SHIRLEY – Recalling the kind of seismic events that made headlines in the moment and history over time, from natural disasters to human triumphs and tragedies, most of us tend to place ourselves in retrospective orbit around them. Where were you when? What were you doing?
When JFK was assassinated. When WWII ended. When Covid-19 changed the world.
Caught in the grip of a pandemic, the virus lurking like a stealth bomber to devastate what it has already disrupted, those of us trying to weather this storm intact have altered our daily routines while waiting for a cure, a vaccine, meantime relying on personal protections, safety measures, protocols.
And the thing with feathers: HOPE.
I look forward to the day that we can all look back on this time and having learned from it, move on.
Isn’t that what survivors do?
I remember where I was, what I was doing on September 11, 2001.
It was a beautiful, early fall morning, brisk, breezy, clear. I was at Sears in Leominster.
I went there to buy a camera.
The store hadn’t been open long; it was eerily quiet, except for the sound coming from a TV, mounted above the counter in front of me, hear the entrance. It was the first thing I saw as I walked in. Store clerks were clustered around it.
The picture on screen simply couldn’t be real. Backdrop like a painting: bright sunshine, delft-blue sky.
I saw a plane fly straight at a set of skyscrapers, the World Trade Center’s iconic twin towers. In less than a heartbeat, it plowed into one of them, high up, near the top.
What looked like puffs of smoke stood out against the cloudless sky.
Then, a second plane hit the other tower.
An announcer’s voice confirmed that the impossible was true. And the on screen image was no replay.
This unthinkable thing was happening in real time. Here, in the United States. Now, in New York City. Later, we would learn that it was a terrorist attack and that two more planes had also been hijacked. One went down in a Pennsylvania field. The other crashed into a building at the Pentagon.
As we stood in silence, a small group of strangers in a department store, an event as disastrous as a volcano erupting but by no means natural was unfolding as we watched.
An accident? Enemy attack? The stunned news anchor seemed as clueless as his audience.
But those planes were not bombers. They looked like commercial aircraft.
Scared and bewildered, I turned to leave, noting only then the handful of other people behind me. Wordless, we all left the store. Outside, we turned to each other, as if waking from a dream.
Did anyone have any idea what had happened, what we had just seen? Nobody did, but we all knew where we were going. Home.
I called my husband at work. Should we round up the kids? Our daughter was at Lunenburg High, in lock down. Our son was at UMass, Amherst, in his dorm room. They were safe. We were all safe.
But others were not. Thousands of innocent people were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks– passengers on the hi-jacked jets, people at the crash scenes, in the destroyed buildings, on the street in Manhattan when the towers fell. Many of us who did not lose a friend, relative or loved one felt deeply for those who did, as victim’s names and where they came from rolled across our TV screens.
I think just above everyone in the country eventually saw the same scene I did that day, as it happened.
Time may distort details as a story is retold. But my in-the in-the-moment image of those planes crashing into the towers is imprinted in my memory.
Another day that stands out is January 28, 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded right after launch, killing its six-member crew, including Christa McAuliffe, a Concord, N.H. high school teacher who was the first private citizen NASA ever selected for a space mission.
Her parents, Grace and Ed Corrigan, watched from outdoor bleachers across from the launch site at Cape Canaveral as their daughter soared into space. And died in a fiery explosion, seconds later.
I saw it on TV, as it happened. We lived in Nashua then, where McAuliffe was a local celebrity.
My son was five years old, at home with me that morning, awaiting the space shuttle launch that he and his kindergarten classmates had been anticipating for weeks.
The kids had been talking about the “teacher in space” and the lesson she would teach from space. They would all be able to watch the launch, their teacher had promised, in the classroom or at home.
So there he was, my small son, earnest, eager, alert, kneeling in front of the TV, focused on the screen.
Still in his rocket ship PJs, he held his toy shuttle craft, “Columbia,” ready to lift off on cue.
I was behind him, watching with him as I ironed curtains. I think. Suddenly, his high-pitched voice demanded my undivided attention. “Mom…it blew up…Challenger blew up!”
Seconds later, the announcer’s voice, low, stentorian, said something akin to that. I was incredulous. No, it couldn’t be!
My son asked if the astronauts got out. Did they have parachutes? Was the teacher ok?
I don’t recall much about the rest of the day, or if he went to school later on. I do recall how upset he was, peppering me with questions, not all of which I could answer.
My son says his memory of that moment is sketchy, vague. It’s indelibly etched in mine.