Anniversary seems like a funny word for an event like September 11. I’ve always associated it with events like weddings, family events, not a horrific event like what happened.
Because I both knew someone who was killed on one of the planes, and I was in the Washington, DC area when the plane hit the Pentagon.
The person was David Angell. When I was in Los Angeles, I had been trying to break into Hollywood by script writing. He was working on Family Ties at the time, and someone who know someone got me a chance to meet him. I’ve heard since that he was a nice guy, but that day, he seemed put upon and dismissive. I’d been excited going in to meet him and disappointed coming out. I guess like a lot of writers, I’d expected magic to happen because I met the right person. In hindsight, he probably got a lot of people like me, thinking there would be magic.
He was on the first plane that crashed into the Twin Towers. It put a real face on what happened.
I was at work when the plane crashed into the Pentagon. We didn’t know what was going on. It was a big cluster of speculation and rumor. Phones were all jammed up, so nothing was getting out. Eventually our managers said, “Go home,” though that would be four hours for a 13 mile trip. You see, I lived near the Pentagon. I didn’t even know what I was going to see when I got home. Was my home going to be there?
I95 and I395 were not just backed up. We were packed in their tighter than sardines, and traffic inched along. Only the shoulder on the left side was free, and every driver stayed off it. The worst thing for me was seeing convoys of police and rescue workers come roaring at full speed on that shoulder. We all watched, and not a person honked a horn in impatience.
In an insane piece of reality, my car overheated in that traffic jam, the product of a fan that decided to fail. Pink smoke started pouring out of my hood. I finally hopped off on the nearest exit — in the nearly the opposite direction — and got the wind blowing on the car. I finally got home after the traffic cleared.
I could walk out on the street from my house and see the smoke billowing up from the Pentagon. It was like that for days. It was hard because I felt like I should react, and I was numb all over. Everyone was. The whole area was like a pall had been cast over it. People drove only when they really needed to and overreacted to insignificant things because it was safer. Mine was over that fan, which turned out to be very hard to get fixed, and all I wanted to do was be simple, and it wasn’t.
And underlying it all, I was terrified. I was still in the military, and two months from getting out. I was done with it, and I wanted out. Yet, I knew from the events, the military would be deploying. When we’d finished Desert Storm, everyone said, “We’ll be back.” I knew this prediction was coming true and that what was coming wouldn’t be the same as the war we fought.
I had to go to National Guard duty within a few weeks of September 11 and the route back took me past the Pentagon. A car ahead of me slammed on the brakes and pulled off to the side. The driver hopped out and took pictures.
Then I saw why. I saw what had been done to the Pentagon for the first time. It looked like a big bite had been taken out of it, and it just looked wrong. Worse was the other driver, who was treating it like a neat tourist thing.
When I was growing up, every year I saw a front page headline for December 7, 1942, the attack on Pearl Harbor. I never quite got why an event from decades before was news.
But sometimes an event is so big, so powerful that it leaves a permanent imprint on who we are, like Pearl Harbor and like September 11.