Sunday, September 11, 2011

Where Were You?

The phone in our hotel room rang. Katrin lurched from sleep and picked it up. It was my Dad. His voice was high with excitement and he asked to talk to my mother. Mum held the phone away from her ear and looked at us quizzically as he ranted on the end of the line. She assured him that it would be fine and that accidents happen. He wouldn’t let it go. He insisted that she get home as soon as possible. I mouthed, “What the heck” to Mum and she looked back, confused.

Three days earlier, I stood in an alleyway, dressed in a tuxedo and sunglasses. My hair was slicked back in my best Elvis gel-up and my shoes were freshly shined. I dragged on a Marlboro, realizing the magnitude of what had happened an hour earlier. I hid from the sight of the strangers passing on the street, so as not to draw attention. I paced back and forth in the alley, wishing for a place to sit, but there was none. My head was buzzed from a frothy Guiness at 10:30am. Had I really done it? I dropped the burning smoke onto the ground and lit another. It was that kind of day.

I felt two arms around my waist and a head gently pressed to my back. She found me.

“You okay,” She asked?

“Yut. Just needed a smoke.”

“They’re all worried about you.”


“You’re very distant.”

“I feel like I’m on the moon. I’ve seen these places in pictures……but to actually be here….doing this….”

She faked an understanding smile and rubbed my arm.

“Got another smoke, mister?”

I lit another Marlboro and handed it to her.

There we stood in an alleyway, she in her wedding dress and me in my tux, smoking ciggys and being kids. We quickly ducked back into our wedding reception, hoping her mom wouldn’t lecture us about my smoking. I looked around the room. Only about twelve people. Only two of whom I really knew – the two most important women of my life; my mom and my bride of one hour.

Mom held the phone to her ear with her shoulder and grabbed the remote. The television took a minute to warm up, but every channel was the same. Smoke. Skyscraper. Reporters looking confused. We listened for a minute. The reporters kept saying that it was a small, twin engine plane that had run into the World Trade Center. Mum reassured Dad that it was just a horrible accident and that she would make her flight that morning without issue. She was obviously a little annoyed by Dad’s insistence that she hightail it back at that moment when her flight was only an hour and a half from take-off. We shut off the television and got ready to take mom to the airport.

When we arrived at San Jose International, things were confusing. We parked and walked against the river of people leaving the airport terminal. As we entered through the double doors, we saw several soldiers, probably National Guard, walking around with AR-15’s (or for you non-gun people – “Evil black rifles”) held to their sides, patrolling throughout the airport. I was taken aback by it because I’d only flown on one commercial flight – to San Jose to get married nearly a week earlier. There were no soldiers with guns then. Adrenaline slowly trickled into my system. Katrin went to the check in desk and the conversation seemed as though it was taking place in a foreign film. I understood nothing and became focused on the men with guns. The adrenaline built. Mum stood beside me, trying to look pleasant, but I could tell she was feeling near what I was feeling. We were from Aroostook County. THE County. Nobody leaves The County. We’re like Hobbits on the Shire. We’re born there. We die there. We don’t leave. Why? Because bad things happen when you leave. You could get lost, which in County terms means lost forever….never getting back home, mugged, raped, murdered…..LOST.

Katrin snapped us both out of it.

“All flights are cancelled until further notice. Donna, you won’t be flying home today.”

Mom looked as though Katrin had just told her she was going to die. Within two minutes.

“I…..uh…….I don’t……underst………what……what’s going on?”

“A second plane hit the second tower. We’re under attack.”

The blood from my head rushed somewhere. I’m not sure where, but it was nowhere good. We joined the river of people walking back to their cars and public transportation. People on their chunky cell phones, people muttering. People looking scared. People looking annoyed. If I was a snail, I crawled to the most inward part of my shell and refused to come out. I’d traveled out of New England once before this. Being in California was like being on the moon – something I only saw on television. Now this.

We traveled back to the hotel quietly, listening to every word on the radio. When we got back to the hotel, the television was turned on and we glued ourselves to it for what seemed to be a million years. We watched the towers fall. We watched people jump from the millionth story of the building. We learned about the Pentagon and I thought about my cousin Christy’s dad, who someone, at some point in time, told me worked there. I worried for her and I worried for him. Katrin went into damage control and started making phone calls. She was in control. I wanted nothing of it. We were under attack and I had no gun, nor did I know the forest of California. There was no place to hide. No tools to fight.

It may all seem silly in retrospect, but in the beginning hours, nobody knew what was happening. Attacks here, attacks there. Reports of men on busses cutting peoples throats. Reports of dams being sabotaged. Reports of trains being driven into each other. Reports that other Trade Centers would be attacked. Katrin mentioned that there was a WTC in San Francisco. I lost my cool.

I remember standing in the parking lot of the hotel thinking that I should light three cigarettes at once. One wasn’t enough. I paced back and forth and thought that if we were under attack that perhaps we should make a run for the Canadian border and take the Trans-Canada back to Maine. Maine would be safe. Nobody gives a flip about Maine. We’re like Iowa with a frickin’ ocean. Besides, there are enough hillbillies with mass weaponry in the Northern part of the state to deflect a foreign army at least a few days. And after that? Take to the woods. Live off deer meat and fiddle heads.

What I’m writing sounds crazy. But it is exactly what I was thinking.

Katrin made the decision to head to Lake Tahoe, where her dad had a cabin. I asked her what Lake Tahoe was like and she described it as “in the woods, high on a mountain.” I was all in.

When we got to Tahoe, I was less than impressed. No Hillbillies. No guns. Far from the city, though. That helped. When we got to the cabin it was nothing like I imagined. It wasn’t a cabin. It was a small house. No logs. Not rustic, unless you call 70’s d├ęcor and a leaky toilet rustic. We settled in for a few days to figure out what we were going to do. And by that, I mean we settled in for a few days to let Katrin figure out what to do. She called the airlines. She called Amtrak. She called rental car companies. Flights would be booked, then cancelled. In the throws of it all, Katrin was attempting normalcy. She brought us to her favorite burrito place. She brought us to casinos. She brought us to Vikingsholm. She brought us to the beach. I attended only with my body. My mind was only on getting home.

As things started to calm, I tried to focus more. For the life of me, I could not focus on my new bride and the fact that our honeymoon was officially trashed. We had planned to tour the southwest for a month and spend time with me getting to know her family. Did I mention we only dated for six months before we got hitched? In my selfishness, I didn’t realize how much Katrin was losing. She hadn’t seen her family in quite some time and they didn’t know me from Adam until about five days before the wedding – at which time I wasn’t really talking much because I was already weirded out about being in California. Not understanding how she was effected in this situation is still one of my greatest regrets to date.

The thought of putting Mum on a train or plane at that point was much like sending someone to the firing brigade, in our minds. At the end of it all, Katrin decided that we would scrap the honeymoon and drive Mum back to Maine. Very selfless of her. We spent a day on the beach of Lake Tahoe with Katrin trying to entice me into planning the trip cross-country with her. Again, I would have nothing of it. She was devastated.

We set out for Denver, where Katrin’s sister, Carmen, and her family lived. There, we ditched the rental car and assumed ownership of an old Subaru GL hatchback, which Carmen and Paul gave to us. I remember standing on the street in front of their house and Carmen looking up to the sky, stating that she hadn’t heard a plane in nearly a week. The skies were silent.

When we left Denver for Maine, Katrin decided that we’d best hightail it and make it back as soon as possible to save what little time left we had for a honeymoon. With three of us taking shifts, we drove around the clock. I remember pictures of Osama Bin Laden posted on the back of 18-wheelers that said “WANTED- DEAD” and cars with “Atlanta or bust” and “Florida or bust” painted on the back windows. Groups, congregating at truck stops, talking about their experiences on the road. We, as a nation, were drawn together in a common goal.

We arrived in Maine 36 hours later. Delusional from lack of sleep. Katrin and I whispering “I hate you” to each other so Mum couldn’t hear. Katrin was torn from her family and I had zero sympathy. All Mum and I could do was talk about home like we hadn’t been there in a million years. It had been two weeks. Katrin resented me for it. Looking back, I can’t blame her.

September 11th, 2001 was a tragedy. At the risk of sounding self-centered, it defined the first four years of our marriage. Katrin saw that I really didn’t have any salt unless I was swaggering in my home state. She spent the next four years resenting me for that and trying to build me up into a real man. Appropriately so, in retrospect. But we fought back. We'll always fight back. Currently, we’re winning. Winning big.

Where were you when it happened?

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