The place where James and I observe the 10th anniversary of the most horrific events of our lifetime is also the same place where we watched for hours with friends the madness play out on 9/11.
Now we own this home, but 10 years ago prior to having inherited it, this place belonged to a long-time friend. A friend I knew while working at the Wisconsin Capitol, and years later James would meet and connect with over languages and classical music.
My memories of that day are etched so finely and deeply that I will never forget them. Most people who were old enough to recall the events have a set of recollections of the most mundane things they might have done. Any other day those memories would have been filtered way with time, but due to the gravity of events that took place on that morning we are not allowed to ever forget.
I was living in an apartment and had turned the television on as I came downstairs for coffee. The first plane had struck one of the towers and the smoke could be seen pouring out, but the general consensus was that an accident of some kind had taken place.
Then the second plane struck and by now I was holding my cup and wondering what in hell was happening. Though none of us knew precisely what was occurring it was clear that some type of attack was underway.
I called James at once as he had worked as a teacher in New Jersey, and had friends living in New York he had met while attending Vermont’s Middlebury College. James was living in downtown Madison in an apartment as we had only known each other for 16 months and had not yet moved in together. That huge moment for both of us would not occur until the following April.
James was in the midst of making an apple cake and was finding he had more batter than pan. Since we spent a lot of time together he had his apartment fitted out for basic living but somehow had not found it necessary to have a television. So over the phone I was telling him to get his radio dial turned to WBBM-AM 780, the all-news station from Chicago that had been my station to turn to for instant information since being a teenager. He has never been a fan of AM radio, but that morning I think he altered his feelings a bit as he listened to the news.
In those first minutes of the national tragedy, and while speaking to James we made plans for me to pick him up later in the morning.
I called my sister, Ginger Pfaff in Coloma, and told her the news. She was unaware that anything had happened. She had driven a kid to school and for whatever reason had no radio on during the time. I recall her tone and the surprise of hearing something so outlandish.
I called Mom and knew she was truly upset and not wanting to think about what was happening. Dad had taken the car out for something to be fixed (oil change?) that morning and so Mom was, for a brief time, hearing all the news while alone.
Shortly afterwards news reports made known that the Pentagon had been hit, and it was then I called an older friend, Kaye Fauerbach, and asked “what is happening to my country?” Kaye had worked for years in our Capitol office as a floating secretary, and as such we had become good friends. (That friendship would sadly dissolve after I took a firm and outspoken stand against the Iraq War and marched for my beliefs. Something she much disproved of.)
Over the years Kaye and I had traded phones calls about every sort of news event as we both loved politics and history, but this one was so god-awful that I recall crying while talking on the phone and watching the events play out on the television. She was nervous and yet more contained. She had lived through World War II.
My generation, however, had never witnessed anything like this.
When the towers fell it was the most gut-wrenching moment ever to fill the television screen. I bolted to the shower and just wanted to get together with James. There was something about the events that played out that day which demanded connection to others.
On the way downtown I stopped for more coffee at Borders on University Avenue and will always remember that one of the nicest guys who worked there named Parrish was arriving for work as I was entering the store. We had talked many times in the past, but that morning we looked at each other and both just shook our heads and walked in silence through the store door.
James’ cake was cooling by the time I arrived at his apartment and we started that running conversation that would last all day and into the night, and in time would include more people along the way.
As James lived on the isthmus we walked just a couple blocks to the Capitol Square and what struck me was the fact of how quiet it was. People were out and yet the loudness of the city was calmed by the horror that had struck the nation. No one was yelling, or screaming across the street. It was a serene sadness.
Signs were going up on banks and stores that were all individually created, but all with the same purpose of alerting customers that their place was closing at a certain hour in light of the news from New York. It was something that will never leave my mind in that no two signs were alike, and yet each conveyed the sadness and the shock that all felt.
We took the cake to the home that I am now typing from this morning and talked for a long time with Henry, the man who then lived here. We made plans to come back and meet all the others for cake and tea who were part of his salons where over the years politics, books, and movies had been the topics of grand discussions.
James and I left and wandered around for a bit and finally drove to Hong Kong Cafe on Regent Street. The Capital Times had printed their afternoon edition and it had landed in the news boxes. One box was outside the Chinese restaurant and I bought two copies. On the front page a searing image of one of the towers on fire dominated all else.
Inside the restaurant the mood was so quiet. All were watching CNN from the TV and ordering quietly and eating slowly. There are big windows that face out onto the street, and I recall I was looking out on Mills Street and young college students were huddled and lacking the usual energetic movements that accompany such a gathering.
Later that day back at Henry’s home a group of us gathered in the living room and watched the coverage. Hour after hour. The only bright spot was the apple cake with topping and the tea selection that always made Henry‘s home a perfect place to weather a storm.
That single day changed our politics, international affairs, how we fly, and the way we think. While we still have many of those same people over for tea and dinner and conversation I am hopeful that we never again meet in this nearly 120-year-old house for a day like which we joined in friendship to deal with 9/11.