Commentary: Remembering a united nation after 9/11

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramSeptember 13, 2011 

On Sept. 10, 2001, as I boarded an American Airlines flight headed to Pittsburgh, tucked away in my carry-on luggage were tweezers, a nail clipper, a dual-bladed shaving razor, collapsible scissors and cross-stitch needles, a corkscrew bottle opener, a Swiss Army knife -- the one with all the tools -- and a Delica model Spyderco knife with a 3-inch blade.

They didn't even raise a security screener's eyebrow as the tapestry cosmetic bag went through the X-ray machine at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

To this day, I'm astounded when I hear people say they were shocked to find out that the Sept. 11 hijackers got on planes with box cutters in their possession.

No one considered knives or blades worthy of confiscation on that innocent September morn, whether they were carried by Middle Eastern-looking men or green-eyed blondes from Texas.

On the anniversary of any historic day, it's natural for people who lived through the actual event to look back at where they were and what they were doing at the time they first heard about "it."

Our country is rapidly losing the generation of Americans who have firsthand memories of FDR's radio address to the nation after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, or the jubilant announcements of VE and VJ days in 1945.

Greater numbers recall when and how they heard about JFK's Nov. 22, 1963, assassination. For me, elementary school playground in El Cajon, Calif. My twin brother and I were second-graders, and our teacher, Mrs. Rudolph -- usually a gruff woman whose only emotion seemed to be impatience -- told us through tears that the students were being sent home because someone in Dallas shot the president.

Sept. 11, 2001, saw the officers and directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers convening in a Pittsburgh hotel for a board meeting that always precedes the opening day of the annual fall convention. The 9 a.m. meeting barely had started when one of the association managers ran into the room saying something about a plane flying into the World Trade Center.

Bless her heart, she was always in a 4-foot hover about something, so most of us tsk-tsk'd and went back to the agenda. Fifteen minutes later, when she burst into the room to announce a second plane had crashed into the towers, there was no tsk-ing.

How totally clueless we were, sitting in that meeting room, trying to decide whether we should attempt to hold a truncated version of our convention. Even with constant TV coverage and calls back to our respective newsrooms, we had no grasp of the magnitude of the event that was unfolding.

We weren't alone. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao was scheduled as one of the speakers. In those early hours after the Tuesday attack, her staff said she was still willing to try to get to Pittsburgh by Friday.

Who knew that the skies would be closed to airline traffic for days, or that Washington's Reagan National Airport would remain closed until Oct. 3?

The high-rise office towers in downtown Pittsburgh were evacuated that sunny September morning as United Airlines Flight 93 veered off its course before crashing in a field in rural Pennsylvania. Rumors circulated among the office workers who crowded around the TV sets in the lobby bar of the Marriott that the plane had been hijacked from the Pittsburgh airport.

In the hotel restaurant that evening, patrons sat in silence as President George W. Bush addressed the nation for the first time since the attacks. Even members of the kitchen staff stopped what they were doing to watch and listen to the TVs that had been moved into the dining area.

Our commander in chief earned tears and applause from the assembled diners.

It was two days before the local car rental agencies had vehicles for hire. The drive from Pittsburgh to Fort Worth was frustrating, as is almost any situation for newspaper people when they can't get a constant fix of information.

But two images from that cross-country trek have remained most vivid in my memory.

An F-16 that took off from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana as I passed was flying so low that I thought I could reach out and brush the wingtip as it swept over the windshield. It was the first plane I'd seen in the sky since 9-11, and it was jarring and comforting at the same time.

And Old Glory was everywhere -- attached to car antennas and truck side-view mirrors, mailboxes, porches, display windows, front doors and highway overpasses.

It was a moment in time when America was united.

I miss it.


Jill "J.R." Labbe is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.

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