wow, best suction available. I wonder what’s in the thick dust coating everything where the buildings collapsed. How will they ever be able to clean that?

    I promise my daughter she can get the Tweety quilt she has been asking for. But when we get there, to our mutual amazement, the department store is closed. Why? Why would they close on a perfectly good business day? Was this terrorist thing really such a big deal that a store sixty miles away needed to let its help go home?

    I guess so, I know so, but all the way home my daughter complains until, turning into our driveway I am forced to say, “For pity sake, thousands of people have died.” We spend a quiet evening pretending we are safe at home.