Is it alright, I ask myself, to take a day off writing historical fiction to experience history unfolding? The fact that I ask that question gives you a clue to how OC I can be about writing. Today, the day after Obama’s announcement that Bin Ladin is dead, I find myself glued to two different televisions, tuned to different cable channels, as I do housework between two rooms–telling myself that if I’m not writing, at least I can do the things that prevent me writing on other days; i.e., laundry and 52 pickup. My puppy, Mia, the one-year-old mini-dachshund, is confused. She’s not used to mornings away from my writing chair.
Usama Bin Ladin is dead, and the facts at the moment, are a moving target, depending on the cable channel, each of which is trying to outgun the others with exclusive information and footage. For me, ten years are collapsing in images, familiar faces turning up, now ten years older, thinner, grayer, more wrinkled. Some, like Rumsfeld, are giving measured responses as if they believe every word still has the capacity for political fallout. I appreciate most those that are genuinely moved in one way or another, understanding that there are moments that transcend politics.
I’m revisited with flashbacks of various days along this road. I was writing at my computer on 9/11 when the phone rang and my husband told me to turn the TV on. The first plane had hit the WTC but there was still speculation that it was a bizarre accident. Then the second plane hit.
Later that afternoon, after the planes had been grounded all over the nation, a sonic boom sounded overhead. We all thought the terrorists had come to Dayton. (Later we learned it was the presidential jet flying back to Washington from the “secure location.”) It didn’t help that the Veteran’s Hospital caught fire, and we saw smoke on the horizon. We were a jumpy city, thanks to the presence of Wright Patterson Air Force Base, which hitherto had made me feel safer.
For whatever reason, I remember Laura Bush going on the television to explain to the children–the ones now out celebrating in the streets–that the buildings they saw falling, hour after hour, day after day, were replays of the same 9/11 event. Apparently some children thought buildings were falling everywhere, day after day. I didn’t think that, of course. Still, I was comforted. My own elderly mother was living close by, but in her typical response to tragedy, wanted only to turn off the television and shut it all out.
It was a long time before I turned the television off. I saw George W. Bush’s bullhorn moment live. His first speech to Congress and the nation was how I picture (likely due to movies) a Franklin Roosevelt radio address during WW II: The whole nation tuned in. I picture us all leaning forward in our seats, like those actors in films, their ears inclined toward their radios.
It wasn’t just 9/11. There was anthrax in the US mail.
When the campaign in Afghanistan was launched, I was seated on the parent deck awaiting my son’s soccer game at Centre College. My relief was a bodily experience, a release of all the energy I had put to wrestling with my own willingness should I be called upon to give my sons to the battle. It was a long month, waiting. At one point I had watched the buildings fall so many times and was becoming so depressed, my husband and I declared a moratorium on television viewing and watched only Agatha Christie mysteries on video tape. Funny that it should be murder mysteries that provided relief. It also makes sense. The crimes were solved, the perpetrators punished.
Then came Iraq. I remember Colin Powell’s testimony before the United Nations, particularly the text of cell phone conversations. Mohammad ElBaradei was conducting inspections of WMD facilities and turning up nothing. Tariq Aziz repeatedly said, “There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” At the time I thought, “No, you moved them to Syria while you delayed the inspectors.” Who knows what really happened? It’s hard to imagine Saddam was doing nothing in weapons development all those years. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist. The facts are what they are. Nothing has been found in Iraq. Perhaps the error was in the leadership’s underestimating Saddam’s megalomania.
But back to us. My husband and I courted in New York City when I was going to Barnard College, and, corny as it sounds, the twin towers had become symbols of almost thirty years of marriage. So, in December of 2001, we went to New York City, by car. I wasn’t ready to get on a plane, (remember that feeling?), but I needed to see it in person. We took our two sons, one 23, the other 21. From the top of the Empire State Building the first night, we saw the twin lights beamed into the sky. The next day we saw the pit full of debris–one day before the observation deck was opened to the public. Firefighters were wending their way around stacks of rubble, searching for their dead. The iconic metal frame rose from the heap and the flag flew from the line suspended from that crane. The fences surrounding the houses and church adjacent to the site were covered in sheets on which were pinned photos of the lost along with shrines and flowers and stuffed animals. Campus Crusade volunteers passed out permanent markers to all the visitors so we might write on that sheet. Messages were scribbled around all the pictures, letters from children to their missing fathers beside the commitments of strangers, people who had lost no one, promising never to forget. I’ve never known it to be quiet in NYC, but a hush lay over entire blocks, relieved by shoes on sidewalks–the sound of people walking. Traffic was detoured around the perimeter. The people who spoke, spoke in whispers. We walked up and down, up and down that fence. It felt wrong to leave. We went into the Episcopal church on that block, and, in one of those amazing moments of unforgettable irony, heard the church calendar’s annual service commemorating the Slaughter of the Innocents (by Herod, two years after the birth of Christ).
Where from there? An Irish pub. We all needed a drink.
Last night, while I was watching a recap of the Royal Wedding, up came a notice that the president would address the nation at 10:30. I wasn’t the only one that thought this unusual. I flipped from one channel to the next, each anchor speculating on Libya, trying not to say what I feared–some sort of biological or chemical attack–and also seeming to have insider information they couldn’t announce, in cooperation with the White House. I considered going to bed, thinking I couldn’t do anything about whatever it was, anyway, so if something had dreadful had happened, at least that way, I’d be rested to deal with it.
Like that was going to happen.
And then the news broke. After ten years, finding UBL was no longer on my radar. I texted my boys, knowing they’d be watching sports. We’re a few miles apart, but don’t often talk by phone. “Is this for real?” one son texted back, though he knows I don’t joke about unfunny things. “Turn to news,” I typed. The other son reported that even the sports stations could talk about nothing else. At Mets stadium, the crowd learned by tweet. The players found out when the crowd spontaneously began chanting, “USA! USA!”
While I’m watching the reports, trying to get my emotions to catch up to the news, there’s jubilation in Washington, celebration in New York. Release for me. Release for America.