On the morning of September 11 2001, I was sitting in my kitchen, feeding my then three-year-old son, Kipp, breakfast. We had a pretty standard routine then: my wife walked in the morning and I fed the kid and prepared to go to the office. Very mundane.
Kipp liked to watch a cartoon on the local public television station while he ate his breakfast cereal. Before he came down to breakfast I’d usually catch the news somewhere up the dial on our old kitchen television.
I remember that morning I was watching the local news, and Kipp came down, sat on a stool in our kitchen and started eating cereal. He asked to watch “Dragon Tales” on Channel Two, so I reached across the island and punched the button on my wife’s old college television set from channel nine to channel two.
As I hit the down button a few times, somewhere around channel four something caught my eye. I think it was the words “plane crash” typed on the screen and the clear indications that some of the stations had moved to a live telecast of an unfolding event. It was a wide shot of the twin towers in New York, with smoke just billowing out of one of the columns.
Initially, for perhaps thirty seconds, the morning television news hosts said that a “small plane” had crashed into one of the towers. They were as confused as everyone else, but as the seconds passed it became clear that the situation was much more dire than just a small plane tagging the building. Clearly a large plane had hit the building mid-staff. In what seemed just a minute later, helicopter footage showed floors of the tower in flames. People hung on ledges, pleading for help, while at the same time trying to cover their mouths with cloth to filter the smoke. And the footage also showed people jumping from cloud-like levels to escape the fire.
My mind raced. I remembered that my good friend Margaret worked very near the World Trade Center Towers in Manhattan. It was early morning; she is an early morning person. I raced to my computer, found her work address and tried to figure out where she would be if she were at work in relation to the tower.
I think in the time that I walked away I heard my wife walk in from her jaunt. I walked back to the kitchen and we stood silent as the second plane hit the second tower. I turned around and ran for my address book again on my home office desk, found Margaret’s work phone number and dialed her direct line.
Margaret’s work number went to voice mail. I waited for the beep and then tried to speak calmly. With the phone on a long cord I was watching these unspeakable events unfold on television at the same time. People screaming, people jumping, people running. Emotions took over mid-message and I finished the voice mail by simply crying into the phone for her to get out. “Just get the f*ck out, now, if you hear this, get out.”
I ran back to the kitchen and used that room’s phone to call her office line again, hoping to catch her. It quickly spun to her voice mail, again. I punched zero this time, and kept punching zero until a voice came on the line.
It was a security guard who said he was in the basement of her building. He sounded like a young kid, twenties. I asked for Margaret. He said the phone lines were overloaded and no one could get through to any of the desks “upstairs”.
I cut him off and asked him if he was aware of what was going on outside. He started a long version of “not really, they won’t give us a TV down here but I can hear sirens”. I again cut him off, telling him in quick sentences what was going on. The trade center buildings have been hit by hijacked jumbo jets. The buildings are on fire. This is not good at all.
Can you get out? I asked as I watched as the top of the first tower became engulfed in flames and smoke.
The security guard said that someone was telling them to stay in the building. They were advised not to leave the safety of the building.
I spoke as clearly as possible to him. I am watching this on television and I think you need to get the f*ck out of there now, I said, and tell everyone you see to do the same. Get out now.
He said something unintelligible in response and the line went dead.
I walked back to the TV. Further news came in like machine gun fire: the second trade center was burning up from the inside, another commercial airliner had crashed in Pennsylvania, and another hijacked jet had hit the Pentagon. It was overwhelmingly horrific to watch, even from thousands of miles away and from the security of my kitchen.
As the first tower collapsed, I was overcome with a million different emotions, rage being near the top. I put my face right next to the screen of our little kitchen television, focal point of so many wonderful dad and child conversations between me and my youngest son (That Org, he’s always got something in his pouch, doesn’t he?) and screamed as loud as I could, WHAT THE F*CK IS GOING ON?!?”
I then looked over at Kipp, who sat and watched all of this, slowly spooning cereal into his mouth. He was riveted.
I stood there and watched the carnage for another few minutes, not wanting to believe and at the same time not able to turn it off. Then I found the power button, turned the television off and tried to call my eldest son on the phone. Was this Armageddon? Who knew?
I then walked out onto the porch and wondered what life would be like now.
Days passed. I found Margaret through her mom in Ohio and discovered she had been able to get through the doors of her building and walk home to Brooklyn. I talked to her a few days later, and one thing she said will stay with me for the rest of my days because it sums up the naked horror of 9-11 so well. She said that after the first plane hit, she and her co-workers had gathered by the windows facing the World Trade Centers on their floor, all trying to discern what had happened. She recalled “When I saw a pair of jeans float down from the sky, on fire, I knew that it was bad.”
Personally I found 9-11 very difficult to understand and come to terms with in the months afterwards. I am at my core a very simple man. My forefathers, for centuries, lifted things for a living, clawed their way through life and drank beer in halls in France and England, rough and tumble. 9-11 overwhelmed my ability to comprehend. I could not think about the scenes of 9-11 without becoming more enraged than ever before in my life. My head pounded, I was unable to sleep, I dreamed of slaughtering everyone who had caused such a mindless act to happen. It wasn’t just a dream. It was a frequent fantasy.
Something my good friend Tim Huntington said to me on 9-11 stayed with me, though. He said that as a former citizen of the UK, terrorism had been a factor in his life since birth, and that he theorized that one thing one might want to consider is the reasons why terrorists do what they do. I could never empathize with any terrorists, but it helped, slightly, to try to understand these people. They are madmen.
I went to Europe in late September, flying from Minneapolis to Amsterdam on a KLM night flight. I stayed awake all night, waiting for something to happen, for someone to hijack the plane. I was not alone. I looked around at one point and saw numerous 40-year-old white guys constantly scanning the plane, presumably all for the same reason. When I touched ground on this, my at least 15th trip to Europe in my life, I was met with overflowing gestures of condolence and friendship from Europeans. Renatta Nosetto, the World Superbike press officer, met me in the paddock at Imola and said, in such a quiet voice, that on behalf of all Europeans, she wanted to me to know how sorry they were for what had happened.
It seemed surreal, but Colin Edwards II saw me standing on the pit lane and walked out of his Honda garage at Imola during second practice or qualifying, I can’t remember which. He held his helmet in his hands and his crew stood behind him not understanding why he wasn’t going out like all the other riders. We talked about 9-11, as bikes passed us in the pit lane. He paid them no mind, ignoring that the session was a timed one. He had not been home for the entire 2001 season and wanted to know what had happened from an American’s standpoint. For much of that conversation we simply stared at each other, with his Honda mechanics patiently waiting for him to go out and ride.
Weeks turned into months, and months into a year. I gained a small sense of peace about 9-11, thankful that my good friend had been so lucky as to get out when she did. I came to believe that the struggle against madmen is built on the backs of glorified laborers like myself, trying as best they can to do the right things every day. I truly believe that somewhere in the Middle East my counterpart lives essentially the same life that I do, trying to do meaningful and rewarding work, raise good kids and pushing hard to stay optimistic about the world his kids will some day inherit. I see crazy people every day on television, filmed in the streets of America, just as I see crazy people on television filmed in the streets of the Middle-East. I think there are crazy people everywhere, just as there are people trying to do the right thing, it’s just that the latter never end up on television.
For my son, Kipp, 9-11 seemed to pass as just a bumpy day in the life of a three-year old. That fall he played in the street, learned to ride a motorcycle and solidified a friendship with his next-door neighbor, Riley. I never gave a second thought to if or how 9-11 had impacted “little Kipper” as his older brother used to call him. He never ever mentioned anything about it. Our breakfast routine quickly fell back into place.
I think it was the following October–over a year later–I was idly sitting in my living room watching C-SPAN on television and reading a magazine at the same time. C-SPAN showed a vote being taken in the House or Senate.
Kipp walked past me, through the living room on his way to the basement or the kitchen, but stopped and backtracked to the TV. He sat and watched the proceedings for a minute or so, his face right below the images on the screen.
“Is that the government?” he asked.
Well, yes, I said. How to explain the proceedings of a House voting session to a four year old?
Kipp nodded his head knowingly, and then turned his little blonde-haired head to the living room TV, putting his face right in front of the screen. He then screamed at the top of his lungs, “WHAT THE F*CK IS GOING ON?”
He then wordlessly walked out of the room, on his way to play in the basement.