Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 – reflecting

It's been ten years since 9/11. I've never written about it. Reflecting and writing about it now feels like one way of remembering and honoring those whose lives were taken that day.

I've been thinking about how my life has changed since then. On that day, I was a flight attendant working for Delta Air Lines, based in Salt Lake City. I flew in August, then took vacation the first half of September. My next trip was scheduled for September 12th.

School had begun a couple weeks before and there was that renewed sense of purpose, of orderliness that comes with the start of each new school year. You could feel the excitement and hope of the changing season in the air.  The sun was still high in the cloudless sky and summer lingered.

At about 7:20am my phone rang. It was my Mother telling me to turn on the television, that a plane had just been flown into the twin towers. Uncomprehending, I scrambled to turn on the television and watched in disbelief. Shortly after, my nephew, who'd moved from New York to Berlin a few years prior, phoned me saying he'd heard the news, asked if it was true, and wanted to know what was going on.

When my daughter, who was ten-years-old and starting fifth grade, finished getting ready for school, I drove her there. Back at home, I felt so vulnerable, I thought, "My God, we're under attack. They may target the schools next." So I jumped in my car and drove back to the school to bring her home.

When I arrived, I sat, my head on the steering wheel in the old green Corvette, and struggled with my thoughts.  I decided she'd be much better off at school than at home with me coming undone.  I drove back home.  Once there, again, overwhelmed with a sense of urgency, I thought, "My God, I'm crazy to leave her at school when we're under attack!" and headed back to get her.  Again, when I arrived I decided it was the best place for her and headed back home.

My baby sister was flying for United based out of Chicago. She phoned me from a jetway. She was part of a 747 crew flying to San Francisco that morning. The pilots asked the flight attendants if they wanted to take the trip. One of the stipulations of flying is that if you refuse to fly a trip the captain has deemed safe because you doubt his judgment, you'll be fired. The pilots weren't saying the flight was safe, they were giving the flight attendants a choice. The senior flight attendants agreed to fly, the junior ones didn't want to, they still hadn't come to a consensus when she called me, crying, saying she didn't want to go, but didn't know what to do. I begged her not to get on that flight. She abruptly said she had to go.

Several minutes later she called from the stew lounge.  It was so crowded with flight attendants the fire department ordered those who were based in Chicago to go home.  She told me they weren't taking the trip. I felt grateful and relieved.

By then, Washington, D.C. had ordered all planes grounded. She called me from the parking lot on the way to her car and told me it was eery, that the national guard was arriving in the parking lot and that many passengers in the terminal didn't know yet they were going to be stranded there.  They were beginning to gather around the television, while there was a mass exodus of flight crews from the terminal. We speculated about whether the John Hancock tower would be targeted next.

The following week I spent too much time lying on the couch crying in front of the television as I watched in alternating horror, grief and disbelief, trying to make sense of the recurring images of the burning towers.

Delta was very good in their dealings with employees. They managed to provide all their flight crews transportation back home. I heard United crews weren't as fortunate, some had to find their own way back home. The skies were eerily quiet for the next few days. I remember being very alarmed the first time I heard an airplane in the sky, not knowing the ban from flying had been lifted. In the weeks following, Delta said those that didn't want to fly didn't have to, and those that did could pick up as much overtime as they wanted. I chose not to fly.

Soon Delta came up with a plan to try and prevent any lay-offs from occurring due to the reduced flight schedules. They offered one, three, and five-year, voluntary, leaves-of-absence. I took a five-year leave, during which time I was able to keep my flight benefits.  Although, the last thing I wanted to do was get on a plane. Unfortunately, some layoffs were still necessary.

My heart was broken. I couldn't believe it had come to this. As a student of Middle East studies, I'd often wondered why people in Israel/Palestine or other war-torn cities stayed, why they didn't leave, how they could live in such an uncertain, violent environment. I was about to learn. I tried to imagine what kind of loss, pain, and despair a person would have to have endured to engage in such acts of destruction and violence.

In the weeks and months that followed rumors flew regarding Al-Qaeda's possible strategy. The rumor that most disturbed me, was that they would lure our troops out of the U.S. then target us with biological warfare. Along with online sales of U.S. flags, gas-mask sales skyrocketed.

In March, when Bush declared war, I felt like the only one in the world adamantly against it. Even then, it was apparent Iran wasn't the culprit, that Bush was using 911 to justify the attack. I never heard on the news, not even on NPR of anyone that opposed it. I imagined molotov cocktails being thrown through my front-room window if I were to post a sign against the war in my front yard.

Several weeks later, driving home from the airport after having dropped my daughter off to fly to see her father, I finally heard, on NPR, about a couple in Seattle who had begun making anti-war banners. I felt so relieved, like there were other sane people out there. But, I also knew there was no one and nothing that could stave off this eager war machine.

Over a year later, I nearly lost my house to foreclosure. The disdain my daughter felt towards me was palpable. When she was thirteen she went to live with her father and I moved to Portland.  Although I was able to prevent the sale of my house, the foreclosure papers had already been filed and recorded. By the grace of God and the internet, after I moved I sold the house – by owner, no less.  When she was sixteen, to my delight, my daughter came to Portland to live with me.

I watched an anniversary program on television last night. Some of the women who lost husbands to 9/11 are remarkable. I can't even compare my sorrow to theirs, yet they were able to find what appears to be happiness as well as new mates, new lives.

My current work schedule is very similar to the schedule I loved so much about flying, but I get to sleep in my own bed every night, which is a beautiful thing. I'm very grateful to be employed.  I've since obtained my undergraduate degree, but, so far, the pay is no better for it.

Here's a short youtube video I made in film school before 911 about flying:


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