Just about 12 hours earlier on September 10th, 2001, I was at the old Vallee and Bowe Cadillac dealership in Woodbury, New Jersey, helping a couple take delivery of their brand new Oldsmobile Alero as the nine o’clock hour (ie: closing time) drew closer and closer.
I was pretty excited about the Phillies and how well they done up to that point of the season. The team was off that day, but the next day they were supposed to start an intense three-game series with the Braves in Atlanta. The Phillies were winning meaningful games in September for the first time since 1993. How they played in this series could either put them in a great position to win the NL East, or they could go home early and once again miss the playoffs. I was 23 years old, just one year out of St. Joe’s and still trying to find my place in a post-college world.
Little did I know that the Phillies would soon be the farthest thing from my mind, and the world as I knew it would be forever changed the very next day.
I got into work just before 9am. Shortly after greeting my co-workers, my finance manager came over to my desk and motioned me over to the television in the service waiting room because a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center. No sooner did I think that was a freak accident when he ran over again- to tell me another plane had flown into the World Trade Center.
The fact the one plane had an accident wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to wrap my head around, but when another plane did the exact same thing, it suddenly became really, really, frightening. What everyone thought was originally a freak occurrence with a single plane now had people grumbling that this could be the work of terrorists.
Then another plane crashed into the Pentagon and all air traffic had been grounded. Shortly after, a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania.
“No way!” I thought. Nobody attacks the United States. Nobody would EVER attack the United States. That doesn’t happen. We’re the United States. This is America!
Reality Setting In
The picture of the two planes in the World Trade Center was so surreal, it looks like an image you’d see in a video game when you failed to save the world or something to that extent. But this was no video game, and my ignorance soon turned into reality. This was indeed happening. The entire workplace as well as our customers were glued to CNN as more details came in about what exactly happened. But let’s be serious- nobody could go back to work after what we saw that morning. As soon as everyone in the service department had finished working on their cars for the afternoon, we all closed up shop and left for the day.
There wasn’t a single plane in the sky on the drive home. That was an eerie feeling. Almost if time had stopped. Our normal Tuesday trivia game at a local Philly college bar was cancelled. After all, people were scared to death to even ride over a bridge let alone go play Quizzo.
I know it sounds ridiculous that you could even fathom going out that night that when you look back, but the bottom line was that nobody really knew what to make of any of this at the time. The only attack close enough to resemble anything of 9/11’s magnitude was the attack on Pearl Harbor- but that happened 60 years before. All we could do was sit home and watch countless hours of the news.
The more we watched, the more we learned the extent of what our country was facing. We also became acquainted with what are now such familiar terms as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the biggest name of them all, Osama bin Laden. Though not exactly a household name at the time, the United States government had their eye on bin Laden in regards to several incidents overseas since President Clinton was in office.
As we learned about bin Laden, the death toll continued to rise. Fatalities from the four plane crashes were close to 3,000. Over the next few weeks, the total number of victims (when combined with the Pentagon and World Trade Center fatalities) would practically double. One of those victims was my college orientation leader. The other was somebody a few years younger than me who grew up in my town.
The Days That Followed
Several days had passed, and in an effort to try and get out of the house to get my eyes off the television and somewhat clear my mind, I went to the movies- where police officers were surrounding the premises.
I happened to stop and talk to one of the officers, who informed me that he volunteered at Ground Zero and recovered bodies from the remnants of the World Trade Center. He also told me that he hadn’t slept since that night, and that his good friend (who also went with him to volunteer) woke up screaming several times during the nights following the attacks in a state of shock. Needless to say, I really didn’t enjoy my movie all that much after hearing such horrid, emotional recollections.
The mindset in the weeks that followed was a combination of getting over the sheer horror of what transpired and trying to generally regain a sense of normalcy in everybody’s lives. I remember going to the gym and being afraid to refill my bottle of water with fountain water because nobody knew if the water could be tainted. Business was disastrous. We only sold nine new Cadillacs that entire month of September. Moreover, I went to Atlantic City one night with my college roommate and there was literally nobody in the casinos. But the one incident that stuck out the most through all of this happened on the drive back from the shore the next day, when we stopped to get gas.
Two dark-skinned gentleman (one of them actually bearing a slight resemblance to bin Laden) saw us pulling into the gas station and approached my vehicle. One of them must have been aware of my look of practical familiarity (or perhaps my roommate’s) and pointed to a bulletin board.
On the bulletin board was an explanation written in magic marker, pleading with customers not to pull away from the station or to be scared. The message went on to say that that the two were not from the Middle East and that they arrived in the United States when they were small children. They filled up the tank and were very appreciative of our business. But right then and there, I came to the realization that, despite how much order was to be restored in our country, things would never be the same for anybody living in America- regardless of your race or skin color.
Another turning point for me was the Concert for New York City in October. The concert was a fitting, well-deserved tribute to the law officers, firemen and countless other public servants who dedicated weeks of their lives towards the recovery efforts in New York. But as The Who took the stage, something hit me. Their performance was heartfelt and arguably the best of a night filled with movie stars and legendary musical acts coming together in our country’s time of need.
However, I didn’t seem to find Pete Townshend’s windmill antics particularly entertaining that night (and I’m a big Who fan). In fact, I got pretty pissed off and angry at the whole concept of why we had to have the concert in the first place. I thought to myself “This concert shouldn’t even be happening. The only reason it IS happening is because some fanatic kamikaze cowards attacked my country! Gutless bastards. And we’re here licking our wounds.” Just the fact that this went down was aggravating and upsetting to me, but if this is what it took to begin the healing process, so be it.
A few weeks later, I drove up to North Jersey to see my good college friend and more things really hit home. For the first time in my life, I looked over the bridge to New York and the Twin Towers were gone. Just like that. Shortly after noticing the glaring omission, a series of armed guards stopped our car at a checkpoint. It had come to this. I was with two friends who could barely light a match let alone blow up a bridge, but that’s how things were going to be from that point- at least for a little while. Yep, this was indeed a post-9/11 world.
Security In The Following Months
This continued at the Super Bowl the following February in New Orleans. I was lucky enough to attend the game with my dad through Cadillac, but not before security searched us from head to toe prior to letting us inside the New Orleans Superdome. No cameras or even pens were allowed inside if we didn’t have press credentials. This was the second major sporting event to take place since the 2001 World Series in New York and Arizona. In fact, the Superbowl was given a level one security designation, which wasn’t exactly the best news you wanted to hear. Moreover, the Superdome is just that: a dome. If an attack was coming, we would have been inside and never would have seen one coming. Thankfully, there was no attack and we were eventually able to enjoy the game.
In the five months since 9/11, there were definitely moments when I did in fact, live in fear. I think a lot of us did in some form or another. But oddly enough, it took someone like Billy Joel to put things in perspective. A bunch of us went to see Joel and Elton John when their tour passed through Philadelphia. Just prior to playing ‘New York State of Mind,’ Joel had some choice words in regards to those animals who forever changed the course of our country. In a nutshell, Joel explained to the crowd that despite the incidents that happened in September, you cannot live your life in fear. If you do, then they will win. Joel then yelled a defiant and emphatic “F**k ’em!” in regards to the terrorists. The crowd went crazy.
I’m sure all of you who were old enough to remember September 11th, 2001 have just as many stories as I do leading up to and following 9/11. For the record, Billy Joel is 100% right. Living in fear is no way to live. Truthfully, I think there’s a delicate balance of enjoying life but preparing for the worst. That’s just how I’m wired, I guess.
Fast Forward 12 Years
Yes, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is in custody, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are both dead, but so are thousands of soldiers. We went through a decade long war spanning over two presidents, now there’s Syria and their chemical weapons as well as retaliation against American bases in the Middle East from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad if there’s a possible air strike by the US. We aren’t talking about any of this is if 9/11 didn’t happen. I guarantee it.
Sadly, there are kids today who will never know what a pre-9/11 world was or is. A simpler, more innocent time when you could watch cartoons or afternoon reruns instead of paying attention to the latest possible terror threat. A time where you could go to the Boston Marathon and not worry if there will be explosions at the finish line- and that incident was 11 and a half years after 9/11.
And while no, you can’t live in fear, the fact alone that a terror attack can now happen anywhere, anytime is disturbing in itself. At least I think so. bin Laden and al-Qaeda put terrorism on the map, and they did it on our home soil. Talk about trailblazers. Most of us (myself included) took our freedom for granted prior to that day, but it’s not something you can take for granted anymore. The day won’t let us.
Yes, 9/11 is indeed the Pearl Harbor of our generation, but the emotional scars we have from that day have easily surpassed those of Pearl Harbor. The images conveyed by social media that are available to the public (yeah, look who’s talking) will never allow us to forget- if even if we wanted to block the day from our collective minds. For me, each 9/11 is now a further reminder that you have to live your life to the fullest extent because absolutely nobody is promised tomorrow. We have to be grateful for the special people in our lives and appreciate them while they are still in our lives.
As we all know, that can change in an instant. There are many families who aren’t able to do that on this day. Never forget those we have lost.
And never forget 9/11.
Contact Joe Vallee at firstname.lastname@example.org
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9/11 plane: plane2.0catch.com
Flag photo: examiner.com
Ground Zero photo: nationalgeographic.com