Out of the clear blue sky

911 Flags

It was a beautiful summer morning. Not a cloud in the sky.

A Tuesday.

I woke up, made some coffee, and sat down at my computer to write in my journal.

It had been the kickoff weekend for the NFL, and apparently Herself and I had spent the entire Sunday watching football. (“The Colts annihilated the Jets, the Rams eked a win over a tough Eagles team, and Miami bitch-slapped Tennessee Sunday night. We ordered pizza for lunch and Chinese for dinner.”)

I spoke warmly of Monday Night Football’s tribute to Mile High Stadium—it had been the first-ever game at Denver’s new Invesco field.

Terrell Davis, I noted, had rushed for 101 yards in that first MNF game of the season. Mike Anderson had scored a rushing TD. I had them both on my fantasy football team.

I expressed disappointment that my weight hadn’t dropped for over a week. (Herself and I were in the middle of a period of obsessive fitness.)

I updated myself on the various writing projects I had in play.

When I felt my journal was adequately updated—after about half a pot of coffee and god knows how many cigarettes—I took a shower.

I know that because I updated my journal later that day.

I felt fresh, clean, and ready for the day. . . I walked into the bedroom to put on some clothes. [Herself] was tapping away at the laptop, and on the television was an image of a burning World Trade Center building. The commentator was saying something about a possibly disoriented pilot, or tremendous pilot error—but it was a warm, clear, cloudless morning.

“What’s going on?” I asked [Herself]. She had only just looked up. She was as baffled as I was. The commentator kept talking. And while he was talking, another plane came swooping into the picture and slammed into one of the buildings. A fireball shot out the other side. The image above is what I saw live. The commentator was baffled. Was it a replay? Hadn’t the plane just hit—but no, this was live. . . But was it possible? Could another plane have—

[Herself] and I shook our heads at the same time. That was no pilot error.

We were glued to our television most of the day. We lived on the top floor of a four-flat in Queens and our terrace had an excellent view of Manhattan—but only from upper midtown northward. A large apartment building across the street blocked downtown entirely. Our real-world “view” of 9/11 looked like this:

A friend came over. (He lived alone and it was not a day to be alone.) As the afternoon became evening we began to drink.

We ended the night at our preferred local watering hole, a place where everybody knew our name.

The bartenders could barely keep their shit together because their families were thick with first responders they hadn’t yet heard back from. (In some cases they never would.) But it hardly mattered: no one could keep their shit together that day, or for days afterward.

That was twenty-one years ago today and some people still haven’t gotten their shit back together. Maybe most people. Who knows?

I have some digital Hi-8 video from that day. I swore to myself I would watch that video over a big glass scotch every September 11 for the rest of my life to be sure I never forgot. The tradition died when technology evolved to the point where I no longer had a way of watching a Hi-8 video. I’ll get it transferred to digital eventually, but that’s not the point.

It’s not a memory I wanted to cling to out of fondness for the day, but as a reminder of what can come out of a clear blue sky.

A reminder of how I woke up in a world in which I took (virtual) pen to paper to record my feelings about the NFL’s opening weekend, my weight, and my various writing projects, only to learn within a matter of minutes that all of that was entirely irrelevant.

What mattered was: are all my friends and family accounted for? Are they safe? Am I?

For all the emotions I went through that day, only one surprised me.

This was at a point, I think, before the towers had fallen: it must have been, because our phones were still working. I was talking to my ex-wife, who had called from Chicago to check in on us, when suddenly there was a great roar overhead. And I mean a great roar: it had to have been to get our attention, because we lived all of a mile from LaGuardia airport and had long ago learned to tune out the sounds of aircraft taking off and landing. This was something different and therefore, given the circumstances, terrifying.

Herself and our friend and I rushed out onto our terrace: there was a jet in the sky!

The three of us were jabbering confusedly (and loudly just to hear one another over the roar): what is that? Who is that? It was still a ways to our east but racing westward toward us—and Manhattan. Wasn’t there a ground stop? That’s not a passenger plane, it looks military, oh God!

My ex was squawking away in my ear: “what’s going on? what do you see? what’s happening?”

The jet flew directly over our building, not very high, close enough that we could see American insignia all over it. The very air seemed to shake with its passing.

“It’s one of ours!” one of us cried aloud. (I don’t remember who.)

“One of ours! It’s one of ours!” the three of us were suddenly chanting in a kind of giddy delirium.

I have never in my life felt such a surge of gratitude for military hardware of any kind.

I hope to god I never have to again.

But you never know what can come out of a clear blue sky.