I was working at a Superfund Site on an Air National Guard Base when it happened. If you remember, jets from Cape Cod's Otis Air National Guard Base were the first dispatched to assess the scene along the southern tip of Manhattan. I remember hearing those jets roar off the runway into the sky, but didn't give them a second thought...I was on an air base after all, it was part of the routine.
My instructed function that day was rather useless: observe and document a pair of "cowboy" electrical contractors as they removed a concrete support within a groundwater treatment plant. Bigger pumps were proposed to be installed, and therefore the supports for these pumps had to be brought up to code. This was life at a federal government operation, covering your ass six ways from Sunday in case an unlikely earthquake hit and knocked a pump off its perch. As a drilling rig geologist used to scrambling to complete daily tasks, I was gleefully prepared for boredom. These guys didn't need my help and didn't really want to explain what they were doing every half hour. Hey, what did I know, I was a geologist, not an electrician.
As it happened, the treatment plant was located in a gully that was susceptible to poor radio reception. Sometime between 9 and 10 that morning, the voice of one of my many supervisors emitted from my walkie-talkie. Wherein such communications were heard by the entire base, the tone of your voice had to be such that it would not reflect any problem or confusion; bad form to indicate to your client (the Air Force) that perhaps, just perhaps, the shit may be hitting the fan. As such, the somber tone of my supervisor's voice was standard operating procedure, and in and of itself did not provide any clue of what had happened.
As I listened to what was being broadcast, it occurred to me that something was not right. Though I had been on the job for less than a year, there had never been a time when all of the contractor's employees, some 300 of them, were summoned to the field office. "This is not a drill, this is the real thing," the voice stated. What isn't a drill, what the heck is going on? I tried to radio back, only to remember that I had poor reception and had no chance of informative communication. I directed the electricial contractors to stop work until I could flush out exactly what was happening. No problem for them, it was time for a coffee break anyway.
As I sped in my assigned vehicle from the treatment plant to the field office, I passed the Sandwich Gate of the base. The gates of the base were almost never occupied, allowing anyone to use it as a shortcut from one side of the Cape to another. Truth be told, it was an invaluable route as generally vacant of tourists and used mostly be locals in-the-know. This time, however, it was manned with at least a dozen soldiers, all holding automatic weapons. I drove right past, praying these soldiers would see my tags and realize I was authorized to be there.
Once I got to the field office, it was laid out for me: get your stuff and get off the base. That was it. There were some side discussions about exactly what had happened, but it was clear that no one knew for sure. I boogied back to the treatment plant, donning my hard hat the entire ride as further communication to the nice men with big guns that I was not trespassing...thankfully, they never gave me a second look. I was listening to Howard Stern describe the state of the Twin Towers, initially thinking that his words represented some elaborate hoax...how could those gigantic buildings just be gone? After listening some more, I came to understand the situation: the United States had been attacked on its own soil. Further, it had not been a conventional attack, but rather a very well conceived and planned plot using common passenger jets as weapons. Upon arrival I told the cowboys what I had gleaned from my colleagues and Mr. Stern. I was shocked. Perhaps they were tired from jackhammering concrete all morning, but these men gave no indication that this was a significant disruption. They simply packed their tools, got in their truck, and headed home.
For me it was not so simple. I returned my equipment to the supply room, got in my car, and drifted towards the Sandwich Gate. There was a line of cars attempting to enter the base, but the soldiers on guard weren't having it. No one was getting in without military credentials. I coasted through the gate, looking at the drivers trying to enter the base, realizing that some of them were still ignorant to the events that had prompted such security. I continued listening to the radio, doing my best to piece together the puzzle of that morning's catastrophes, becoming more aware that Howard had provided excellent coverage in describing the attacks on NYC and the Pentagon. The Pentagon? "Man," I thought, "whoever was responsible for this has some balls." I called my would-be in-laws who lived on Long Island. My father-in-law to be, who worked for an aviation company at JFK International, reported that the airports had been shutdown, and that we had,indeed, been attacked. That feeling of protection the Atlantic and Pacific had previously provided was gone now.
As the days passed, I was given notice that no environmental work was going to be permitted on the base for at least a week. That week never once felt like vacation. Oh sure, I stayed out late and drank myself into a stupor a few nights, but there was never a sense of freedom. Not the freedom I had come to know. Not the freedom I realized I had come to take for granted. I watched Peter Jennings (remember him?) for two days straight. I remember him reading a letter written by a fellow Canadien that sympathized with the US, evoking memories and thoughts that demonstrated how great a country it was, how charitable a country it was, despite that America had become a bully to the rest of the world. I remember witnessing an incredible outpouring of support from citizens of other countries, realizing that those people understood the difference between a nation's government and its actual population. I remember embracing my girlfriend, the woman I knew Iwould propose to someday, thankful that I would still have that opportunity, sad that someone else would not. I remember Stars and Stripes being flown everywhere, political adversaries holding hands as united Americans, everyone supporting a divisive President.
Mostly, I remember playing golf one day with my good friend on an empty course. As we approached our ninth and final hole, we heard the unmistakable engine of a small airplane overhead. We were surprised to see a plane flying; we were shocked at our surprise, that a plane in the air had become something out of the ordinary. We finished up at the clubhouse downing a couple of quintessential American brews, Budweiser bottles, trying to comprehend the magnitude of it all. The clarity provided by the bottom of those bottles was unforgettable. Never before had we known the country to rally together with such strength and convic tion. Like most, we recognized that nothing would ever be the same, save for one thing: it would not be long before United States citizens as a whole would go back to the status quo. The flags on cars would be removed, the committment to each other would evaporate, complacency would return. I'm sad to write that my friend and I have never been so prescient.
Do not allow September 11 to pass without remembering that day...it is our duty. We will never forget.