I am part of a generation that has seen the rise of the cell phone, survived Y2K and 2012, saw the beginning of the War on Terror, witnessed the election of the first African-American president, and watched troops pour into Afghanistan only to be pulled back again. I am part of the “You Only Live Once” generation, the anthem of a youth who live in a nation with a wounded heartbeat.
I was six years old living in Fort Huachuca, Arizona when the World Trade Centers were attacked. I remember my mother crying. I started crying too, though I didn’t understand. I just wanted to watch Clifford the Big Red Dog.
The nation was full of children just like me. We didn’t understand and we wouldn’t remember this monumental event that shaped the future of our nation.
Every year, the memorial happens, the same conversations playing out over and over:
“9/11. That was really horrible.”
“Yeah, where were you when it happened?”
“I was in my living room.”
“I was in my kitchen.”
This terrorist act hung over my childhood, like it hangs now, an unspeakable thing that people can’t stop talking about.
It was the summer of 2012 and I was in Washington D.C. touring museums, monuments, and memorials.
“You have an hour and a half!” a chaperone called before releasing us into the journalism museum properly dubbed the Newseum.
I got on the glass elevator and rode to the top, deciding it would be better to wind my way down the four stories so I could get something from the gift shop on my way out. As the elevator glided upwards, I watched the hundred or so years of news sliding past: newspaper clippings there, a photo collage here, a chunk of the Berlin Wall over there. When I got off the elevator, I was faced with a warped hunk of metal reaching towards the high ceiling. It was mangled and rusting. The light from the window silhouetted the grotesque form, twisting like it had been caught in a tornado.
People were silent, staring at it, some were crying. No one could look away. I moved towards the descriptive plaque beneath. “This is a piece of the World Trade Center North Tower” it read.
“It’s just so horrible,” a woman behind me whispered.
“I still can’t believe it’s real,” a man whispered back.
In an alcove next to the piece of the tower there was a movie playing. The words drifted out to me in bits and pieces. “ . . . the second plane hit . . . going down . . . there are people jumping . . .” I slipped into the room and watched. The back of my throat burned and tears threatened as the towers fell. This was the first time I’d seen it.
The work of photojournalist William Biggart, the only photojournalist to die during the attack, was at the end of the film. His pictures flashed on the screen, each one getting closer and closer to the smoking, burning towers. Ash covered everything and firemen waded through. Men in business suits staggered along the debris littered streets. The numbness and panic of everything screamed through the photos. Each picture seemed something out of an apocalyptic movie, but it was all real.
The last picture filled the screen. It looked almost black and white from all the smoke and ash. A huge hunk of tower was missing; the empty space looked like a mouth with jagged debris teeth. Emergency vehicles lined the lower left corner, red as blood. Biggart was right under the towers now, and the other building collapsed. The picture faded to black and we were left in darkness.
After the Newseum we went to the Pentagon Memorial. It was getting dark, and the lights turned on, the pools of water illuminated along with the long stainless steel slabs of the memorial. They were facing in two directions, the ones facing the Pentagon those who died in the plane and the ones facing away from the Pentagon those who died in the building itself. There were 184 slabs.
I walked through them, looking at the names and the dates, crunching on the gravel as I went. I wandered along the age wall; it started at three inches high, the age of the youngest victim, a girl named Dana Falkenberg, to 71 inches high, the age of the oldest victim, a man named John Yammicky.
The stone of the Pentagon was slightly discolored where they had to re-build and I thought how appropriate it was, the remembering and the moving on. I am part of the generation that can’t remember but will never forget, rising from the ashes of 9/11 on the wings of hope.