I was at the commissary that morning. Or the grocery store, for the non-military types. I was about halfway done shopping when I overheard a couple of people say the entrance to Ft. Bragg had been closed. Slightly interesting, but not really. Then I began to hear things other than music on the speakers in the store. A news program talking about buildings being on fire. I noticed that other people started to look like they were in a hurry, and a little nervous. I asked the cashier what was going on, and all she knew was that the World Trade Center was on fire. I was a little more interested, but not really worried.
I got in the car and turned on the radio. That's when I knew it was bad. That was the first time I'd heard anything about an airplane, though it was still assumed it was a horrible accident.
Apparently, Ft. Bragg wasn't buying the accident theory. As soon as I drove out of the commissary parking lot, I saw the tanks. Two or three of them. Blocking the entrance to post. Tanks don't even have to be manned or operational to be a bit overwhelming to see. As cliche as it may be, they actually do "loom broodingly," and "stare menacingly," and "threaten destruction." That's when I started to worry.
By that time, aside from the tanks, there had been no mass reaction quite yet. The traffic was ordinary for a weekday morning. I lived only 10 minutes from post, and I was speeding plenty enough for a nice, fat ticket, so I still had enough time to put the groceries away, turn on the Today Show, and see the second plane hit.
That's when I grabbed the car keys.
The boys were in school. Jake was 3 weeks into 1st grade and Andrew in preschool. I already hated it. The first day I sent them to school, I hated it. It just wasn't what I wanted for them, but up until then, I didn't have the knowledge or the strength to find any alternatives.
Their school was 10 minutes away. Right across the street from the commissary. By the time I decided to go get them, the streets were at a standstill. It took me 2 hours to get to my children. Another 2 hours to get home.
I don't remember whether I talked to Sarge that day or not. I don't think he came home from work. That day or the next. They were on lockdown. All of Ft. Bragg was on lockdown. For weeks. Up until then, Sarge had been in the Army for 7 years and had never deployed. Aside from training and smaller operations, there had been no large scale combat deployments until 09/11. There was no concern about that. No one worried or even considered it a possibility that our soldiers would ever have to go anywhere where there was actually a WAR. It was unconscionable.
It was pure luck that he got orders to South Korea 3 months later. Because his unit also got orders to Iraq. Sarge got his orders first. We took the boys out of school and went to South Korea.
That was the last time my kids saw the inside of a classroom.
And honestly? It felt good just to get the fuck out of the States for a while. It wasn't because I didn't love my country. But it had become stifling. "Nine Eleven" was quickly becoming a rallying cry. We were Remembering The Alamo all over again. Sound bytes were being made. Political platforms were being built out of disaster and tragedy. T-shirts were being sold. Money was being donated and unscrupulously disappearing. Country music had an orgasm.
Sarge and I actually did have every intention of sending the boys back to school after our tour in the ROK was over.
Until we got back.
There wasn't even a discussion really. Sarge and I just knew. Our boys did not belong on that path. So we paved our own. It wasn't the first time we'd marred the map of normalcy. Nor would it be the last.
Sarge deployed to Iraq about a month after we moved back to Bragg. His unit was already there, so he inprocessed Bragg and left to join them.
He came home. And deployed to Afghanistan a year or so later.
He came home. And went back to Iraq a couple years later.
In that time, I discovered what it was like to wonder if I am a widow. Whether or not my kids would have a daddy the next time the phone rang. Whether that car in my driveway was just lost, or had a purpose. I discovered what it is like to have your high-school sweetheart change into a man who has lost a young soldier he was responsible for. And a best friend a few years later. Who has seen things he will never tell you about, and things you will never ask him about. I saw him become a hero he would have given everything he owned not to be.
In my mind, when I think back on September 11, 2001, there is a very bold line drawn across the timeline of our lives. A very smudgy and messy erasing of innocence. The sense of relative safety Americans were afforded because of our geographic isolation was shattered. The status quo my generation was gifted, needing only to be maintained, was snatched away. Parents lost children. Children lost parents. Husbands, wives, friends.
Political and social dumbassery ensued. A malignant undercurrent of fear and suspicion, perpetuated by voters and carried out by lawmakers, seethed toward anyone who wasn't quite white enough and wasn't quite black enough. And woe to anyone who didn't wear the right clothes at an airport.
Whether it was on 09/11/2001, or as a result of the events that day, shit happened that none of us were ready for, and that none of us had any experience dealing with.
In a matter of 10 minutes, all the rules had changed.
Eleven years later, we still can't have any liquids over 3.4 ounces in our carry-on luggage. Liquid must be evil. And muslim. One of my kids is about to register for his first college classes. After 4 deployments, Sarge is less than 2 years away from retirement. In that time, we have gained a lot. Lost a lot. Grew up a lot. And, most importantly, we have learned what is really important and what just doesn't fucking matter.
I remember what I was doing 11 years ago. The only other days I remember that way are the day my sister died, the day I got married, the days my children were born, and yesterday.
And I know how lucky I am. I know exactly how luck I am.