Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

15 years ago, my nephew was four and absolutely obsessed with planes, trains, and cars.  He loved to design entire train tracks, villages, towns, and cities, and all of his construction projects involved all things that moved.  He loved all things transportation.  My sister, his mother, and I had taken him to train museums, train stations, air shows, car shows, steam engine rides, 30th Street Station, fire department shows, police car parades…you name it, if it involved planes, trains, and cars, we had weekend road trips with this little blonde boy who loved all of it.  So…15 years ago, as I turned on CNN for the background noise I liked to have while I worked in my home office, when I saw smoke and fire coming out of the top of a giant building in New York City, my first thought was, “oh, wow, Shawn will love this!” and I immediately stuck a tape into the VCR to record what was happening, knowing he would be fascinated…I did not, for the first few minutes, even think about what this scene on my television screen implied.  I did not, for the first few minutes, even think about the fact that this was not a movie, not a retelling of an event.   For the first few minutes, all I thought about was that my nephew would think all this fire was wild, and that fire engines and police cars involved in the excitement of a big tower in a big city that was aflame, would be really exciting for a little kid who loved big things…

…then, after several minutes, my brain adjusted…my ideas of what a cool aunt I was, to have thought to put a tape in the VCR to record for him this big news story on a random morning, turned to…oh, there are people at work, in that building…oh, the building is on fire, and people were there, at their desks working, or getting ready to turn on their computers at their desks, as I was just about to do as well, but now their office is exploding…and my excitement for this tape I was going to make for my nephew became stomach turning disbelief, that I was watching, live, people burning to death…then as I sat on my giant purple sofa, I watched, with my own eyes, the camera angle that was on this burning building, as a plane, flew low, and smashed right into the building next to the one that was already on fire…AND by then my brain and my heart and my stomach were in complete alignment, and I became nauseated and was afraid I might throw up because I had watched, on tv, from my giant purple sofa, next to my cozy home office, not only lots of people dying inside a building, but then many more people dying on an airplane that had just smashed into the building next to the one already engulfed, and I began to cry…

The excitement that I felt for being such an awesome auntie to have quickly thought to record a big city event for my little pre-school aged blonde genius nephew, became the unbearable heaviness of indescribable sadness that on live television I was watching people die in a horribly gruesome and surely terrifying manner.  I did not move from that giant purple sofa for more than an hour.  I drove to Wawa and bought cigarettes and sat on my back deck and smoked until I could think clearly and wondered what on earth was happening…and as I sat, dressed in my work clothes, and wearing my fabulous jewelry, sitting, smoking on my back deck, and not working, I began to think about a woman in north Jersey, or Westchester County, who might be my age, who might at this very minute be sitting on her back deck, smoking a cigarette, and realizing that on live tv, she just watched her hard-working husband burn to death, at his desk, at work, and that her life as she knew it was never going to ever be the same…I thought for many minutes about, how would you tell your children, when they got home from school that their father left for work before they had woken up for school and there he died, at his desk, because a plane smashed into the building where he worked?

Needless to say, I did not get any work done that day that I recall…I typed up some reports and although our job had us on major deadlines and we had to have a minimum number of reports completed per month, I felt pretty sure that nobody that day was going to want to have a phone interview with me that morning about their jerk of a neighbor, collecting disability benefits because he hurt his knee on the job, but how he plays basketball in a men’s league under a nickname.  I felt pretty sure that no judge’s assistant wanted to discuss a case that had been sent back again, for more evidence.  I felt pretty sure that no person I talked to that day would want to talk about anything other than what was happening on CNN right before their eyes in real-time…

The tape ran for six hours or so, and then I stuck another blank tape in.  I could not stop watching the television.  I could not stop crying as I watched all those brave men and women running around in total chaos trying to help.  Over the next day I could not stop crying…seeing teenage girls weeping while being interviewed that their dad was a fireman and that he went to the call yesterday morning but that they have not heard from him since…the children’s loss those first few days was beyond heartbreaking to me, to us all.  We, I think I speak for us all, when I write that we had been, and still to an extent remain, very isolated from the world’s violence…there are places on the planet where terrifying things happen regularly, and people just deal with it as best that they can…we all, that morning were shocked and perplexed and confused, I think more so than scared, because things like this just don’t happen to us…

Six weeks later, on the morning of October 22nd, my girlfriend and I were at Newark airport, on our way to see Pearl Jam in Seattle.  I looked at every person in the seats around me in a different way…not suspiciously necessarily, but bewildered perhaps…and felt amazed by how you can be seated right next to somebody who is wearing the same Converse high-tops as you, and has the same JanSport back pack as you, but they are a deranged psychopath and you can’t know it by looking at them…I still have the tapes, all of them, recorded on a long ago tossed vcr, labeled with purple electrical tape that says simply September 11th, and I never once watched them after I took them out of the vcr, and I never once showed them to Shawn, and now he is 19, and stands six and a half feet tall, and has lost his boyish love of planes, trains, and cars…but on Friday afternoon, after I got my granddaughter off the bus, she said, “Nana I want to interview you. We have to ask a family member where they were on the morning of September 11th and what they remember.”  …And the thing I remember most was dropping that tape into the vcr, knowing my nephew was going to think, “wow…”

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