For the second time I’m watching a September 11th memorial service on television from outside US borders. The first time was the on September 11, 2002 and I was at a backpacker’s lodge in Hermanus, South Africa. I was one of perhaps two or three Americans in a group of the usual mixture of nationalities, but also a half-dozen local South African fisherman who were just in town off their boats in the Indian Ocean-side town. We were lounging in the common kitchen and TV room, chatting about typical backpacker stuff, sharing kitchen space and joking around, when a documentary, “9/11”, hosted by Robert DeNiro, quietly came onto the TV. (If you haven’t seen this film – CBS is going to air it again tonight. It’s amazing.) Little by little conversations dwindled, sentences hung mid-air unfinished, as our attentions turned towards the screen. Quickly the room grew silent as we watched this movie, a documentary about the first days of a young firefighter’s career in lower Manhattan, replay the events as they unfolded. Even the tough-guy fishermen quit their chatter and focused on the images instead. At the end, and during the movie, the people in the room of other nationalities walked by the few present Americans and touched our shoulders, offered kind words or even gave a hug, and their actions weren’t weird or untoward; I have never felt such general understanding and caring simply for being an American.
So now I’m in Colombia, and we’re watching the memorial service on TV again. I can’t say that the 9-11 events directly spurred me to this career, really. But in July of 2001, I started to plan a trip around the world knowing that there had to be something more for me “out there” than simply staying in Snohomish County as a riding instructor. My mother and step-father were on vacation in France on September 11, sharing a country house with friends. Confused and shocked by the reports they were hearing, they took turns trying to translate the international news and began to fathom what was happening 3000 miles away. Being on the west coast, I woke up after the first plane had already hit the first tower, and was on the phone with my sister Eden in California, trying to make sense of what we were seeing on the morning news. Together on the phone, we watched the second plane hit the second tower and spontaneously shrieked in horror at what we were watching. That day, and for a week or so after, strangers would just stop and talk to each other in the grocery store. It didn’t feel weird if someone you didn’t know reached out and touched you or gave a hug. Although I hadn’t yet met Tim or the kids, we were at the memorial site at the Seattle Center at the same time days after the attacks, reading the notes and seeing the mounds of flowers, candles and stuffed animals that people were leaving alongside the International Fountain.
I can’t say that I knew anyone who died that day. I haven’t felt the deep pain that so many thousands feel still today of having lost someone close. The closest I can say is that an Irish friend was in the first airplane, only minutes away from landing at JFK, which was turned away and sent to Nova Scotia. She stayed at the Halifax airport, and then in the home of local Canadians who opened their doors to stranded travelers, before eventually being returned to London and then Dublin well over a week later. Living in the opposite corner of the country, we certainly felt the events, but not to a shadow of a degree of what the folks in NY, DC and PA felt, obviously.
My mother and Herman came back to Seattle after their vacation and weeks later my mother, once a proponent of my plans, said, “Oh you’re still not planning to go on that trip are you? Really!” Yes, I was. It was on that trip, when I realized that I could become an example, outside of our borders, of what I believe are the best of American values and beliefs, which solidified my drive to be here today.