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Memories From 9/11, From My Book

September 11, 2019

Today at our home, on the Madison isthmus, we observed 9/11 with a special flag.

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From my book, Walking Up The Ramp.

Starting on page 245.

James was at home on Wilson Street on 9/11. Sixteen months had passed since we had met. Using some apples he had picked from a tree just down the block from his place, a tree standing along a desolate parking lot, James was baking a cake when the towers were hit. I was at my apartment and called him with the news. He struggled to stir cake batter and hold the phone to his ear while I recounted the breaking news.

No one alive at that time will forget the day the Twin Towers of New York fell, or when the plane destined for the US Capitol crashed into the field in Pennsylvania while another struck the Pentagon. Chaos. Whatever mundane things we were doing that morning are etched on our memories. Given the gravity of the events and the years which followed, we as a nation will never forget them.

I was at my 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, such as it was, hoped 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 taking place, it was clear that some type of national attack was underway.

I called James at once. He had worked as a teacher in New Jersey and had friends living in New York. His first classroom had a view of the Towers from the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel. He used to spend time gathering his thoughts between classes, contemplating their massive size. (We would learn later that he, like so many others, lost college chums who worked in the Towers.)

As I mentioned earlier, 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. I couldn’t just tell him to turn his set on and watch. Over the phone, then, 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. I knew that James was not a fan of AM radio, often mimicking the sometimes static sound with a cupped hand over his mouth while trying to impress on our friends that I am more unique then they had any idea about when it came to what I listened to on the radio. Not skilled in fine-tuning radio dials as I, James struggled to get the station set and listen along. I think that on the morning of 9/11, James altered his feelings a bit about radio as he listened to the news. (Though I did question if his conversion were complete.)

In those first minutes of the national tragedy, we made plans for me to pick him up later in the morning. By then, we might know a bit more about what was happening on the east coast, and James’ cake would have been successfully removed from the oven and cooling on the stovetop.

I next called Mom, and knew instantly she was truly upset. She did not want to think about what was going on in New York. Dad had taken the car out for something to be fixed that morning, and so Mom was hearing all the news by herself. She was scared and alone.

Shortly afterward news reports made known that the Pentagon too had been hit. I called an older friend, Kaye, and asked, “What is happening to my country?” Kaye had worked for years in our Capitol office as a ‘floating secretary’, a member of a pool of assistants loaned out to the various legislators. We had become good friends.

Over the years Kaye and I had traded phone 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 television. She was nervous and yet more contained. She had, after all, lived through World War II. My generation, however, had never witnessed anything like this. (Our friendship would sadly dissolve after I took a firm and outspoken stand against the Iraq War in 2002, and marched for my beliefs. My involvement in the protests was something Kaye very much disproved of, and she let me know of her feelings in brusque terms.)

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 and will always remember that one of the nicest guys who worked there was arriving 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. Since James lived on the isthmus we walked just a couple blocks to the Capitol Square and were struck by 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; each of the signs had been individually created. Each shared the same purpose: alert customers that their place of business was closing at a certain early hour in light of the news from New York. No two signs were alike, and yet each conveyed the same sadness and the same shock that we both felt.

We took the cake to the home where eventually James and I would come to live during the fall of 2007. We dropped the cake off with Henry and made plans to come back and meet all the others for dessert and tea. We were part of the grouping that made up Henry’s ‘salons’. Over the years, politics, books, and movies were the topics of grand discussions at Henry’s place.

James and I had lunch that afternoon at a small Chinese restaurant on Regent and Mills Streets. The Capital Times had printed their afternoon edition, and it had landed in the news boxes where I bought two copies. On the front page a searing image of one of the towers on fire dominated any print about the story. Inside the restaurant, the mood was somber. All were watching CNN, and eating slowly. There are big windows that face out onto Mills Street and young college students were huddled but lacking the usual energetic movements that accompany such a gathering.

Later that day back at Henry’s, his usual group gathered in the living room, and watched hour after hour as the coverage continued. The only bright spot was the apple cake with whipped cream 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, and unfortunately how we view others. As a nation, everything changed. In the weeks following the incident, heightened security measures were in place even at the Wisconsin statehouse where James worked. On a personal level, while we still have many of those same people over for tea and dinner and conversations I am hopeful that we never again meet in this nearly one hundred twenty-five-year-old house for a day like the one when we joined in friendship to deal with 9/11. 

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