McAdams On: Sept. 11

IN THE MOMENT: I did nothing remarkable on 9/11. I lost no one. I did not so much as miss a meal.

I was working in my home office when I got a phone call from a Navy officer telling me to turn on the TV. We are under terrorist attack, he said, after the first jet hit the World Trade Centers. He had the type of clearance that has no name in the civilian world. I was a trade hack who grew up on a farm in Nebraska. We don’t get a lot of terrorist attacks out there. It’s not something that immediately comes to mind. “How the heck does he know that?” I thought.

Then another jet barreled into the second tower. That was definitely a clue. Then, an explosion, followed by a rolling earthquake and a sky immediately filled with shrieking aircraft. “It’s raining jets,” I thought, in a stunning display of synaptic acuity. “Should I go outside where I can see the one that will hit me, or just die in here?” In the same instant, I realized those were fighters scrambling from Andrews Air Force Base, across the river from where I lived.

I spent the rest of that day trying to contact friends in New York and monitoring TV news coverage of the events. I could not have felt more useless had I been sitting in the carpool lane of the Beltway with a flat tire. I watched a disaster unfold on TV while wrestling with an overwhelming need to get there in work boots and start digging through concrete chunks for survivors. I instead applied my years of physical fitness training flipping through channels, watching Ashleigh Banfield distinguish herself. I admired her; envied her even. It’s one thing to be on the front lines in the news business. It’s another to be in the weeds, convincing yourself that what you’re doing is more important than immediately collecting loved ones, stocking up on bottled water and heading for the hills.

As it turned out, of course, the war that started that day was taken elsewhere. There was no need to head for the hills. There wasn’t even a run on bottled water, but rather the strange settling into a pseudo normal of terror threat levels and a protracted loss of people serving in the armed forces. But for a few brief hours over the course of 50 years, I’ve lived in such a cocoon of safety and plenty that I can’t begin to comprehend what life would be like if those few hours were the rule rather than the exception. Robertson Davies wrote that “Life itself is too great a miracle for us to make so much fuss about potty little reversals of what we pompously assume to be the natural order.” For the vast majority of us who lost nothing near and dear on 9/11, perhaps the best way to commemorate the events of that day is to simply be grateful. ~ McAdams