Another Kind of 9/11 Anniversary

I've been observing 9/11 for many years, as it's my birthday. It's also what kept me out of the World Trade Center on that day in 2001. Since being surprised by my family with a party several years before (and I truly, truly dislike surprise parties, believing they should be the the equivalent of a fireable offense for your family and friends), I decided the best course of action was to be on the road on my birthday. I've celebrated birthdays in parts of the Midwest where there is epsilon probability of surprise.

I have many strong memories of my birthday, and the week following it, in 2001. I was in Boston for a customer event, which we cancelled as the morning's tragedy unfolded. Our local marketing person had rented a car, so she and I jumped into it and drove about as fast as we could from Boston back to New Jersey, easily topping 100 MPH at some points. I will never forget crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge and seeing the smoke rising from lower Manhattan, visible all the way up the Hudson River. To this day, when I hear Billy Joel's "Miami 2017", the hair stands up on my neck, because many of the lyrics describe what it was like to see New York City burning.

I actually found out about the attacks when my wife called me that morning, moments after I had landed in Boston. My flight and the hijacked planes literally passed each other in the air. As the world discovered the news, it became nearly impossible to make phone calls on the east coast. I used the Sun internal phone system to call some folks in California, who were able to dial back to NJ and relay messages for me. Chalk one up for SunIT.

I spent most of the day leaving messages for my good friend Bob, terrified that he was in the WTC. Sadly, a customer of mine, two parents from our neighborhood, and one of my Princeton club mates were there and didn't make it out. While digging through old pictures this weekend, I found one of me dressed as Elwood Blues for a pseudo-talent show, and remembered that my Tiger friend was the one who convinced me that even if I couldn't sing, it would be funny.

When people ask me what I remember the most from that week, though, it's two extremes of life in and around New York. The first is that my sister was on business in Switzerland on 9/11, and she wasn't able to return to the States until that Saturday. Her flight was delayed nearly 8 hours, the limo company she had scheduled to pick her up never showed up (out of fear or confusion, we'll never know), so I sat in Newark Airport until just after midnight, having guessed she'd need a ride. After dropping her off, I drove back down the west side of Manhattan and through Times Square. At 1:00 AM, Times Square is busy any day of the week, especially on a Saturday night. That weekend, however, it was deserted -- the city that never sleeps wasn't really sleeping; it was in shock.

The other extreme is what happened that same Saturday morning. It was my one and only season of coaching youth soccer. The soccer board decided to hold the regularly scheduled games that weekend, intent on restarting the little cadences of our lives. Standing on the school fields, I saw the contrails of airplanes in the Newark airport flight path. It was the first time in five days there had been planes overhead, and I finally noticed the engine noise that we'd taken for granted nearly every other day of the year. Noise indicated normalcy returning.

The Baal Shem Tov wrote that the first time we see something, it's a miracle, then we call it nature, then we take it for granted. We don't always realize what is normal until the natural order of our lives is disrupted. What we should think then was best written by my top-ten favorite author Jodi Picoult: What if a miracle is not something that happens, but something that does not?

I'm hoping for a boring birthday, when I can be blessed by the miracles a Monday might not bring.


Happy brirthday, Hal. And stop by Phil's bench for me next time you're in BUR or MPK.

Posted by Geoff Arnold on September 10, 2006 at 06:38 PM EDT #

Happy Birthday Hal! I have to say, it was a long 6 hours waiting to hear that you had changed your travel plans that day and were in Boston rather than enroute to SFO. And Geoff--The bench looked good. Nice ray of sun coming thru the Honey Locust trees. No color yet, bright, clear blue sky. It was a good day today. LKR

Posted by Laura Ramsey on September 11, 2006 at 01:38 PM EDT #

Happy Birthday, Hal. Thought of you yesterday, and was glad that your travels kept you safe 5 years ago. Lovely post.

Posted by Claire Giordano on September 13, 2006 at 07:16 PM EDT #

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