Most Americans over the age of 13 or 14 remember exactly where they were on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Every adult can tell you in painstaking detail, what they were doing, maybe even where they were standing when they heard the news. Some can tell you about the change in atmosphere as the news went from tragedy, to terror, to a full-blown attack on our Nation. This story is about later that day.
I was working night-shift at the Air National Guard base here in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I was scheduled to go to work at 2 pm, but my boss called and told me to wait until 6 pm to come in. He added that we would be working 12 hours on, 12 hours off indefinitely. So I did what I could do to keep myself busy, taking care of things at home. I picked up my kids at school and drove to the gas station in Hoagland and waited in line for over an hour. Not knowing what to expect and fearing for the worst, I at least wanted to have a full tank.
As we sat in line waiting our turn we talked about what had happened and what it may mean, for that day, and for the future. I don’t really even remember what I told my kids. I know that I tried to be as positive as I could, but I do remember fearing that it would only get worse. I also remember feeling later that every time a big event or a holiday came around, that the next attack was imminent.
Eventually we made our way to the front of the line, looking to the faces of friends and neighbors and seeing emotions ranging from rage to shock and everything in between. We finished and headed home. We laid out a plan about what to do under different circumstances, guessing, at best, what would happen when the next wave came. We talked about those lost and we prayed.
I packed a bag as my mind raced about what I would see when I arrived at work. Still not knowing exactly who attacked us, and not knowing who to be weary of, I tried to plan for any possibility. I also packed extra clothes and gear in case I wasn’t able to get home for awhile.
I arrived at work an hour early, and it was amazingly quiet. It took a while to dawn on me that an airport with no airplanes should be quiet. Our fighter jets were loaded with live missiles. No one talked about it, but everyone in this line of work knows that missiles can only be used for one thing – to shoot down other airplanes – maybe airplanes laden with more innocent civilians.
It remained quiet, even in the shop. There wasn’t much talking at all, this was quite a change from the usual jovial attitude. We watched the continuous news coverage, looking and hoping for some answers as to the “who” and “why”. Eventually the call came for a scramble of the fighter jets. This is something that we had practiced for years, but I would venture a bet that not one person in my unit ever thought that we would scramble jets with live combat loads, from our quiet little part of the world.
We provided combat air patrol missions in different areas in the Midwest, while other units did the same throughout the rest of the Country. I also remember vividly that first jet taking off. The norm had always been that after the jets were started and all the final checks were completed, they taxied to the runway and waited for clearance to proceed from the tower. On that night, they started, did their checks and taxied directly to the runway and just that quickly they were gone. Then there was complete silence again.
The silence was followed by my realization that we may never be the same again.
The fighters came and went again and as we settled into a routine I realized that I had prepared as much as I could, but I had forgotten about food. I was the shop chef and asked for permission to go to the grocery store. I remember praying as I drove, for protection first for my family at home, and then for our nation. I remember feeling numb and alone.
I entered the grocery store near the base about 11 pm; I was absolutely amazed to find the place nearly deserted. The shelf’s looked like they do after a winter storm warning. Bread, milk and water were mostly gone; the other staples were also ransacked. I loaded up my cart with easy to prepare items, thoughts still racing through my mind of what comes next. I specifically remember the feeling that I was going a thousand miles an hour, but not moving. My mind raced. I have no idea how long I stood there in my Air Force uniform. I also have no idea who, if anyone was around, but what happened next is the most vivid memory I have of that fateful day.
A little old lady with just a few items in her cart was stopped nose-to-nose with my cart. She said, “Excuse me young man, are you okay?” As I looked around with a combination of embarrassment and the heart-race you get when startled, I apologized and tried to move out of her way. She left her cart there in the center of the aisle and she walked towards me, in slow motion. She hugged me with the softest yet strongest hug I can ever remember, and she cried. And I cried. And we stood there for what seemed like an eternity.
Two complete strangers in a chance encounter. We embraced as if she was my long past Grandma Marie.
I don’t honestly know that there was another soul in that store. It was as if the world stood still, not a movement, not a sound. It was just me and this stereotypical grandma with silver hair, wrinkled skin and the bent stature of a woman who had lived a long and complicated life. I cleared my throat, trying to collect myself and she held on to my shoulders with both hands, looked me in the eye and said, “I lost my first husband in The Great War, and I lost my only child in Korea. God bless you son, and good luck.”
It was at that moment that I realized that she had lived through this once already in her lifetime, on December 7th, 1941. It was then that I also realized that even if the attacks continued, that they could kill our people, but they couldn’t kill our souls, and they could crumble our buildings, but couldn’t knock down our resolve and they certainly couldn’t take our Nation.
So seven long years down the road, we are still free, we still go on about our daily lives and there are still thousands of men and women in the most dangerous places in the world, serving our great Nation and protecting us from all enemies, foreign and domestic. I am truly thankful that our President and the men and women of our Armed Forces have kept us safe these last seven years.
I am thankful that we live in a Nation – one of the few places in the world – where you can proclaim your hatred for it, and still be protected by it. I am thankful for all the people that have helped in some way to protect us, and our way of life, and I am hopeful of a future where we can live in peace and the downtrodden can have the hope of freedom that we all enjoy here.