September 11, lest we forget

Russet blooms in slumber steeped
Shrugging off their veiled defeat
Arise the memories from their rest
Lest anyone of us forgets

Susan Strom

I was 19 years old on September 11, 2001. I was in my second year of college at Ulster County Community College. I fancied myself a “pre-med major” at the time, though the college didn’t have a specific set of courses for that.

For that reason, I was in the Chemistry Lab that morning at 8 AM. It was the molecular modeling lab, so my classmates and I were huddled around our lab bench working through our lab notebooks. I was flustered by the exercise of trying to construct the models with my kit.

About twenty minutes into the class, our Organic Chemistry professor came running into the room. He was very distraught and said something about an airplane hitting one of the trade towers. “How could that be?”, we wondered to one another. New York City was just a few hours drive from Stone Ridge. I imagining a small plane that had lost its way must have accidentally hit the building. What other explanation could there be?

I had three more classes that day. On my way to one of them I passed by the cafeteria. This was a time before I owned a cell phone. I was surprised to see an unusual number of students huddled around the television screens. Since the screens were not pointed towards the hallway, I assumed it had something to do with what my chemistry professor had mentioned. Being extremely timid and late for class, I hurried along.

My last class for the day was Psychology. My professor was an older gentelman with an abundance of energy. He used all of his knowledge of the subject to keep the class interesting. As soon as I saw my professor’s face, I had a feeling something was off. The gist of what he said was, “I am assuming if you are here today that you are okay to continue with the class. So, I am just going to do what we would have done. Otherwise, they will have gotten what they want.” That was it. The class went on as usual, but I wondered what I was missing.

Being the last class of the day, I next headed out to my car to take the long drive down Rt. 209 to Napanoch. As usual, I turned on the radio to WRRV. They played mostly alternative rock, a genre I felt a bit naughty listening to. I’d often change the station when I got home so no one would know I had been listening to it. I know, I was a rebel!

I figured it would take a while to hear anything, but to my surprise, the topic was all they were talking about. It hadn’t been a small plane- it had been a large commercial airliner. It hadn’t been an accident. Both towers had been hit, and they were both gone. It was inconceivable. Nothing like this had ever happened before. My naivety slipped away as the horror of it set in. How many people had been killed? Would it happen again? When? Why? Who would do something like this?

It was not until I turned onto the street where I lived that I realized my family might not know yet. I hurried down the road to find my father was home watching the footage on the television. I guess hearing about it on the radio first had somewhat softened the blow, but it was then I realized it was international news. I began to wonder if anyone we knew had been there. We had family all over the state and the city. I recall my father (a former volunteer firefighter) being ready to drive down to NYC to help when the news asked people to stay away. They were concerned about the quality of the air.

“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

In a twist of irony, four years later, in the early hours of September 11, 2005, I would find out that same man who was so eager to help had passed away in the night. It was the fall of another pillar of my life. I spent the entire day bawling my eyes out. Few people asked me what was wrong because they all assumed it was the date- September 11. That was how long the pain lingered. People drove around with flags on their cars and with their headlights on in remembrance.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Jesus, Matthew 5:4

Now it has been 18 years- almost as much time has passed from then as years old I was when it happened. I swore at the time I would never forget, yet time has a way of softening the memory. I can only recall a few of my classmates’ names. I can’t remember what other classes I took that day. What we often do not talk about is the mood of the next day, September 12th. Unlike any other, there was this unspoken camaraderie. Back then there wasn’t this terrible tension I feel now. We were all just Americans. We were going to fight as one. Nothing else mattered.

You hear all the time, “Never Forget”, but what are we supposed to remember? Is it the tragedy? Well, yes of course but it is more than that- it’s the camaraderie too. For one day, we all grieved together. For one day, we are all grossly human. This tragedy touched everyone because the act itself was so senseless.

Being American is an ideal just as much as it is a geographical location. America was founded on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  We are a giant family, and we cannot let anything break us apart. That seems to be what is happening more and more. People seek to divide us up, but we can’t allow that to happen. Seek the common ground. Understand that everyone suffers in this life.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence