I’ve always been afraid to fly, but I know a lot of people who became afraid to fly after 9/11. Those moments – when American buildings and American planes were brought down on American soil – remain terrifying and indelible.
Of course 9/11 scared people. No American lived through that day unchanged, from my first-year students, who were in grade school, to World War II veterans who had seen nothing like it in 55 years. No one who looked at the beautiful blue sky on that September morning could avoid a sense of devastation.
But that day didn’t make me more afraid to get on a plane. My fears were more parochial and always had been; I was afraid of turbulence and bad landings. My fears did not, on that date, become worse.
Since 2001, I’ve flown four times, into and out of Boston and New York, on Sept. 11. The airports were subdued; there was visible additional security and, I’m sure, even more security that was invisible.
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Pilots on those flights acknowledged the importance of the date and asked us to keep a good thought or say a prayer for those who died years ago. Nobody ignored the memory; they honored it and then got on with the business of the day.
Most of my family lived in New York, but my husband and I were living in Connecticut. That semester, both of us were teaching at 8 a.m., and on most days, we’d rarely see each other between our drive in together and our drive home. But on Sept. 11, Michael was standing outside the door of my first class as it ended.
I saw his face, and I knew someone had died. My father was elderly and unwell, my heart tightened like a fist in preparation. Instead, Michael said, “We’re at war.”
I had no idea what he meant. We’d flown back from a writers conference the night before, arriving at Boston’s Logan airport late. We’d sat with writer Andre Dubus III on the plane, laughed the entire flight (mostly about my fear of flying) and I was exhausted. I thought I wasn’t hearing Michael right.
“Planes just hit the World Trade Center,” he said. “It was deliberate. Thousands of people are dead. They’re sure it was a terrorist act.”
The first person I thought of was my friend Lynette, who worked in the World Trade Center. She’d been there during the bombing of 1993, but was unhurt. Was she unhurt now? I thought of my nephew, starting his first day of high school in Manhattan, and I thought of my youngest stepson who lived in Greenwich Village. Where was he? Was my father all right? And what about the other dozen people I felt closest to in the world?
Classes were canceled and Michael and I left for home. We turned on the television and sat on the sofa, motionless except for the telephone calls we were desperately trying to put through. We kept trying to reach the people we knew. One by one, we spoke to all of them.
We were lucky.
Our immediate family was fortunate, but 9/11 still changed our lives in trivial and major ways. The skyline of lower Manhattan without the twin towers “looked like the face of a beautiful woman who had her teeth knocked out,” according to my dad, who refused to move from his 17th Street apartment. My younger stepson, a good photographer, had a roll of film containing pictures both of the World Trade Center’s elegant dining room – he had taken them two weeks earlier for a friend’s portfolio – and photographs of the smoke over the wreckage snapped from his roof on the day of the tragedy. These images collided on the same roll of film.
I was scheduled to give a speech the next week in another city. I thought about canceling it only to realize I wasn’t actually more afraid of traveling than before. And, I decided, I wasn’t going to live like that, anyway.
America decided that it wasn’t going to live like that, either. We honor the day, mourn the dead and get on with it.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant. She can be reached through her www.ginabarreca.com.