Every generation has it’s defining disaster. For my great grandfather, a member of the United States Navy, it was the day that will live in infamy, the bombing of pearl harbor, December 7th, 1941. For my grandparents, it was the Kennedy assassination on November 22nd, 1963. And, for my parents, it was the attack on the world trade center, September 11th, 2001.
Each event left it’s witnesses shaken, each one claimed lives, each one shaped history. And yet, each one has faded. Though their effects still remain, though nations are scared to death of another world war, though the secret service will never again be lax, though airports changed on September 12th and will never go back, the devastation is beginning to lose its grip on people. I’ve seen the class conversation become less and less chilling as the gap grew to ten years, twelve years, this year it will be sixteen years. In the elementary years, the teacher would write the date on the board and every student in class would go silent. This year, there was an announcement, a moment of silence, and as soon as the students left the classroom their day continued. It’s not the fact that anyone has forgotten those who were lost, or the impacts that were made. The students who went silent in the classroom are the same students who hold casual conversation now. It’s the fact that, the more time that passes, the more the event morphs from personal experiences into a part of history. It happened, but the farther it becomes, the safer a distance we gain, the more “something that is” turns into “something that was.”
Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning is a song by Alan Jackson, and as much as you might hate country music, this song mirrors a feeling that an entire nation felt. Where were you? Were you in California, on the other side of the country, trying to figure out how this could be possible? Were you camping in the mountains and only heard about it after you came home to devastation and chaos? Were you remembering your own generation’s disaster, and wondering at how this was happening again? With the date rolling around, the stories of where people were and what people did are being told. Friends of my parents were sharing how they’d picked their daughter up from the bus and refused to turn on any television in the house; they didn’t want her to see it. Instead, they ran somewhere they could get away and played mini golf at Southwest Golf Ranch.
Where were you? My parents, my family, everyone I’d met at the age of six months, we were all in the same place. We were there. We were right there.
I was born in Somerville, New Jersey. Most of my family lives in Scotch Plains, which is kind of like a Jersey version of Mason, Ohio, where I live now. During the terrorist attack, while it was being broadcast live on TV, I was on the floor of my grandparents’ living room, my mom on the phone with my dad, in a house twenty miles away from the World Trade Center.
Now, I’m not going to act like an eye witness. I was six months old, and I don’t remember a thing. I can, however, recall being two years old, on 9/11’s second anniversary, when the scar was still a fresh, gaping wound. Those are the first “where were you” stories I heard, from my family and the family’s friends and whoever else happened to be there. Some people will tell you that they ran to a park, or a library, or a mini golf course, to get away from the reality of it. People in New Jersey couldn’t do that, because everything in New Jersey was closed. My mother locked the doors, kept me in the same room as her, and began the phone calls. My dad had worked late the night before, and so we’d gone to my grandparents’ to let him sleep. He was her first phone call. He was worrying about chemical warfare, because everyone we knew was within thirty miles of where it was going down. We weren’t together, because we couldn’t get to one another. The streets were all blocked and non-navigable. We were ten miles away, and no one could move. My Uncle Billy was right in the center of it all. He was the Battalion Chief of the first responding New Jersey fire department, because most of those in New York had died when the second tower went down. He survived, and still has a chunk of one of the towers in his basement, a block of concrete that’s so much more than a block of concrete.
If you were in New Jersey, you called every person you knew, and made a list of who you knew was alive, and who wasn’t answering their phone. If you were in New Jersey, you either lost someone, or knew someone who had lost someone, and to this day no one can tell you which was worse. If you were in New Jersey, it’s taking a bit longer for the laceration to scab over.
Here’s the thing. I don’t know how many people realize this, but I’m 16, and this happened 16 years ago. The freshmen who came into Mason High School this year weren’t on the planet when this was happening, for the most part. We are the last class to have been here, and because of that, because we’re all already juniors in High School, I feel like the turning point of “experience” and “history” is starting. There is officially no one younger than us who can answer the question “where were you?” That rattles me.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. The world can’t dwell on every catastrophe forever; we’d crumble. There has to come a point when our emotions begin to let go. I’m not saying that it’s something we should regret, the fading of our most recent generational disaster.
But it does give me goosebumps. One day, 9/11 will be a paragraph of a history textbook, and those experiences I’ve grown up hearing will become primary sources. That day is a long ways away, but it hit me a few days ago that I am seeing the first stepping stones.
I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot lately, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that this is incredible, being so close to the edge of the line, a part of the event, but just barely, that I can see, actually see with my own eyes, the event become history. When people say “history was made on this day,” I feel like they’re wrong. The people who were there that day didn’t call it history. It wasn’t history on that day. “History” was never made on a day, because there was never a day that clearly defined when an experience was no longer considered experiential, but historical. It’s gradual, the metamorphosis, and honestly somewhat beautiful. It’s beautiful to think that the day thousands of people were slaughtered wasn’t actually what made 9/11 part of history, but rather the years that followed. It wasn’t the wound, it was the healing. When you bleed, it isn’t history, it’s your reality. Once it’s become a scar, after you’ve healed, that’s when it becomes your past.