Here’s an original work of fiction written in remembrance of 9/11. The author is library staffer Mike Cecconi.
On the first of these awful anniversaries, in two-thousand-two, I was driving into work, my very first job after college, training as a 911 (the emergency line not the day) operator up in Herkimer. In the end, I was awful in that position. While I was skilled with phones and computers, I lacked the emotional composure at twenty-two to handle true emergencies, still do. One thing to answer a call from a little old lady asking if the fire department still came out to fill the swimming pools or wondering when the fireworks begin (“dusk” “when’s dusk?”) but quite another when death and life are in the balance. I’ll cop to that. Detachment isn’t my bailiwick. Some things are difficult to ever stop feeling, they linger on the wind.
I was training on the morning shift. Being young, I still ate carbs like that was my actual job, so I got into the line for the McDonalds drive-thru to order two egg sandwiches and one of those hash brown pucks they sold molten-hot. I believe they still do, I don’t know, in the ensuing years I got the diabetes, funny how decades fly upon that breeze, feeling like yesterdays.
It was a long line. It’s still one of the few places for drive-through breakfast in Herkimer, the line still ridiculous. I considered leaving but risked it for the biscuit and placed my order through the tinny microphone and waited, knowing while I’d cut it close, I wouldn’t be late. News reporters and shock jocks alike somberly explored what’d happened a year before but it was too much to bear, I put on a cassette, that’s how long ago it was.
When I finally pulled up to the window, the girl (she’s a girl within in my distant memories but probably only a year or three younger than I was at the time) just shrugged. “No charge, sir.” I froze. Did I know her? Then I looked down at my sleeves, the uniform a crispy blue dress-shirt with patches on the shoulders, I had been mistaken for an EMT, a first responder, the kind who could’ve died saving lives if he’d lived four hours south, one year before. Probably also why I was “sir”. I felt so damned guilty but the line was so long behind me, I knew arguing would just ruin twenty mornings behind me so I thanked her and I drove off. Closest I was to an EMT was keeping a belt cutter in the glove-box in case I flipped my car some awful Adirondack winter.
Though I was a clumsy accidental fraud, someone just wanted to say “thank you” through that haze of distant grief, that’s what counted. I hope it helped her feel like she’d been able to show her respect and remembrance, even though I was just some kid trying to learn how to answer a phone in a fashion that could give a person comfort. I burned the roof of my mouth, of course.
Here’s an original story inspired by the events of 9/11 written by author Sam McManus. Sam is a longtime member of the library’s Flash Fiction group.
711 Miles from West Town
By Sam McManus
“I’m never going to West Town again,” Janelle said. I didn’t blame her. It wasn’t the dumbest thing she’d ever said, though on some level it was relatively close.
“They are not going to hit West Town Mall next,” I told her.
“They could hit us anywhere!” she claimed, bouncing on the balls of her feet like she did when she was anxious. It happened when she loaded the dishwasher too full and hoped everything still came out clean. It happened when she tried to count out change when the register’s display was broken. Somehow, though, none of those seemed as appropriate as at that exact moment, when we were debating whether or not terrorists would bomb the Knoxville mall.
“They could,” I told her. “But I don’t think a bunch of teenagers in Knoxville would be high up on their radar.”
Of course, this was before Pulse, but after Columbine, in that space between, when it still seemed surreal that anyone would do anything to the United States of America, when it still seemed like these were isolated incidents with no jointure. Janelle was just a symbol back then, of all of us, because who knew where the next violent incident would come from, and how many would die from it?
I saw the second plane hit the second tower, in real time. Then the first tower fell. It seemed so amateurish at first, like a movie director who couldn’t get the CGI right. The tower wasn’t supposed to implode like that. It was supposed to topple over like an ice cream cone that was top-heavy. It wasn’t supposed to fall at all. But all the architects who built it for stability couldn’t have imagined an act of terror, could they?
At the bottom of the screen it said another plane had hit the Pentagon. I kept waiting for the next one, for the White House in flames, for the Empire State Building to tumble, for everything that I thought had been stable to shift in upon itself, to reveal just how fragile humanity is and can be in the face of calamity.
But then we had to get back to work. Nothing pauses forever. Things have to go on at some point, and for us that point was 11 o’clock on September 11, 2001, because we had a line outside Mr. Gatti’s pizza buffet, where I had somehow finished making the dough and getting everything else ready for opening, while also in a state of shock. In fact, that old song with Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson kept cycling through my head as I waited for the next hammer to drop.
“Can you believe what happened?” they asked me, one by one, as they heaped slices of pizza onto their plates. “The world has gone to hell.”
It had gone to hell, but that train left the station a long time before September 11, 2001. It had gone to hell with the Holocaust. It had gone to hell with slavery. It had gone to hell with the wars and rumors of wars that have gone on since the beginning of time. But, simply put, for most of us, this was our sea change, the shifting of the towers like our faith shifting. In our lifetimes, in our corner of the world, we had been largely ignorant of the devastating toll that is being paid every single day elsewhere. In our lifetimes, in our corner of the world, we were like kings and queens, eating our own fatted calves, blissfully oblivious to real life, to real devastation, to reality in all its shifting facets.
“West Town could be next,” I told Janelle, “but we can’t live our lives in fear that anyplace we go could be next.”
Which, of course, we could. Which, of course, some of us have since that fateful day. We fear the inevitability of death, of losing our loved ones, of being in situations where we see no way out, of chaos and consequence, of not being in control. That’s ultimately it, isn’t it? I was 711 miles from Manhattan on 9/11, but I still felt its reverberations. I still feel them. It was the loss of an innocence I probably shouldn’t have been relying on in the first place. It was the toughening of the skin, a stretching of the bonds, a reality check that was a long time in coming.
Now, on each anniversary of that fateful day, people say “Never forget,” but too many have forgotten. Too many have become complacent once again, making the dough, going through the paces of ordinary life. Too many look up at the calendar when the date comes around once more, and have forgotten how it felt in that moment, how helpless we were, when the North Tower fell, when the South Tower fell, when our fantasies and sense of security fell. It’s been twenty years, but it could be a hundred and I won’t forget.
And, Janelle, they haven’t hit West Town, not yet, and I hope they never do. I hope they never hit another school, or nightclub, or mosque, or even just one more human being. Because the shifting idea of “they” is what bothers me most. They surprised us, they keep surprising us, because we have been too blessed for too long, because we disappear into our individual lives and forget humanity. Because twenty years down the line we’ve still failed to learn that lesson that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
How did you feel in that moment? When was the last time you felt like that? Are we not human? Do we not bleed? Do we not still feel for those who lost their lives and family members when those planes hit, when those towers fell, no matter how much time has passed? I really hope we do still have that compassion, that we never forget it could have been any of us instead.
I’m reminded of that Bruce Springsteen song that was ubiquitous on seemingly every radio station at the time. “Come on. Rise up. Come on, rise up. Come on. Rise up.” I hear that song when I think of every black man and woman killed by police. I hear that song when I think of every muslim persecuted for their beliefs. I hear that song when I think of every bystander who silently condones bullying. I hear that song when I think of 9/11 and its fallout. Come on. Rise up. Get off your sedentary asses and rise up. Be the change you want to see in the world.
Go back to West Town, but remember that you’re blessed to be able to go there. Remember that the next moment is not a given. Rise up and appreciate the sacrifice of others. Honor them with the remembering, with your pledge to fight for justice in this world.
“It’s never going to be the same, is it?” a guy in a Nirvana t-shirt asked me as he loaded up his plate a second time.
“No,” I told him. “It’s not.”
I really hope I’m right.
Say the Names
by Carol Whritenour
The task felt heavy. What to do? What to say that hadn’t already been said? How to make it meaningful? How to be respectful? The task weighed heavy in my head and in my chest. Everybody who was alive at the time remembers. Nothing I could do or say would make it different or put a fresh outlook on it.
The reality of it, was that it didn’t matter. You see? In the end, nothing we could do or say would change that day. In my heart, I wanted to give it some levity. Not to make light of the events, but give light to the names. The people lost on that day. Although many were lost in a different sort of way. Maybe I could do some small gesture. Some small token of my gratitude for the lives given to save.
The computer printer indicated that it would take seventy-two pages to print the names. Small price for such an indebted result. Decrease print size. Down to fifty-two pages. Decrease margins. Create columns. Twenty-seven pages. I could remove the ages. I could take out where they were from or which location they were lost in. No, those things that remain about them, need to be left. For some it is all that is left. Another reason to do something. Another reason to try to honor them.
Now the list needs breath and life. We need to see them again. We need to say their names and honor and remember who they were. Say the names out loud. Not just on the anniversary, but every day. Honor the heroes by showing kindness and respect toward everyone. Reaching out to those in need. Just lending a helping hand, holding a door, helping a neighbor. We need to come together, as a human race.
Twenty years later, the world needs kindness. The world needs to not take life for granted. The world needs to end hatred and bitterness. We owe it to the fallen ones. Twenty years later, the heroes of 9/11 need to win.