Me? I was on a bridge in San Diego, paying a toll. The tollbooth lady turned to me and said, “You sure you want to go in today? A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.”
It was just after 5 am on a Tuesday morning.
What I didn’t know was that “a plane” wasn’t a little Cessna like I thought, but a passenger jet carrying travelers and fully loaded with fuel. Nor did I, or anyone for that matter, realize that the impact would lead to the destruction of an iconic building. Or that minutes later, the second tower would suffer a similar fate. Or that a third plane would slam into the Pentagon. And another fall from the sky into a Pennsylvania field because heroes on board sacrificed themselves to save thousands of lives.
But as unprepared as I was for the events of that day, September 12th caught me completely off guard. It was late morning and traffic over the bridge was terrible. The local base was on high alert and every car was being rigorously inspected. The ensuing backup created a parking lot out of the streets and cars sat for hours in the same spot. With A/C blasting, I waited in a suburban street and tried to deal with the shock from the previous day as well as the fear of what was to come in the near future. I had no idea a friend would never be found in the wreckage of the Pentagon or that many more would be lost over the course of the ensuing war.
What I did know was that everything had changed. The world was suddenly dark.
There was a tap on the window which pulled me back to reality.
A woman, maybe in her late thirties, stood outside my car with a case of water bottles. I rolled down the window and she handed one to me.
“You look thirsty,” she said. I thanked her and she replied, “Anytime. I just, needed to do something, you know? Anyway, stay cool.” Then she walked to the next car and tapped on the window.
Later that day, another image struck me. The skyline of San Diego was covered with American flags. The rooftop of every skyscraper and house in sight was flying the Stars and Stripes. Driving into the city, you couldn’t help but be moved by our flag silently flapping in the California breeze.
Of all the photos, reports, and media footage that came out of 9/11, those two events are the clearest in my mind. They are also, without a doubt, fundamental proof of who we are at our core. This nation is not without its issues and things have certainly been tough of late, but we know how to recover.
In times of horror, when blood, fire, and fear fill our hearts, we don’t become sensationalized attention-seekers, zealous peaceniks, or bloodthirsty war hounds. We become a nation of solitary figures who walk the streets with bottles of water because strangers might be thirsty. We become unnamed CEOs or never-thanked temps who ensure that a flag is flying on top of our building because it is a symbol of hope and courage. We become a family, willing to set aside squabbles because our hearts and souls are united in the love of country and one another despite all our differences.
There is much to be learned from the events of September 11, 2001 and there are certainly arguments about the course our country has followed over the past decade. But while many may think that we are a nation that is divided, one filled with individuals incapable of listening to or understanding each other, I know better. I have seen the true nature of our country.
It is a light in the darkness and it gives me hope.