Step into the Way Back machine with me while I set the dials to September 11, 2001. Ten days after my twentieth birthday. It is a sunny Tuesday. The skies are clear and blue in a way that only New Mexico's skies can be blue. A perfect day in Portales.
Portales, you should know, is surrounded by smelly operations. Dairy Farms. Bottling Factories. Ether Plants. Maybe even a few cheese factories. Which ever way the wind blew, there was some smell that made the air almost unbearable. And the wind was almost always blowing.
But not on that Tuesday.
It was a perfect day. Not too hot, a light breeze that blew sweet air, puffy clouds that swam across the blue blue sky, and I was going to be occupied all day with work, classes, rehearsals and friends. And I'm twenty. A number that did feel different then nineteen. I'm a junior in college and I'm doing well. I have the lead in the play. I'm enjoying the classes I'm taking. I live in my own apartment by myself. I drive my own car.
I will not recall to you the specifics of watching the planes crash into the towers. Or the realization that I was not watching an accident. The pensive, pushy, stressed voice of Katie Couric in New York trying to find words for something that hadn't even finished happening. The sight of a news caster rolling up his shirt sleeves, the shirt was white with blue stripes, his shaky voice trying to reassure the country that someone somewhere knew something, anything. Then they all started telling us everything and anything. I'm sure if we looked back at those broadcasts we'd find lies, half-truths, and mistakes in those first few minuets and hours after the planes hit.
I could write a novel about that day for me. Take apart every emotion and moment and thought and need. The classes that were canceled because teachers couldn't get off the military base where they lived with their husbands or wives. The priest at the prayer ceremony who told us "It was God's punishment for the gays, the abortions, and the Muslims." The gathering at my good friend Kristin's house where Ben said, "I'm going. I don't care where. I want to be there when they get who did this." Trying to call my parents one more time, but still not being able to get through, everyone is calling everyone. Falling asleep to the news and starting my cnn.com addiction.
Let us be passengers in my white Ford Taurus as I drive myself and my friend Tanya out of Portales to Clovis about twenty minutes away. As we look around there are lines at every gas station. It's like a run on the bank. Someone had spread a rummer or a lie that there would be a gas shortage. I worried. But, I was on a mission of normality and now was not the time to freak out. Of course when we got to Clovis, it became apparent that they had either not gotten the news or the news was fake.
Mission of Normality.
When my children ask me "Where were you when..." I'll say I was at work in the computer lab. Where was I when it hit me that the world had changed? When I first felt like I was looking back and not forward to the moment in that same car driving to Portales with my brother in the night as he says, "I'm going to join the reserves." Where I can feel the darkness closing in on me when I find out that he will be in Iraq helping to fight the war. I remembered in that car as if it had all happened to some other person in some other life, that we would go to Iraq. That we would send my brother. That he would go. That he'd leave a wife behind.
"Where was I when..."
I'm siting in front of the television on my knees. Playing with the patterns in the carpet as the plooms tower into the sky in a three pronged fork.
I'm drawing a picture of Baby Jessica as she crawls away from her mother toward the hole.
I am watching a baseball game, then nothing, then fiery aftermath.
I am putting together a puzzle when they interrupt this broadcast and I hear the name Saddam.
I am watching the news, and LA burns.
I'm in my science classroom as the teacher hurriedly flips on the television to show a gutted building.
I'm staying up past my bed time with Piama and we are making silly movies. We want to watch one but the news is on from Atlanta. 200 people may be dead. Two days later it's only two people dead.
I'm in my father's apartment with the smell of lasagna in the air and my pajamas on in his recliner staring at the television at a tunnel across the ocean where the last princess in the world went into.
I am in my car listening to the radio driving my sister home from school, while in the town she was born in another school goes down in history.
I'm waking up to the alarm clock, it's the news, and it sounds like a bad dream. I hear tsunami and ten thousand.
I am on the phone with my mother, "No, the storm didn't pass them by."
"Where was I when..."
I was driving my friend Tanya to a porn shop in Clovis New Mexico so we could by a dildo for my friend Laura's twentieth birthday. We hope it's pink and says "Princess" on it. And I recall saying something like, "I just want to feel normal for a few more minutes today."
I remember knowing my brother would go to Iraq before I even heard the name Afghanistan.
One year later I'm at Laura's twenty first birthday party and it is my senior year. I'm talking with her new boy friend who is in the marines and is going to Saudi Arabia. He can't tell me why, but he says it's not to go to Afghanistan. And I know then.
In the spring Nathan comes to visit. He's going to school at Texas Tech only an hour and a half away. I find out a friend of mine is pregnant that night. And my brother is going to join the reserves. And I remember him holding a gun. Practising his war face for the camera. Standing in greens. Looking tight and fit. I remember this as we drive into the night, his last few days as a civilian, and I remember his early marriage and the happiness it bring him.
And now, I don't have any future memories. Now that he is going. Now that I know he will go. I only have fears and worries and hopes.
Where was I when I heard? At my desk in San Francisco. On the internet. It was in a little note he sent me.
"Hey i got my warno. Im getting the boot to the desert, but its only from july untill early november. But dont worry, where im going is the club med of iraq comparitively"
Definition: (DOD, NATO) 1. A preliminary notice of an order or action which is to follow. (DOD) 2. A crisis action planning directive issued by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that initiates the development and evaluation of courses of action by a supported commander and requests that a commander's estimate be submitted. 3. A planning directive that describes the situation, allocates forces and resources, establishes command relationships, provides other initial planning guidance, and initiates subordinate unit mission planning.
I remember the names being read out of the 9/11 dead. Each name in a monotone, correct, roll call sort of way.
Please don't let me hear a name I know.
I remember a phone call from my mother about a boy in my graduating class, who's name was read like that at graduation, who was shot to death.
Please don't let me hear a name I know.
I remember asking again and again, please don't let me hear a name I know.
But I did know that boy. I had sat next to him in government class. I drew a smiley face on his Styrofoam cup. He smiled back. He was blond, shorter then me, and friendly. A name I knew.
But, maybe, I remember my brother sending me something stupid from Iraq and talking about the embedded reporters who only report on the violent things and not the smiling giggly children in the street who worm their way into my brother's heart. I remember siting around a pic-nic table in his back yard with a beer as he talks about this and that, his big sun burt face laughing at his children even while he agonizes over them. I remember him dancing with me at my sister's wedding. I remember him arguing with me about the best care for our parents.
I remember him playing the game of Life with me in his bedroom when we were young. We'd play that we call each other every time something happens and we send pretend gifts and congratulations and condolences. He admonishes me for having twins when my car is already full.
"Where was I when..."
On a mission of normality that I have been on since, and will continue on, until this pain and worry feels like normal and certainty and security feel like a passing pleasantry.
Please, don't let me hear a name I know.