Thursday, September 8, 2011

September 11 ~ My Story

I was serving lunch to tourists in the west of Ireland when the first plane hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Every generation has its own defining moments, plays witness to its own acts of violence and kindness. My grandparents came of age in the Great Depression and World War II. My parents’ generation had the violence and social strife surrounding Vietnam and the civil rights movement. Members of my generation know without thought where we were when the first plane hit the first building that Tuesday morning a decade ago.

Much has changed since that moment. Many things remain the same.

Ian, the New Zealander cook in the Clifden restaurant where I was slinging boiled bacon and veg, came into the dining room through the swinging doors from the kitchen to tell me the news: “A plane just flew into a building in New York, mate.” We both assumed it was a small plane, piloted by someone who didn’t have any business flying, and we laughed it off.

But Ian kept coming out of the kitchen with more reports, which grew increasingly alarming and led to unanswerable questions. Two planes into the World Trade Center – in a city as full of Irish, probably, as Clifden was – a third plane into the Pentagon, another crashed into a Pennsylvania field.

Many Americans awoke to the awful news that day, but in Ireland 9/11 happened at mid-afternoon, well into the shuffle of the day. The restaurant, which regularly fed diners ranging from busloads of demanding French tourists to farmers who came from the outlying farms and spoke Irish Gaelic, contained only a smattering of folks that afternoon.

One group left soon after word of the attacks reached the dining room; the American woman’s brother was an airline pilot, and in all the chaos of the news, she was desperate to know where he was and if he was OK. None of us had yet seen the terrible images of planes crashing into tall buildings, black smoke billowing into a blue sky, rubble falling, terrified people jumping from high windows.

Eventually I left the restaurant and called my parents in New Hampshire, where it was still morning. “What the hell is going on over there?” I asked. They couldn’t tell me. No one knew.

I sat in the corner of an uncommonly quiet pub that night with friends, watching horrific images of the attacks on a television thousands of miles away from home. I was the only American in the pub that night. I felt something between nauseated and numb. It was sickening to watch the scene play over and over, to see people who had only been going to work, picking up the newspaper, stopping by Starbucks for their morning hit of java – to see them running, crying as all around them the world fell. And yet we couldn’t stop watching.

I was five months into a six-month stint in the Connemara region of Ireland, and I’d become accustomed to being referred to as “the Yank.” My Irish friends told dumb-American jokes for my benefit. The diners at the restaurant guessed my now confused accent to be anything from British to South African.

There were no dumb-American jokes in the days after 9/11. I would not describe the Irish attitude toward me then as condoling. It was closer to subtle, unspoken sympathy. Few offered guesses at the origins of my accent, perhaps because I said so little. I felt sad, defeated.

I had been looking forward to a planned visit from my parents and younger brother, who were due to arrive in days and who cancelled their trip after 9/11. My brother could not get a flight to Boston from his home in Colorado, and my parents decided not to travel without their son.

I had already been dreading leaving Ireland, which felt as much like home to me as any of the few places I’d ever lived – and much more than some. Now, I wasn’t sure if I should go back at all. Did I want to live in a country so many people hated? A place perceived as so awful that people would volunteer to die by flying a fuel-laden plane into a building of steel and concrete and glass?

Nobody hates Ireland. In Ireland I felt safe. I had the comforting scents of the sea and peat smoke all around me and warm pubs filled with voices I cherished. I had even come to love the rain and think now of Connemara whenever it rains in my northern New England home.

But my family – and my American life – was across that sea. And so a month after 9/11, I packed my bags, said a tearful goodbye to friends, and boarded a plane back to the States. Six hours from departure I was back on American soil at Boston’s Logan Airport. The transition was brutal. For months I had heard mainly Irish voices, which are lyrical even when they’re cussing (which is often). The harsh Boston accents, the smell of airport grime, and my own exhaustion combined to form a mild sense of despair. That there were military police armed with rifles patrolling the airport created in me a sense of edgy confusion – was this Cold War East Germany or good old Bean Town?

From Boston I flew to Denver, where friends collected me very late at night. I slept without dreams that night and woke up, strangely it seemed to me, in America. What I remember most from the nearly 5-hour drive that day, from Denver to the small mountain town where I lived, is the American flags and “God Bless America” signs hanging from every highway overpass. Ten years later, people continue to hang flags and signs from bridges to welcome home local soldiers returned from war.

Much has changed. Some things remain the same.

In the days and months and years that have passed since September 11, 2001, there has been much political divisiveness in our country. That is nothing new, I suppose. Patriotism, despite what some would have us believe, has never been strictly black and white. It is not a matter of love it or leave it, you’re with us or against us. War is not simply a question of right or wrong; there are endless shades to both. I remain conflicted about a war that is in many ways vague, that has affected the lives of so many, that has no certain end.

In the past decade I have returned home to my New England roots, married, started a career, born three beautiful children. I have lamented the wars of my country and the wars of the world.

My brother-in-law, a firefighter in Tennessee, was sent to the Pentagon after 9/11 to help in the aftermath of the attacks. My neighbor lost a grandson, also a firefighter, at Ground Zero. My older brother, an officer in both the California Highway Patrol and the United States Army Reserve, has been to Iraq, has lived amid the hell that is war. One of the quotes he lists on his Facebook page is this one, from the movie We Were Soldiers: “We who have seen war will never stop seeing it. In the silence of the night, we will always hear the screams.” He is still a soldier and a police officer.

Much has changed. Some things remain the same.

As I look upon the mountains of home, sometimes I still dream of the sea in Ireland. I can hear the waves lapping the shore and the happy voices of friends in the pub, smell the smoke of peat fires, feel the cool morning mist against my skin. I have dreamed of Ireland forever, since long before I set eyes on the country’s rocky shores, and I do still. September 11 interrupted that dream, but only briefly. For others the interruption has been devastatingly more abrupt. Lives ended or forever changed. Loved ones gone. Innocence lost.

From the chaos and terror of 9/11 have emerged anger and hatred, war and destruction. That is, I suppose, a part of our human nature. But we have also found stories of love and kindness, heroism and unity. That, too, is a part of our human nature. In our brightest moments and during our darkest days, we harbor hope. We dream our dreams. We go on.

Much has changed. But this remains the same.