September 11, 2001 was like every other Indian summer day in southern California. Gallons of sunshine poured out of a flawless cyan sky. Temperatures hovered in the nineties. The tawny, lazy days of summer washed into another school year like breakers on a beach. In other words, the day was practically perfect.
Until two airliners tore into the Twin Towers.
Amid the shock, confusion and grief, one of the things that stood out on that terrible, tragic day was the quiet. Southern California skies usually hum with air traffic of all shapes and sizes, everything from thundering commercial flights to lumbering military cargo planes to the mosquito whine of light aircraft. It was all gone on September 11, 2001, when the FAA ordered all flights grounded. The result? A suffocating silence, terrible in its unnatural eeriness.
Neck-deep in other responsibilities, I hadn’t tuned in to the news all day. “Turn on the TV” my husband said when he walked through the door that evening.
“Why?” I asked. “What’s going on?”
“Didn’t you hear?”
“About New York.” Blank stare.
“Two planes flew into the Twin Towers this morning.”
“Was anyone hurt?” I thought he meant two Cessnas with engine trouble. Someone got confused. Strayed off course. An accident. Minor injuries and a dozen insurance claims. Then I turned on the TV.
Years later, this event and those responsible are household words. Oceans of ink have been spilled on the subject of 9/11. Documentaries have been produced. Testimonials shared. Solemn memorials observed. And we remember.
Many Americans set September 11 aside as a “day of infamy” – and something else. We mourn the lives lost. But we also remember the heroes. And in remembering, we honor the sacrifices of first responders – law enforcement, firefighters, EMS, and scores of “ordinary” Americans who were anything but. On that Indian summer day in 2001, we saw countless Americans go above and beyond the call of duty to protect and serve others.
It’s been a few years, but the events of that September morning still reverberate. They touched a chord. For those who looked, the immediate aftermath of 9/11 showed America at her best: Generous. Selfless. Resourceful. Resilient and resolute. United. Uncowed.
The final page of James Michener’s Korean war novella, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, (if you haven’t read that, you should) includes this paragraph:
For many hours the admiral remained alone. Then toward morning he heard the anti-submarine patrol go out and as the engines roared he asked, “Why is America lucky enough to have such men? They leave this tiny ship and fly against the enemy. Then they must seek the ship, lost somewhere on the sea. And when they find it, they have to land upon its pitching deck. Where did we get such men?”
Admiral Tarrant’s question is a rhetorical one. But it still lingers: Where do we get such men and women?
Well, we “get” them from where we’ve always “gotten” them: From Texas oil rigs to Iowa corn fields to Virginia coal mines. From Pennsylvania steel mills to the high plains of Wyoming to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. From New England fishing fleets, Florida orchards and the shores of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. From Wall Street to Lombard Street. From football fields and baseball diamonds to basketball courts and hockey rinks. From blue collars to white. From the Bay State to the North Star State to the Evergreen State. And all points in between.
From the courage and commitment of Navy pilots and first responders to the generosity and compassion of ordinary citizens, we “get such men and women” from all across the fruited plain. From America. They’re not made anywhere else.
Eagle photo credit: Public domain. Creative Commons license. no changes.