Inevitably the conversation becomes where were you when you heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center? Where was I? I was working for Eaton Corporation on 27th street in Milwaukee. One of my co-workers came in and said she heard on Bob and Brian that a plane hit the World Trade Center.
I didn’t think anything of it. After all, a plane once hit the Empire State Building. The first reports indicated that it was a small plane, so I figured it was a mistake.
Then news came it was not a small plane, and that news was followed by the news of the second plane crash. Someone turned on a television in the conference room. I explained to a few co-workers how the terrorists would be tracked down (follow the money).
I was calling home to my wife trying to wake her up so she could watch the news. She had no idea why everyone was calling until she let the dogs outside and the neighbor mentioned something to her.
The engineers in our division started speculating when the buildings would fall, especially the south tower. Heat, metal strength, these were concepts well known to the engineers. Then the tower fell.
Eaton’s Heinemann building was still attached to Naval Controls next door, so partly out of security, partly because nothing was going to get done, our division closed up for the day and sent us home. The news broke about the Pentagon and the second tower falling before I got home to Waukesha.
We were glued to the television set waiting for more attacks. We followed the story of Flight 93. We followed President Bush’s trip back to Washington D.C. We watched as Congress evacuated the Capitol. We watched the towers getting hit over and over again. We watched it all,, each taking turns crying.
It’s weird how when we look back at how much we missed at the time. It was years before I knew about the conspiracy theorists and World Trade Center 7. I don’t even remember the building coming down.
People mention what they’ll never forget about September 11th. I’ll never forget two things. I’ll never forget the people falling out of the buildings.
And I’ll never forget the first time I saw a plane in the air after September 11th. I was driving home along Bluemound Road. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a plane in the sky.
Months earlier my father and I took turns riding in an open cockpit bi-plane at the EAA Air Venture Museum in Oshkosh. The pilot took us up and we flew over the countryside. It was exhilarating to be flying with the wind blowing in my face, able to see the ground without breathing the canned air of a modern passenger plane. For that short ride, I understood why the early pilots wanted to fly, to reach for the sky as no man had before, to grasp at the heavens if only briefly.
I remembered how it was when I was a child. I would look up in awe at the planes flying overhead and wonder where they were going and what adventures the passengers might be on.
Later I was a passenger. My first flight was to New York City. We toured the city, saw Bloomingdale’s, and made a trip to the World Trade Center. In a box downstairs there is a picture that I took from the top floor looking down at the Statue of Liberty. Someday I’ll take it out and show my kids when they’re old enough to understand why some fanatic would want to kill all those people. Perhaps when they’re old enough, I’ll understand, too.
The trip continued to Paris for a very brief stopover and then on to Israel. I learned that I’m not a nervous flyer. Put me on a plane and I can fall asleep within minutes as calmly as if I were sleeping in bed at home. Even turbulence doesn’t bother me.
So you can see why I enjoyed that short ride in a biplane in Oshkosh in 2001. My family planned a second trip but had to cancel our plans when all the planes were grounded after September 11th.
When I saw that airplane as I drove home from work, the first time after September 11th, I don’t know how many days had passed. I just know I wasn’t ready to see an airplane.
For the first time in my life I didn’t wonder where the pilot was going, why the passengers were traveling, or what company operated the plane. I felt a chill go up my spine as I wondered if the plane was flying too low, if it was too soon to let people fly, if something terrible was going to happen. The joy of looking up at an airplane was gone.
I still can’t look at airplanes up in the sky the way I once did. If I see a jet over downtown Milwaukee, I immediately think of September 11th. I may never look up at an airplane in awe and wonder again. I only hope that someday the sight of an airplane stops making that little nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach.