Most anyone, when asked, knows exactly where they were when the events of 9/11 occurred.
Charlie and I have each shared a little bit about that day with the boys. But not much. Neither of us talk about it, really. Because in the end, we were safe--and others, so many others, were not. And in my mind, those with stories of heartbreak lay claim to talking about that day should they choose to share. That might not make much sense but it's truly how I feel.
But....as much as this blog serves as a craft journal for me, it's also meant to memorialize certain things I wish to share with the boys. And as the events of 9/11 have in no small way shaped my perspective on how I choose to live, I've decided to write an entry for when the boys are older. I worry I might not remember as well in a few years--even though I'm certain I'll never forget.
I selected my customary seat for attending a training class: second or third row, one or two seats in from the end. It was close enough to hear and see, but not front row. I was the only Coast Guard attorney, which was typical. This particular training was at Fort Myer, an Army base. And not surprisingly, most of the uniforms surrounding me were moss green. There were a handful of Air Force and Navy officers as well.
I glanced around, looking for a Marine Corps uniform. I spotted him easily--Major Something-or-other. Charlie had mentioned that someone from his office was attending. I turned around as training began, making a mental note to introduce myself when given the chance.
The presenter launched into our topic on Military Justice and the class settled in. We knew the drill--fifty minutes of instruction, ten minutes break. Military lawyers are good at digesting large amounts of information, usually from a power point. But we want our breaks. In return, we look and listen obediently and engage when appropriate. The room held little noise, just the presenter's voice and thirty or so pens scratching notes onto legal pads.
Towards the end of the first hour, an Air Force officer sitting to my left looked down to check her pager. No sooner did she reset it when it went off again. Bzzzz. Bzzz. And then the Air Force Captain to my right glanced down. His pager was vibrating as well.
Humph. I thought. Why don't I rate a pager?
This went on several times and each time I'd glance to my left then right, as if at a tennis match. I could sense both officers tensing up. Or maybe they were frustrated. I couldn't tell. But a general feeling that something was not right crept over me.
The speaker, mid sentence, looked over our heads and halted. We turned, following his gaze, and saw another officer motioning for him at the back of the room. The presenter excused himself and I turned to the officer on my left.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"I'm not sure," she said. "But I'm getting pages from an incident command center. Something about a plane crashing in New York."
We looked at each other, sharing a perplexed expression as to why that warranted messages from a military command center.
The presenter returned, looking unsettled and perplexed himself, and informed us that the training needed to be halted. "We're getting reports that a plane, maybe more than one, I'm not sure, has crashed into the World Trade Center."
What a horrible accident, I thought. The presenter left the room and again I turned to the officer on my left.
"No," she said. "But something is going on. We're involved." She got up and pulled out her cell phone.
I left my seat as well, taking my cell phone. But before I could leave the room, the presenter came back to tell us that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon.
I am fuzzy on the details as to how I felt just then. I remember thinking, what? The Pentagon? I had just dropped off Charlie there that morning. I remember feeling signs of panic. I know I began thinking irrationally, imagining a plane taking out the entire building. I was forgetting its massive size. After the presenter made the announcement, the room fell silent. There were many in the room who had come from the Pentagon. Each of us certainly knew folks stationed there.
The presenter told us to follow him and he led us to the pub portion of the Officer's Club. It had a television. I held back, trying to call Charlie's office but I could not get through on my cell. I went to the nearest pay phone and dialed his number. Still, no connection. I noticed a woman from the training class, a civilian, on the pay phone next to me. She was not talking but was waiting, the phone to her ear. Then she hung up.
"Were you able to get through?" I asked.
"Yes, but no one answered."
"You were calling the Pentagon though?"
"Yes, but it just kept ringing. Were you trying, too?"
"Yes. My husband works there. But there wasn't a connection. The line was just...just...." I couldn't say the word dead.
I turned and followed the crowd into the pub. The television was above the bar, broadcasting images of the Pentagon. It was hard to make out the area of impact. But I could see that it was contained to one portion. Where is his office? I thought. I had never been there. Which wing? Where does he work in that building? Why don't I know where he works?
I inched forward, watching the screen above me. When I glanced down, I realized I was standing directly behind the Major from Charlie's office. He was watching the screen, too. I heard him say to no one in particular, "everyone I work with is gone."
I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned.
"Major? I'm Sandra. Charlie's wife."
He smiled, instinctively, at first. Then, as he processed what I said--and what he had just said--his face froze.
"Sir. What did you say? Just now? Is that where your offices are?" I asked, pointing to the screen.
"No." He was quiet. "I can't be sure. I'm not sure. Let's get you out of here." He took me by the elbow.
"But is that your wing? Is that your section?" I would not let him move me from the screen.
"I can't tell. But they said the plane crashed into the newly renovated spaces." His face was grim, his voice worried. And I understood. He and Charlie, and everyone in their office, had just moved back into renovated spaces.
From here I am again fuzzy on what happened. But I am sure that I began to go into shock. I remember that the Air Force officer from the class was standing beside me. She talked with the Major and nodded, and I let her lead me out of the room, into the empty ballroom nearby. She did not know this, of course, but as luck would have it, she lead me into the very room where Charlie and I had celebrated our wedding reception almost a year prior.
"That's where we had our first dance," I said. "And over there, that's where we were announced." I walked around the room. "Here's where we cut the cake."
No doubt, the Air Force officer thought I was in full shock--that I was just babbling nonsense. But I wasn't. I stood there for several moments, remembering details of our wedding day. And then I began to cry.
"Can I leave?" I asked. "I need to leave."
"I'm not sure," my new friend said. "Let's find out."
We found someone who appeared to be in charge and he informed us that the base was closed. I do not remember what I said, exactly, to convince him to let me leave the base. I'm not even sure that I was officially released. But I do know that without another word I walked to my car, drove to the gates, informed the sentries that I needed to get off the base, and began making my way to our home. The roads were jammed and the 15 minute drive took over an hour and a half. My glacial driving speed allowed time to get lost in thoughts. Irrational, crazy thoughts.
Maybe everyone only gets a certain amount of happiness in their love story. And mine was all used up this year.
I made it home. There were dozens of voice mails.
"This is mom and dad. We're driving down."
"Sandra, Charlie? Are you both okay? Call us when you can."
"Guys....we just heard the Pentagon was hit. Please call us."
"Hi Charlie, Hi Sandra..."
I started skipping messages if I recognized the voice, trying to get through them as quickly as possible. And then, finally, I came to the one I prayed for.
"Hi. Sandra? You don't know me. I'm the wife of the Colonel of your husband's division. I'm calling everyone to let them know that the office is accounted for. They are all out and safe. They should be in contact soon, okay? I'll leave my number in case you need to reach me..."
Roughly an hour or so later, I was hugging Charlie in a diner a couple of miles from the Pentagon. He and some office mates had walked there. They were close to the point of impact, but they were okay. He was still in his uniform; I remember onlookers clapping. After that, I remember little else about my personal story. After that, I joined the nation watching the tragic events unfold.