9/11, And Riding A Bicycle

No matter what else goes on this weekend, the shadow of a Tuesday weekday 10 years ago — September 11, 2001 — hangs over us all. 

That horrible day changed our lives together.  We know it now — and we sensed it then.

Here’s what I wrote 3 days later — September 14, 2001 — in my Westport News “Woog’s World” column.

It was a bit past noon on Tuesday, the Tuesday that will change all of our lives forever.

Fifty miles from Westport smoke billowed from what, just hours before, was the World Trade Center.

A number of Westporters once worked there.  The twin towers were never particularly beautiful, but in their own way they were majestic.  Whether driving past them on the New Jersey Turnpike, flying near them coming in to the airport, or taking out-of-town friends or relatives to the top, we took a certain amount of pride in them.

We’re Westporters, but in a way we’re also New Yorkers.  The World Trade Center symbolized that, though we live in suburban Connecticut, we all feel in some way connected to the most exciting, glamorous, powerful city in the world.

And now that same city was under attack.  From the largest McMansion to the most modest Westport home, men and women frantically tried to make contact with spouses, relatives and friends who work in downtown Manhattan.

Staples High School, teenagers who grew up thinking the worst thing that can happen is wearing the wrong shirt or shoes, were engaged in a similar quest.

Many of their fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers work in New York.  Many others knew loved ones who were flying that morning, or in Washington, or somewhere else that might possibly become the next city under siege.

Meanwhile, on Whitney Street, a pretty young woman dressed in her best late-summer clothes rode a bicycle down the road.

It was, after all, a beautiful day.  Along the East Coast there was not a cloud n the sky — not, that is, unless you count the clouds filled with flames, dust and debris erupting from the collapse of the World Trade Center.

It was a perfect day to ride a bicycle, unless of course you were terrified you had lost a loved one, were glued to a television set wherever you could find one, or were so overwhelmed by grief and rage and fright and confusion because you had no idea what was next for America that riding a bicycle was absolutely the furthest thing from your mind.

On the other hand, perhaps riding a bicycle was exactly the right reaction.  Perhaps doing something so innocent, so routine, so life-affirming, was just was some of us should have been doing.

If tragedy teaches us anything, it is that human beings react to stress in a variety of ways.  Who is to say that riding a bicycle is not the perfect way to tell Osama bin Laden, or whoever turns out to be responsible for these dastardly deeds, that America’s spirit will not be broken?

But I could not have ridden a bicycle down the road on Tuesday.  I sat, transfixed, devouring the television coverage of events that, in their own way, may turn out to be as transforming for this world as Pearl Harbor was nearly 60 years earlier.

I could not bear to watch what I was seeing, but neither could I tear myself away.  Each time I saw the gaping holes in those two towers, every time I saw those enormous symbols of strength and power and (even in these economically shaky times) American prosperity crumble in upon themselves like a silly disaster movie, the scene was more surreal than the previous time.

Life will be equally surreal for all of us for a long time to come.

I wondered, as I watched the video shots of the jet planes slam into the World Trade Center over and over and over again, what must have been going through each passenger’s mind.

Like many Westporters, I fly often.  Like most I grumble about the delays and crowded planes, but like them too I feel a secret, unspoken thrill every time the sky is clear, the air is blue and the scenery terrific.  Tuesday was that kind of day.

For the rest of my life, I suspect, flying will never be the same.  And the increased security we will face at every airport, on each plane, is only part of what I fear.

So much remains to be sorted out.  We will hear, in the days to come, of Westporters who have lost family members and friends in the World Trade Center.  We will hear too of those who have lost their jobs when their companies collapsed, either directly or indirectly, as a result of the terrorism.

We will drive along the New Jersey Turnpike, or stand on a particular street in Manhattan, perhaps even take out-of-town guests to gaze at the landmark we will come to call “the place the twin towers used to be.”

Our casual grocery store and soccer sideline conversations will be filled with stories:  who was where when the terror first hit, and what happened in the hours after.

Our newspapers and airwaves will be clogged with experts trying to explain — though that will never be possible — what it all means for us, in the short term and long term, as individuals and a society.

Our world has already changed, in ways that will take years, if not decades, to understand.  We are nowhere close to comprehending the meaning of all this.

The world will go on, of course.  Our planet will continue to spin; men and women will continue to commute to New York, and pretty women in Westport will continue to ride bicycles down Whitney Street.

At the same time, sadly, none of that will ever be the same.

24 responses to “9/11, And Riding A Bicycle

  1. Beautiful and poignant, Dan. This peice is as relevant today as it was 10 years ago. Among the things I remember the most about that day is how beautiful it was in our bucolic world, yet evil was an hour away.

  2. Westporter4ever

    I have realized over the past week, that I still cannot watch footage and see pictures from that day.I consider myself a strong person.I’ve personally have lost close family members at a young age..and although I was glued to the TV for that day, and the weeks following…something happened after a month or so..My heart broke, and I can’t bare to see it anymore..I think once the stories of that day started being aired.. Family members lost, pregnant widows, all the first Responder’s who were going into get people out..it just simply broke my heart..I think every American’s heart broke a little that day. Thank you Dan for sharing this..and I agree..it is all still VERY VERY Relevant!

  3. Brilliantly put, Dan!

  4. maxine bleiweis

    September 11, 2001 started out as a typical day at the library. People waited for the doors to open and filed in to their favorite spots to work, check email, or read. Parents and caregivers came with little ones in tow for storytime. The library meeting spaces were booked for the many committees Westport is known for.

    At 9:30, news began to filter into the space, as one by one, people learned what had happened. Cell phones weren’t as ubiquitous then and people borrowed each others to check on loved ones. The lines for the library pay phones grew, but mostly folks headed home to watch television and listen to the radio. People with young children didn’t know the right thing to do, so kept doing what was normal with anxious eyes looking for guidance from librarians.

    By eleven the library was eerily empty and two hours later as if everyone had set their watch, people came back in. They wanted to be with others. Our books on Islam were cleaned out as people wanted to understand more. In order to look at something completely different than what was on the news, people checked out light-themed films, especially classics or comedies which were familiar to them. Poetry books were unusually popular. But mostly people wanted to be in a familiar place with others.

    It was a day I’ll never forget and a day our own staff might have gone home, but chose to be there to make sure Westporters had a safe place to gather.

  5. Thank you, Dan.

  6. Interesting memory and illustrative of our town Maxine. Thanks.

  7. Excellent story you wrote back then with the foresight of what was to come. Amazingly it’s still as poignant today as it was 10 years ago.

    I was working in an office building in Trumbull with windows when I learned of the first airplane from CNN (co-worker had it on his computer), they were reporting it was a small plane at the time. I immediately looked out the windows to a perfectly clear day and wondered how could that have happened? A couple minutes later the second plane hit and we all knew it was no ‘accident’.

    Then the Pentagon.

    I left work and went to the beach with my wife and then one month old daughter, we sat and watched the smoke. Not much was said, just wondered about it all.

    It still gives me a feeling inside like nothing else; sadness, disbelief.

    I always think about the passengers, especially the children who were on board (oddly none were on Flight 93). They endured the horror and terror the longest knowing what was coming.

    Let’s hope, with vigilance, we never see another 9/11.

    My thoughts and prayers to all those touched by it.

  8. Dan – like you my first thought, upon learning these were commandeered airliners crashing into the twin towers, was imagining the terror felt by the passengers and flight crews on those planes. (The fact that my wife is a flight attendant no doubt heightened my sensitivity even further.) I also wonder if I would have been among the brave souls who rose up on United 93 that day; I’d like to believe I would have.

    Having been in the City that day for an 8:30 meeting I have my own share of 9-11 stories, but the horror of the loss of lives, first on the planes, then in the towers, especially as I watched them both fall, will never leave me. Not only the lives of the innocents, but especially those who rushed in to help when everyone else was rushing out.

    I often wonder what the rest of the country thinks and feels – do people in Seattle or Denver think of 9-11 anniversaries as a New York thing? Is this catch in our throat when we think back on the events of that day only shared by those who were there or from the metro NYC area?

  9. The Dude Abides

    I was teaching in Houston on 9/11. The administration told everyone to keep the televisons off and rumors chilled (a sharp contrast to when JFK was shot and the Staples principal decided to assemble everyone in the gym to inform us). Soon all the parents were coming to pick up their kids. Houston feared their refineries would be next. While Houston would send over 2,500 volunteers to help at Ground Zero (compared with 25 New Yorkers when Galveston was hit by the hurricane), there was not the same feeling as felt by many here. Despite the many transported New Yorkers in Houston oil, it was too distant, too surreal to directly affect the general populus. While I can only judge it on my kids down there now, the same holds true for the anniversary.

  10. From Compo Beach, on a clear day, a look to the west was rewarded with a view of the World Trade Center buildings, their great height curiously diminished by the curve of Earth. I’d point them out to my children, a geophysics lesson in the sand. Ten years ago tomorrow, it was to that beach that I was drawn. Others were there. We were together but as I remember, there was little talking. All that was left of those majestic towers was the dark cloud and trail of smoke that lingered for days, a dark unspeakable reminder of an imperfect world. Perhaps the beach would be a good place to be tomorrow once again.

  11. My office was, and remains, a six or seven minute walk from the Trade Center. That morning, I was taking a train to Delaware for a business meeting, which not surprisingly never happened. I could not return home, and spent nearly the whole afternoon and evening trying to track down everyone who worked for me and be sure they were safe and got home. They all were, and they all did.

    The next day I passed through the city to get home, walking from Penn Station to Grand Central, and stopping in a small church I happened to walk by. I sat for a long time in silence, not knowing what to think, and not at all sure that God would listen if I had anything to say.

    The greatest comfort of the day was the surprising number of friends who drove immediately to our house to be with my family, because they knew where I worked and were worried about us. Westport looks out for its own.

    But when I got back to Westport, I hugged my family, then rode my bicycle. I rode hard. I needed a semblance of normalcy, and I needed to shake the pain and the death from my head and heart. I needed to purge the smell from my nostrils, an acrid foetid funk that I did not realise would overhang lower Manhattan for months. I thought I could sweat it all away. I couldn’t of course. Still can’t.

  12. Westporter4ever, I echo your sentiments. I realized just today that the reason I don’t want to hear or read anything about the 10-year memorials is because it is still too sad for me. Probably always will be. Yet, people create coffee table books about it, with photos of that horrible, horrible day.It shakes me to my soul.

    • I concur. I think the media has made way too much of the “anniversary” of such a tragic day. I always questioned those who were enamored by visiting Ground Zero as well. I hope the majority of those directly affected by the attack have moved on but certainly respect those who can or will not. To me, it remains a very sad and surreal day in my memory and not one to be either celebrated or memorialized.

      • People don’t visit ground zero or pause and reflect on Sept 11 to sensationalize or celebrate the day or the tragic events that took place, but rather out of respect for those who lost their lives, just as I pause and reflect on the anniversary of the day my mother was killed in an accident. I do not and would not call into question the motives of those who visit the USS Arizona memorial (a very powerful and moving place), why should one question (or even mock) those who make a trip to the site where so many were killed in an act of aggression in lower Manhattan?

        • I think your retort is a generalization. As do many stop by the road to see a tragic accident, many flocked to Ground Zero to bare witness that they were there. No more, no less. To me, this should be a day of mouning and not a gathering of rubberneckers.

      • I have mixed feelings about the WTC site now being memorials. That’s 2 acres that could have gone towards low income housing or some other needy cause. Now it’s sort of saying OK, the terrorists won and we can’t do anything else with this area except be sad..

        • Since more people died of cancer on 9/11 than in the twin towers, when is their day and memorial??

          • Cancer may have killed them but it didn’t murder them.

            • Do we have a day of memorial for every one who is murdered in this country? Tired of the hype. As Bloomie said, time to move on and not relive.

              • Your handle is fitting. My only complaint about the coverage is that not enough of it is focused on the perpetrators of this crime and the anger has been forgotten. That’s what “Never Forget” really means. Never forget who did this.

                • How can one forget? It is on every network for a week. Who exactly did do it? A group of terrorists who don’t even own an airplane and we have spent 3 trillion trying to eliminate them. Rather pointless anger. And shall we forget our bombings and killing innocent civilians in the wake of our “anger” and revenge? Overkill. Should have sent death squads and kept the war machine at home. Your anger clouds your judgment and logic and is frightening considering it has been 10 years.

        • I hear you, anonymous, and I used to have similar feelings. But what makes the difference in my mind is that Ground Zero is the final resting place for 40 percent of the victims whose bodies were never found. That makes it a whole different ball of wax

  13. chi-chi manning

    Hi Dan, I didn’t know one could see the WTC from Westport. I was in NJ and though I couldn’t see anything I did watch military planes flying back and forth from McGuire Air Force base to NYC. My son was in Boot Camp and thought he’d be sent directly to war for who didn’t know war was coming. I’m going to the Memorial on Oct.4. Doesn’t seem I’ll ever run out of tears.