From the time I was old enough to understand politics and world events, I knew exactly what my mother was doing when she heard John Kennedy had been shot. It was a defining moment of her generation.
Until five years ago, I thought the defining moment of my generation would be the explosion on liftoff of the Space Shuttle Challenger. For 15 years, from the day it exploded until September 11, 2001, I thought it was the JFK of my generation.
I remember that day. We were in class, my senior year in high school, when they made the announcement. I was in physics. It made for a very odd and, looking back, somewhat morbid discussion regarding the thermodynamics of the shuttle pod and compression. We decided very early on it was pressure, not heat or the explosion, that killed the astronauts. Months later, our theories were confirmed.
Now, I can tell you that my memories of that day are faded and vague impressions, but I can tell you that September 11, 2001, was a perfect day. The sky was the shade of pale blue you only get in the early fall and the temperature, at least that morning, was bit chilly. Not quite jacket weather, but hinting that it was coming soon. And, I know exactly what I was doing when I realized that this was more than just a horrible, horrible accident.
See, unlike some people who probably did know immediately that it was terrorists and others who claim they knew with the benefit of hindsight, I had no clue. I was in the hardware store, picking up some plumbing fixtures for my employer, when the first plane hit. I didn’t see the pictures until hours later, just heard what the radio was reporting.
And, they didn’t get it right at first. The initial reports were that a small plane, maybe a twin-engine had hit the World Trade Center.
The second plane was initially explained as someone inspecting the first crash and possibly distracted by the smoke. Maybe if I’d been seeing the photos, I would have known better, but I was in a pickup truck, on my way back to work.
We discussed the tragedy briefly in the office and then got back to work. One of our truck drivers needed to go pickup our over-the-road truck which was being cleaned at a nearby facility and taking him there was part of my job. I was on the interstate, driving him to pick up the other truck, when the plane hit the Pentagon.
Then and only then, did the light bulb come on. I might not know much about flights into New York City, having never been there, but I had flown into the Washington, D.C., and I knew there was no way you accidentally fly into the Pentagon.
I remember pulling the truck over and sitting there under that beautiful blue sky and knowing that my country had just been attacked. I’d like to say we were glued to the television, watching as events unfolded for the rest of the day, but the reality is we weren’t. We kept abreast of the news with the radio and computer news sites, but we kept working. My boss, who was in his mid-60s, had me immediately go and fill all the company vehicles with gas and fill extra gas cans too, anticipating rationing or shortages.
My mother called to say, ” I love you” and I worried about friends and family in Manhattan. Shortly before noon, a customer called from Pennsylvania. The field where United 93 crashed was owned by one of the coal mines we did business with. They needed equipment we couldn’t provide, but they knew we could help them find it.
That evening as I drove home, I noticed the airport. I drove past it every day and because I often scheduled travel for our salesmen, I knew when flights arrived and left. The silence struck me then and for the next several days. For the next several weeks, the sound of a jet overhead would make me stop and watch it in awe and in fear.
As the days passed after Sept. 11, we found ties to the World Trade Centers that we didn’t know we had. Our major metals supplier used an import broker in the centers. The brokers entire office staff was killed in the attack. The laws of six degrees of separation became two or three degrees at most as it seemed everyone I spoke to knew someone who was personally or professionally impacted by the attack.
And in that moment, I knew that the Challenger explosion would no longer define my generation as the Kennedy assassination had my mother’s. Like my grandparents’ generation, we suddenly had a war to define us.
Five years later, I look back longingly at that simpler time when a national tragedy was defined by the deaths of seven, not the deaths of 3,000, and I worry for future generations that they may never know the ignorance of peace. It’s funny. I never imagined I would long for ignorance.