Shock and Awe

I was standing in my classroom at the University one chilly, March night, staring out into the night sky.

Tonight I was teaching Web Design 101 to twelve adult students at varying skill levels.  I loved my classes at the university these days; I loved putting on real clothes and make up and being someone other than the mother, wife or crazy freak fan of an 80s singer.  It felt good that while I wasn’t getting paid for my work as Rick Springfield’s web designer and fan liaison, I had at least developed skills that I could parlay into a paycheck elsewhere.  I loved that I was teaching again, even if it wasn’t a classroom with little kids.  In some ways, my classroom full of eager to learn adults was even more satisfying to work in, because the students were like sponges just ready and waiting to absorb the skills I was there to impart.

I taught the class in much the same way I’d learned how to create websites myself.  I didn’t think it made sense to ask people to buy pricey software to do beginning work, so I found a free Microsoft product online that the students could use in class and download on their own home computers.  I set them all up with free web hosting accounts, and off they went, learning slowly how to create text on web pages, then how to obtain pictures from a Google search to use in their pages, then how to add those pages to their pages and finally, how to upload all of it to their own, unique website.  I loved watching my students start as insecure and unsure to confident designers who wanted to learn beginning graphic design and other skills to make their websites their own.

The university had asked me to teach a second class for the upcoming fall, a Photoshop class.  I was glad that my skills were being noticed and that I was going to be able to take on more of a load at the school.  There were a few instructors that had nearly full time jobs teaching both daytime and nighttime classes; for the near term, this was my goal.  I was thinking about the possibilities of what else I could teach when one of my students said calmly, “The war has started.”

A chill went up my spine as I broke my reverie and focused on the here and now in my classroom.  “Really? How do you know that?”

“When I went onto Google for my pictures, one of the hits was for a breaking news story about the war starting in Iraq.”

I breathed in and out.  These weren’t kids, so I didn’t have to control the situation as much as I normally would feel like I had to.  In fact, the balance of opinion about the war was so split, the only thing I was concerned about was if we had vastly differing viewpoints in the room. “I suppose that it isn’t much of a surprise to any of us,” I said evenly.  “I mean, this was probably the least surprise of any attack ever, right?”

‘They’re calling it ‘shock and awe’,” said my student, reading from a story on CNN.com.

A rustling started as I heard students start typing in their own favorite news websites on their computers.  “Go ahead and take a look, and then let’s go ahead and call it a night,” I said from the front of the room.  “I know you’ll all want to go home and be with your families right now, and frankly, so do I.  We’re nearly done anyway for the evening, so just save your work to your folders and then you can wrap it up.”

As I watched them all gather up their things and wish me goodbye, I felt a heaviness in my chest.  I remembered the war in Afghanistan, and where I was that warm October day when we’d all heard the news.  I remembered the Operation Desert Storm, and watching the news one night when Zach was a baby on the then brand new network, CNN.   It all mingled into a vague sense of unease and worry for the two boys I had back at home; what kind of world were they growing up in?  Zachary was thirteen; in five more years, he could be one of those kids out there being either the Shock or the Awe.

I had never made the drive home from the university so quickly as I did that night of March 19, 2003.

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No Closure

There was no closure.

Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months.  I watched the images on the TV screen of the rescue workers and hoped beyond all hope that more people would be found in the immense wreckage at what was now being called “Ground Zero” in New York.  I became obsessed with all things 9/11, reading every scrap of information, scouring the internet for images, staying up late nights, as if somehow all of my hours of information gathering would lead to something positive.

It did not.

Our friend Marni continued to remain on the missing list, and as memorial after memorial was held, we had no choice but to finally accept the worst; that along with thousands of others, someone whom we knew was dead as a result of all of this hatred. Our friend Lisa, who had been the closest of all of our group to her, traveled to New York for her memorial, and brought back all of the love and stories to share with us.

It didn’t help.

We wrapped up our fundraiser with the fan club, not without anger and drama as well.  Fans argued about whether or not it was appropriate for us to collect monies from non fans; was it taking advantage of Rick’s generous offer to plump up our numbers?  I had no opinion as I listened to Vivian talk about how much work it was to keep track of the hundreds of people who were donating to our cause.  In the end we raised over $12,000 to donate to the Red Cross.  Any pride we had in the number was obliterated by our sadness at having to attach a name of a person we knew to the donation.

I was still angry.

I watched the world around us normalize again.  The flags started to become less in number, fans started going to shows again, people stopped talking about 9/11.   I continued the every day activities of taking care of my children, cleaning my house, and starting teaching on a weekly basis at the university where I’d conducted the summer web camp.

It was impossible to stop feeling, caring, being affected. My anger, my frustration, my sense of helplessness didn’t end.

And suddenly, it was November.  I strapped my pregnant self into my car and set out to drive to Columbus, for the show that all of us had planned on attending with Marni.   We all traveled in for the show, as we had planned on doing with her.  It became a pilgrimage of sorts, as if we were fulfilling a promise we’d all somehow made to her months ago, in The Time Before.

We met with Rick Springfield before his performance.  Quietly, each of us told him a piece of the significance of our attending the show together.  He listened with the sadness and anger; I recognized it; it was in the same vein as my own.  We shared dinner with him that night and the girls all regaled him with happier stories of the girl he didn’t know, but whose name he now would never forget.  And once we were done, we all marched down the stage steps and took our places in the front row, somehow all feeling that we were channeling the show to her somehow, an offering that would never match her sacrifice and horror.

We all stood together, held each other up, and cried for her that night.  We watched Rick talk of 9/11, play a guitar decorated with an American flag, and dedicate a song to her.  Somehow, each of us in our varying beliefs tried to believe that this was our closure, that somehow she was here with us that evening, sharing our grief and sadness and our shared fandom that brought a silliness to all of our grownup workaday lives.

It didn’t help.  But somehow, something did happen that night that helped all of us, in some small way, put one foot in front of the other a little easier in the days that followed.

Something To Do

Helpless.

The days that followed the unspeakable tragedy on 9/11 were marked with one feeling beyond any other.

Helpless.

The lists of the missing grew; some names were added and some names were removed as the days wore on.  I kept hitting refresh on the page for those who worked with our friend Marni at her brokerage office; the majority of the employees were still listed as missing and unaccounted for. I speculated that this was probably a bad sign; that most of them had likely stayed together, discussing the most prudent course of action.  If they had not evacuated immediately after the first plane hit the other building, then they would have never had enough time to make it down the stairs before their own building collapsed.

But yet I still had to take care of my daughter and son, still had to prepare meals for my family, clean the house and buy groceries.  The senselessness of it all:  me driving ten minutes to the Kroger and buying milk while people were still alive in the rubble; I couldn’t fathom it.

I wanted to be one of those people that were just hopping in their cars and driving to New York to help.  I wanted to be able to do something palpable, helpful, constructive.  But what could I do?  I was just one woman stuck her house in Ohio, spending endless hours in front of alternately her television and computer screen.  A woman who could only send out emails into cyberspace, hoping to strike a chord with some of the thousand plus who would read them.

Wait a minute.

I had access to over a thousand people via our email list.  A thousand people who were sitting here as helpless and stranded as I felt.  A thousand people who, if they came together, could do something bigger than each of us working alone.

“Why couldn’t we do a fundraiser through the mailing list to benefit the Red Cross?” I asked Vivian and Elizabeth on the morning if September 12.  “We’ve done it before, for far less important causes.  We can dedicate it to our fan that is still missing, hoping of course that by the time we wrap this up that she’ll be back online and cracking jokes about how loved she never knew she was by all of the fans.”  All we had to do was have people send one of us the money through the PayPal service we’d all used last year for buying Rick’s CD; most of the fans had set up their accounts then.  Then we would just pull out the cash and cut a check to the Red Cross.

Both Vivian and Elizabeth agreed that this was something that we could do, that would help all of us feel like we were doing something.  Vivian agreed to collect the funds in her account, and so the Fan Club Red Cross Fundraiser was born.  It wasn’t going to help us find our friend, or move the piles of debris any faster, but it gave us all a collective goal.

A few days later, I shared this email with our mailing list:

“It has been so hard to continue doing shows up here in Vegas but on Thursday we all lit candles and prayed for those we lost and then we went on and did the show.

As I said at the end of the show every night this week, “We dedicate our
performance tonight to those who lost their lives on Tuesday and we do the show in celebration that we are all still free. God Bless America”. This is the way we show who we are to ourselves and to the cowards who did this.

My love and prayers to everyone and to Marni and her family. Also what ever the RLS fund comes up with for the Red Cross drive, I will match that amount.
love,
Rick”

We all were lost in those surreal first few days after 9/11.  Even Rick himself.

An Endless Day

I couldn’t sleep that night.

R and I had a television in our bedroom.  I’d never had a television on at night when I’d been single; I found it too distracting as I lay there waiting for sleep to come.  But R had always used the drone of a TV to help him fall asleep, and so when we’d moved in together, on the TV went.

Eventually I learned to sleep with the TV in the background, and later used it as a sound block between myself and the noise of R’s snoring.

But this night, the night of 9/11/01, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.  Already there were huge lights brought into the pile of debris where the towers had stood less than twenty four hours ago.  Rescue workers were clawing at the wreckage of the buildings, trying desperately to find those who they knew must be buried alive and waiting for help.

I thought of the woman I vaguely knew, a Rick Springfield fan named Marni.  Emails back and forth on our mailing list all day had worried about her.  Many, many people that were involved in our 1000+ person email list were from the New York area. Scores of them had sent emails letting everyone know that they were OK.  They told stories of walking, walking north, walking over bridges.  They talked of the stand still of the usually vibrant city and the horror they’d all experienced being there.

But no contact had yet been made by our friend Marni.  We all knew she’d been at her desk when the tragedy occurred; she had sent an email to our mailing list before 8 am.  She’d worked on the 89th floor of the second tower to be hit.  All of the news anchors speculated at what floor the plane must have hit; it appeared that it must have hit below where she was.

What had she done when the first tower was hit, I wondered. Had she immediately left her desk and started down the stairs? If her office did not face the other tower, she may have heard something but rationalized it as a drill, or something that could be ignored and gone back to work.  No one knew.

If she had stayed in her office, she was likely above the site of impact.  As I watched the workers in the dark climb from here to there in the wreckage, I couldn’t stop thinking of her.  Did they have televisions in their offices?  Was she aware of what was going on?  Had she started down the stairs?  Maybe she had gotten out entirely but was in a hospital somewhere, unable to check in.  Or maybe she was just fine but with a family member who wasn’t.

I’d seen on the news footage of people leaning out of the buildings.  I’d heard that dozens and dozens of people had jumped from the buildings trying to escape the fire.  I tried to shake these images out of my head, but the more I did so, the more I saw them, every time I closed my eyes.  Was the woman I knew one of those people?  One of the people faced with a choice between one method of certain death or another?

I knew I had to calm down.  I could barely eat, and my stomach was in knots.  I had to hold it together; Zachary was certainly looking to both R and I for guidance and strength.  I needed to wake up in the morning with a serene face and be able to tell him that everything in our world would be OK.  I needed to be believeable when I said it.  I needed his faith, his newly forming idealistic faith, to not be forever changed or shattered by this day, by this tragedy.  Melinda would never remember this day, but Zach would, and I needed him to remember that R and I were still the rock solid parents he could count on and draw strength from.

It was this mantra I repeated to myself, over and over, until sleep finally overtook me after 2 in the morning.

The End of the Day

I finally put on one of Melinda’s videotapes around noon, the news fatigue washing over me.  I remembered what one of my high school teachers, Mr. Tymrak, had said about our minds being molded by the events that had played upon the television screens during our childhood.  He’d said my generation’s cynicism was likely due to continued exposure to endless coverage of the Vietnam War; the images of the war and the ensuing protests about it actually altering our malleable brains as infants.  I didn’t want my daughter’s fragile mind to be changed forever due to endless exposure to images of burning buildings and citizens running from huge clouds of smoke.

The schools had asked us to not pick up our children, just as R had predicted, so when I traded the somber sounds of reporters for the classical music drone of Baby Einstein, the house seemed surreal and quiet; a calm island in a world of chaos that I could no longer see, but knew existed.  I brought my laptop into the kitchen and read endless emails from our Rick Springfield mailing list; everyone was worried, wondering about this person or that person, describing what was going on in their various locales.  I discovered that one of my friends who had been vacationing in Florida would now have to drive home, as she had no idea when planes would hit the no longer friendly skies.  My friend Elizabeth informed me that they were evacuating her childrens’ schools, as they lived in a heavily Jewish area, and there was talk about Israel and Islamic extremists possibly being responsible for the day’s events.  It was all too much; I forced myself to close the laptop and sat numbly on the floor with Melinda, handing her toys while she babbled away, unaware of why Mommy was so quiet.

As the morning turned into afternoon, the silence was punctuated by the ringing of the phone:  my sister from Michigan, my father from Florida, my cousin from Delaware.  The conversations ran along the same lines with everyone; queries as to everyone’s whereabouts, relief at everyone being accounted for, disbelief and horror at the events that may or may not still be unfolding.    Everyone wanted to talk about it; sharing the horror somehow made it easier to bear; I listened, quietly, thinking all the while about the baby boy in my belly and what kind of world was he going to be born into in a few months.

Melinda grew tired of her toys and the sunshine through our windows and I finally, blessedly, put her down for her nap; I returned to the endless loop of coverage in time for Zach to arrive home from school.  He was visibly shaken and wanting to know all that the teachers hadn’t wanted to tell them at school. We sat in shock together, me and my twelve year old son, watching as the world we knew disappeared before our eyes in clouds of smoke.

“Did you know what was going on during the day?” I asked, hoping that his teachers had shielded them.

“Oh, yeah,” Z responded.  Three of my teachers just put on the TV and we watched the coverage.”

In what seemed like an instant, but was actually several hours, Melinda woke as R returned home.  When it had appeared that there were no new attacks coming, the lockdown was lifted at work.  He brought home takeout and we all looked at each other around the table, shell shocked, unable to put into words the shared experience that none of us had experienced together.

“We’re lucky,” was all that we could repeat, over and over to each other.  How lucky we were that we were all here, safe and sound, and that all of our family members were accounted for tonight.  Untold thousands were roaming the streets of New York and Washington, worrying for their missing loved ones. But we weren’t.  We were all here, tucked away in Ohio, watching it all from afar.  But it didn’t feel like very far, at all.  It felt far too close.

Not OK

Less than half an hour into the tragedy, and the picture was becoming startingly clear:  there was no other explanation than the one that seemed obvious but nonsensical:  that two planes had been purposely hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center.    The drone of Matt, Katie and their cadre of eyewitnesses and correspondents continued on as I got Melinda her breakfast, changed her and dressed her and tried to interest her in her favorite toys.  The same crazy pictures filled the screen, already becoming less bizarre with the familiarity of them:  the two towers, the black smoke filling the blue sky, the orange of flames sometimes coming into focus.

It felt similar to me to the coverage of the Columbine shooting two years prior, or to the Oklahoma City bombing before that. A horrible, horrible tragedy, but something very far removed from me and my experience.  I’d sat on my sofa two years ago watching as those poor children were evacuated from their school; I’d just moved from Michigan to Oklahoma that year, and so I was home during the day to see the coverage.  The coverage started to stall into discussions with so called experts who used to work for the government and a rehashing of the events ad nauseum that were still less than an hour old.  I found myself able to tear myself away from the television to do the dishes, to do a quick email check (no word yet about Marni) and to try and put some sense of normalcy into the this crazy day.

And then suddenly, just as had happened nearly an hour prior, the voices on the television changed.  Jim Miklaszewski, their Pentagon correspondent, called in to the programming talking of an explosion, a blast, and his voice had that shaky quality of someone who is in shock.  Katie Couric advised him to “be careful” as he offered to find out what he could about what had just happened at the Pentagon.  In less than a minute, pictures came across the screen of smoke filling the air above the military complex.

I ran to the phone and called R at work.  He answered on the second ring.  “Are you watching?” he asked.  Of course he already knew the answer; I hardly ever called him during the day at work because I knew how busy he was.

“Yes,” I choked into the phone.

“We’re in lockdown here.  I can’t leave.”  His voice was firm, but worried.

“What?  Why?”  I could hear the hysteria in my voice.

“We manufacture military equipment here.  No one knows what is happening, but if there are attacks happening against the US military, we could be a target.”

“Oh,” I said in a far away voice.  I could feel deep, deep panic rising in my chest.

“Don’t worry.  It’s just a precaution, there isn’t any indication that anything will happen here.”

“There wasn’t any indication that anything would happen anywhere today.”   I tried to remind myself to breathe.  I had to stay calm.  My hand went to my belly and unconsciously started to pat it.

“True,” R agreed, his voice trying for practicality.

“What should I do?” I wondered aloud, not really expecting an answer.

“Are the schools closing early or anything?”

“I haven’t heard anything.  Do you think I should just go get Zach?”  I thought of my son, who I’d sent off to school just three hours ago.  When the world was safe.  In that land that we would always think of as Before.

“Honestly, no.  The best thing for him to do is to be at school where they are trying to keep everything low key and routine.  If he comes home now, he’ll just watch the coverage all day with you and freak out like you are right now.”

“You can’t tell me you’re not freaked out by all of this,” I chided.

“Of course I am, but I’m just telling you that probably the best and safest place for him to be right now is at school.  Just stay home, play with the girlie and try to take it easy.  You can’t let yourself get too upset right now.”

I sighed, glancing over at the TV.  The level of panic in the voices of the correspondents was palpable.   “The FAA has banned all takeoffs at all airports across America,” said Tom Brokaw.  This was no longer just in New York, or just in DC. This was here, this was everywhere.

“I hear you,” I answered, trying to modulate my voice.

“I’ll be near the phone all day, and I’ll leave as soon as I can,” R tried to reassure me.

“OK,” I whispered as I hung up the phone.

It was not OK.

It Is Personal

My head was spinning as I heard eyewitnesses recount impossible to believe details of what they were seeing and hearing that September morning. Matt and Katie speculated about what might be happening in the towers. I stood in front of the TV, unable to move. The sun was shining outside here in the suburbs of Cincinnati; looking out my window the grass was green and everything seemed quiet and serene. I blinked several times, trying to reconcile the images and the banter on the television. It just didn’t make any sense.  The words “World Trade Center, New York City” filled the screen below the smoke and the towers and the chaos.

Suddenly, I flashed back to the tape cassette sent to me several years ago by Marni, the woman from New York who we had talked of going to the Columbus show with just this morning in my email box.  The return address on the envelope had been from her place of employment, a financial brokerage firm.

2 World Trade Center.  Holy shit.

I ran to the phone and dialed my friend Elizabeth.  Normally I spoke to her several times a day anyway, so it wasn’t unusual for me to call.  In fact, I called her so often that I knew when she didn’t answer her home phone that she was likely taking her son to preschool at the Jewish Community Center in her area of Cleveland.  She knew Marni better than me, having talked to her on the phone and met for dinner a few times when she happened to be in town.  I’d only met Marni once, last summer in Columbus.  She was quiet, and nice; smart and funny.  Elizabeth would know how to get in touch with Marni to make sure she was OK.

“Elizabeth, oh my God.  Can you believe it?”

“What, what did one of the psychos do now?”  It was clear from her tone and response she had no idea what I was talking about.  In the hours to come, you would learn how much people knew about the day’s events just by their tone of voice.

“Haven’t you heard?  Are you near a TV?”  I asked her, stunned that she didn’t know that the world was upside down.  How could anyone not know?

“No, I had to get my son ready and I’m just staying here for the hour in the lobby.  What’s going on?”

“A plane hit the World Trade Center about twenty minutes ago, and just now another one hit the other tower.”

I heard her sharp intake of air on the other end of her cell phone.  “You’re joking.”

“Does that sound like something I’d even make up?  Do you know which tower Marni works in?”  I was praying every prayer I could think of that somehow, she’d been in the second tower.  That way, she would have seen what was going on in the first one, and had plenty of time to start descending the stairs before the next plane struck.  I didn’t know Marni well, but knowing someone at all involved in the incredible scene playing out before my eyes made it urgent, personal, and even more frightening than it might have already been otherwise.

“Wait, does she work in the Trade Center?  Are you sure?”

“Yes, she sent me a tape the year I lived in Oklahoma of some of Rick’s radio stuff from when he performed on Broadway that year.  She sent it from work.  It was 2 World Trade, but I don’t know if that is the building with the antenna or not.  The antenna building was hit first; I hope she wasn’t in that one.  Do you have her number?”

“I do,” Elizabeth responded.  “But it’s at home.  I can’t leave here until J is done with his class.  By the time I got home I’d just have to turn right around and come back.  I’ll call her as soon as I get back home.  I’m sure she’s fine.”

“I don’t know,” I said doubtfully, staring at the TV.  “You’re not looking at what I’m looking at.  I’m having a hard time believing that there isn’t going to be a lot of casualties from this thing.  Wait till you see what they are showing on the TV; it’s absolutely insane.”

I could hear Melinda stirring upstairs; it was time to go get her up and ready for the day.  She would want to watch Dora and Baby Einstein and play in her pool on our back porch.  I said goodbye to Elizabeth, who promised to call me back as soon as she had an update and went to get my daughter out of her crib.

It was going to be a long day, I thought, as I headed up the stairs.  I had no idea.

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