Prior to 9/11 I remember being aware of the abundance of non-American flags hung up on houses and on the bumpers of cars. Italian, Irish, Mexican and Jamaican flags were everywhere, but it seemed somewhat rare to see an American flag outside of a Forth of July or Memorial Day parade, or a state/federal building. Most everyone has heritage outside of the US but it was, and still is, the norm to flaunt that international nationality even if only a grandmother ever truly lived in the homeland. Foreign heritage is what makes everyone in the US unique and the US flag doesn’t distinguish anyone enough to give them an instant identity. It’s like wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt to Disney World. It lacks the irony to be hip, and it’s already apparent that the wearer is a fan of Disney by their mere presence at the park (and the photo with a sweaty, underpaid Ariel). The US flag can be seen as redundant and tacky, but all of this changed for a few months after 9/11.
On the morning of September 11, 2001 I took the subway to UMass Boston as I did every day prior for the previous year and a half. I don’t remember what I had for breakfast or what CD I listened to on the train, but an Egg McMuffin and Styx’s “Paradise Theater” wouldn’t be a bad guess. The first plane hit the towers at 8:46AM and I was likely on the train reading about the insignificant events of September 10th in the Boston Metro. It’s hard to imagine but news traveled a lot slower only 10 years ago. Without smart phones the passengers were somewhat oblivious to the day’s emerging events. They were more likely to be playing early cellphone games like Snake or Brickbreaker than to be receiving news, if they had a cell phone at all. I didn’t.
I arrived punctual for my first class at 9:30AM; a history class about the rise and fall of certain European empires. But before I entered the classroom I heard hall chatter on the wire. I heard someone mention something about a helicopter crash. I sat at my desk and the professor walked in and commented that he had just heard the awful news and began the day’s lecture as normal. I could only assume he was speaking about the helicopter crash which on its own was certainly unpleasant news. I heard chatter about the World Trade Center, though I was quick to assume it was our local Boston World Trade Center; the same trade center to where I was excused from high school to attend a college fair (though we bailed quickly to hit the used CD shops). The class began to buzz a bit more as someone mentioned another tower was hit, and that they hit the pentagon. Suddenly it sounded more involved than a helicopter accident to me. I has the distinct memory of thinking that my life would never be the same after this moment. That was a bit more “Hollywood” than my typical thought process, and it ended up not being entirely true.
The class ended at the usual time and I prepared to walk to my 11AM class. But it was not to be as there were handwritten signs littering the walls that stated school was canceled for the rest of the day. I wasn’t necessarily happy about it, but I didn’t know enough about the day to be concerned or upset. It still sounded like it could all be an unfortunate accident. I proceeded home and the train was eerily silent. I didn’t say a word and no one else was filling in the silence with early September, pre-harvest chatter.
I entered my apartment around noon, I assume, and the only people home were my girlfriend’s grandmother and her 4 year-old grandson who she was watching for the day. I didn’t feel the need to inform them of the current events but I did turn the news on for the first time that day. The first thing I remember was that it seemed every channel was showing the news, even VH1 Classics which tends to be oblivious to what happened after Motley Crue’s “Dr. Feelgood” in 1989. This would have been the time that I would have seen the first images of the towers being hit and falling down but I honestly don’t recall my reaction. This is also where I first heard the word “terrorism” used, and the first time I was scared. I wasn’t concerned about a terrorist attack in Somerville. Sure it was possible that Kelly’s Diner was a high-valued terror target. If I couldn’t get their delicious home fries with their 1950s decor my way of life would be turned upside-down. In reality, I was more afraid of what our reaction would be as a nation. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve always been terrified of going to war. If the result of this attack was an organized retaliation, or a full on war, a draft didn’t seem out of the realm of possibilities. I was beginning to mentally pack my overseas bag with Door’s tapes, soft soaps and a camera long before the smoke had cleared.
I quickly reached the limit of how much news I could watch. By 2PM nothing new was happening and the 4 year-old in the room was looking towards me for entertainment. We watched a few episodes of Blue’s Clues before heading into the driveway for some baseball. I never really felt the need to call my friends or family during this. I didn’t know anyone in NYC or DC so I had no real reason to be concerned. Later that afternoon I did connect with my girlfriend who worked at a local bank. She explained to me that the attacks were retaliations for an unjust trial being held in the city for those responsible for the original World Trade Center attacks in 1993. These completely incorrect rumors were oddly comforting as it implied it wasn’t a country or organization that was out to kill Americans. Instead it was just a crazy guy who was unhappy with our judicial system.
As the afternoon grew old my girlfriend and I drove to the local Newbury Comics record store. As it was a Tuesday it was the release date for some highly anticipated albums including Ben Folds first solo album, Slayer’s “God Hates Us All” and Dream Theater’s “Live Scenes from a Memory“. The latter became infamous for having a cover featuring the New York skyline with flames in the background and was later changed. We went home, ordered a pizza with my new roommates and watched a Planet of the Apes movie. I only assume we watched the news a bit more. And for those worried, I was able to pick up those 3 records the next day.
On Wednesday I followed my usual routines but there was something unnerving about the next few days at UMass. The Boston campus is a few short miles away from Logan airport and in the plane’s landing paths. Prior to 9/11 I would sit and watch the planes land as a source of hypnotic relaxation. I would time the minutes between the successive descents of the planes, which were surprisingly consistent (3-4 minutes apart at different parts of the day). The lack of planes on September 12th was not subtle. The sky had shut down.
A positive change to come directly after 9/11 was the huge increase in American flags. Pick-up trucks would sport full size flags that defied laws of wind resistance. People chanted “USA, USA” in the most unlikely venues and events. For a short period of time it became cool to be patriotic. Over the next few weeks I became more and more interested in the news as well. I would pick up the paper each morning, scan for any draft news, sigh in relief, and read the latest 9/11 news. Over the next few years I was glued to any 9/11 special, especially one containing original news footage. I felt oddly regretful and jealous that I didn’t get to watch any of this live as so many others did.
I won’t deny that this may be the most boring 9/11 story ever told in over 1200 words. In short; I went to school, came home early, didn’t get the CDs I wanted, ate pizza, watched a movie and went to bed. I didn’t know anyone directly affected and my experience was completely 3rd hand. It could almost be considered a selfish experience. I didn’t risk my life by running into a burning building, storming a cockpit or digging through rubble. I certainly mourned for those affected, and the pictures of twin tower jumpers were nothing less than haunting, but my concern throughout the day was for myself, and what may happen to me and those I knew in terms of future attacks and retaliation in the coming years. While boring and selfish, I imagine my story isn’t unique. I will Never Forget my boring 9/11 saga.
I can pinpoint the moment when being patriotic became tacky; May 21, 1984 or the day Lee Greenwood released “God Bless the USA”. It was a bit country, a bit pop and a bit 80s adult contemporary, but it was all moldy cheese. With the power of this song the idea of American patriotism remains 80s-themed even today. It led to Red, White & Blue popsicles, visors, half-shirts and dinner plates. But these patriotic themed products were never associated with quality. They were, and still are, the throw-away variety found in dollar stores.
Years later country music took the monopoly on patriotism. Folk, rock and hip-hip questioned authority and put American politics in the spotlight. Country music carried the pro-American propaganda torch. They sang about God, the heartland and the “real” America which only helped to isolate them from the free-thinking coastal majority.
All of this changed for the few months after September 11th. We were united in saving lives, standing strong and seeking revenge. By November 11th we were all scared of any white powder resembling Anthrax. By December 11th we were thinking of Christmas. Country music took back the monopoly on patriotism and now lends it out for general use on July 4th, Memorial Day, and every 9/11 to follow. The masses can gain back their patriotism after the next tragedy.
It’s cliche, but I feel I should end on a positive and appreciative note. I can say this, and anything else I’ve ever said, because of the freedom we have today. September 11th produced real-life heroes and the day still serves as a great reminder of the sacrifices made by others.
But tragedy strikes everyday all over the world, and heroes emerge that don’t get recognition or plaques. Families lose loved ones and do not receive million dollar payouts if their disaster wasn’t a televised spectacular. American is great, never forget.