I’m frequently loathe to pile on to the popular Zeitgeist, but it’s hard to escape reflection on the eve of a decade where one date, 9/11, carries so much significance.
Even in the flurried cacophony of remembrances, specials, and tributes.
On Thursday, I attended a reception for new faculty at Wabash. As I was speaking with Prof. Crystal Benedicks of the English Department and Prof. James Cherry of the Theater Department. Prof. Benedicks is teaching a freshman tutorial entitled, “9/11 and American Culture” to students who were 9 years old on that fateful day.
As we discussed the course, I shared a few pieces of media that resonated most with me.
For most of us, we first heard about the attacks as “a plane hit the World Trade Center”as if some nut or novice caromed off one of the towers in an ultralight.
Then we turned on the TV to see smoke billowing out of the side of the north tower. Then, the second plane slammed into the south tower as reporters fumbled to report live information. By then, the great majority of us saw the towers–first one, then the other–collapse in plumes of smoke.
But what most of us never saw was something so disturbingly horrific that it’s remained largely hidden since. For a few desperate souls trapped above the impact point in the towers, the Hobson’s Choice offered was a jump to their death.
For me, this one image (right) greatly disturbs and fascinates me, even now. It boils the loss of life of thousands down to just one person–one soul plunging headfirst to his death.
Tom Junod writes a haunting exploration of this photo, capturing a lone figure against a symmetry of the World Trade Center. His article, “The Falling Man,” in the September 2003 issue of Esquire stands as a pinnacle of excellence, emerging from the ruins of true journalism.
For the tenth anniversary, he revisits his groundbreaking piece.
If one person needed to write to offer a meditation on life in New York after the terrorist attacks, it had to be Spike Lee in 2003’s 25th Hour. The film displays the director’s talky style in foreground of the the physical ruins of Ground Zero, contributing to the theme of broken lives trying to heal punctuated by a wonderfully haunting soundtrack by Terence Blanchard.
When the main character, Monty Brogan, looks himself in the mirror, he unleashes a screed of xenophobic epithets unearthing the subterranean ugliness of a city facing itself as the dust settles. No one is spared in this rant. But we’ve seen this before from Spike Lee in his classic, Do the Right Thing,
I think more poignantly about this last scene, especially in the context of all who lost their lives on 9/11. Monty serves as a stand-in for the families cut off by history. “You all came so close to never happening.”
Except, unlike many people in the attacks, he has a choice.
Reign Over Me
Apart from my conversation with Wabash professors, my mind continued to ruminate on other movies and such.
Advance another few years and you find Mike Binder’s wonderful Reign Over Me, which casts Adam Sandler in a very dramatic role of Charlie Fineman, recovering from the loss of his family during the attacks, partially through the help of his estranged college roommate, played by Don Cheedle. Yes, Mike, the name of Fine-man, in all it’s Arthur Miller panache, wasn’t lost on me.
What Resonates, What Lingers
Ten years later, what resonates from the period, and what lingers?
Unless you personally know someone in the military overseas, most Americans can barely pop their heads up from their iPhones to notice that we’re still at war. It takes movies like The Messenger, the even better Taking Chance, and the courageous The Tillman Story to remind us of the later sacrifices.
The government’s newest department, Homeland Security, is well established and has already abandoned its color-coded terror alerts like the USDA’s last nutritional campaign.
Saving you, dear reader, from the boring details of my account of that day–frantic calls to a sister in Brooklyn and family in DC–and the days following.
Here’s what resonates in my memory.
I remember sitting dazed in a boardroom at Barnes & Thornburg downtown with other board members of the Indianapolis Association of Wabash Men recounting the morning and wondering why the hell we all showed up to a meeting that day.
For days after, you could tell which cable networks were owned by which media conglomerate. ESPN showed ABC coverage, MTV showed CBS coverage, etc. Two of the only networks showing regular programming? The Cartoon Network and Comedy Central.
I remember that, at a time when all professional sports curtailed their contests in addition to many universities, Wabash and Wheaton Colleges decided to play that Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001, at Hollet Little Giant Stadium in Crawfordsville. C. Jemal Horton expressed it best in his Sunday Indianapolis Star column:
“You still can play the game. You still can cheer. You still can believe. Even during the worst of times. Even while you grieve. The 3,034 fans at Wabash College lived that on Saturday afternoon. They were living witnesses who weren’t about to let the shedding of red-white-and-blue blood go unremembered. And that meant everything, since Wabash decided to go against most of sports America and play its college football game with Wheaton College.
“Thank God they decided to play the game. God bless them for playing the game.
In one community, at least, people were able to forge a smile and not feel bad about it. They were able to look around and see people just like themselves—people who had to at least try to see if this day could be an infinitesimal step toward a healing process that could take years.”
After a while, my friends and I felt stir crazy, so we went to watch Zoolander. I still think that a desperation to just be entertained enhanced that movie quite a bit. When Saturday Night Live finally returned on Sept. 29, Lorne Michaels asked Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, “Can we be funny?” to which Rudi replied, “Why start now?” I think it was that point where we all felt that we could be funny again. (Funny how you can’t access that clip online. Hmmm.)
While a resurrected Bon Jovi song seemed to find the Millennials, for me, it was Billy Joel, not ’80s Joel mind you. “New York State of Mind” seemed to capture the mood perfectly along with the Ryan Adam’s serendipitous release of “New York, New York” with a video shot the Friday before the attacks with the WTC prominent in the background.
What lingers most for me is watching that first plane cross a sky completely erased of all contrails when air travel finally resumed. I just stopped, frozen, watching it traverse the azure backdrop as if I was a child, fixated on an object through the bars of the crib, across the room, out of reach.
But what really lingers is that magnetic American flag on my car. Yes, it’s the same car, then newly used and just bought, now, beaten up by time and hail and circumstance. When I get a new car (soon I hope), I’m transferring Old Glory to the new bumper. Everybody started the refrain “We will not forget” again this week, just like they did for Pearl Harbor and the Maine and the Alamo.
I surely know I won’t.