I remember less and less about my initial 9/11 experience every year. I had barely started High School, which is an odd thought to consider, since it seems like I should have been much older. World changing events screw with your perception of time. They never seem too long ago, until you try and match it up with your actual life.
My first class in the morning was French. My routine consisted of putting my head down and napping until the bell rang and class started. The teacher usually had some morning show on, but once class was in session, he would turn it off and we would learn more numbers. On this day, he didn't. I looked up, and he was just letting us watch TV and talk amongst ourselves. I saw the World Trade Center on fire. I was a bit of a naive cynic then, and in a vain attempt to feel intellectual, I wrote it off as another disaster that I could disconnect from on an emotional level.
We had to watch for a few minute to see a replay of the actual plane colliding with the skyscraper. Even then, I had grown accustomed to the monthly news cycle of disasters. Every couple of years, there would be a cycle about a plane that had gone down, usually in the ocean, and we would all wait for the black box verdict. That's exactly what I thought it was; just another accident.
It wasn't until the second plane hit that I really understood it as an attack, and not a highly unlikely freak accident. In truth, I wasn't even really aware of the World Trade Center as a building, let alone an important one. I didn't understand the scope, size, or symbolism of it. If you had asked me on the 10th I would have guessed it was just a place in New York. There was a lot I didn't understand, and the gravity escaped me for the first few hours.
My next clear memory is sitting on the bleachers, with everyone else, during Physical Education. The thing about PE in the first few weeks of school is that you don't actually get to do anything. We were waiting for uniforms so in the mean time we just sat in the bleachers for an hour. It was boring and nice at the same time. I buried my head in my arms and knees, thinking about the day, and occasionally turning to the sky. It was overcast and grey. Then I would put my head down again. Mostly, I retraced one line of thought: Well, that's it, then. Things are going to be different now. We're going to war. I'm going to be living through war time soon.
That was always the main worry for me. I didn't feel like I was witnessing history, or that I was part of a special generation. I was just worried, and being a child, my first thought was World War III. I was terrified of Nostrodamus TV specials predicting a war in 1999 and I thought, surely, this had to be it, this is step one to the end of the world. From my relative comfort on the opposite coast, I wasn't afraid or paranoid. I just kept ruminating on how earth sucked because things like this happen.
These were all just weird, vague feelings that some 13 year old kid was trying to grasp, because he knew he should be grasping them, but he didn't have enough societal knowledge to really digest it. He knew it was important, but his idea of important was actually too small. He knew it was tragic, but he didn't know how to apply it to that scale. He knew he should be worried, but he didn't know where to direct it.
The rest of the school day was a blur. There were little bits and pieces of chatter. Some teachers would have their TV on. One muted it and continued to teach her class until President George W. Bush appeared on screen. She turned up the volume and we paused: "Freedom was attacked, and freedom will be defended." It was just a short line at a podium, and he left instantly. I could have sworn that was going to be the line that would be remembered, the one that would be in the textbooks next year. The "a day that will live in infamy" for a new generation.
It turned out it wasn't. There was a lot of trying to guess the historical context of everything that day. I was slowly understanding just how big the moment was every hour by reading the reaction of the adults. I think my teachers were a frame of reference for the severity. The second frame of reference, when I got home, was the media. It was on every channel but Nickelodeon, which was a huge deal because nothing had so unanimously dominated the news since the OJ Simpson trial. Even during that, they left the cable networks untouched.
It says a lot about me, and maybe my generation, that I was seeing catastrophe but only really understood the scope when it dominated my after school entertainment screen. I was even surprised to hear them talking about it on KROQ in the car ride home.
I want to say spending the rest of the day glued to the television set is when it "really kicked in," but it kept "kicking in" every hour. New footage would come out, wide angles of the crash, and it my mind's conception of the event would get a little wider, a little colored-in. Then the stories of the firefighters, or the victims, or the passengers that fought back on the 4th plane. The pictures of the jumpers still get to me. I try not to look at those.
There's a memory in there about watching civilians, I think in Afghanistan, celebrating the attacks. My initial reaction was, "Well, I guess war's not so bad." But it felt strange, so I turned to the internet for perspective, which acted like a weird equalizer of my youth. I had bulletin boards and discussion forums, and came to understand it as images of dumb people suckered in my propaganda. I didn't want to like war, and I didn't like these feelings that wanted to see war visited upon those kids on the TV screen. So at 13, I internalized it this way: they really don't know any better. They're just blind to their government and society's propaganda. Our propaganda tells us to drink Pepsi. Their propaganda tells them to hate us.
I thought about Mr. Tanaka, my 8th grade history teacher, and how just the year before he was telling us our generation had no defining moment. It was boring, uneventful, we had nothing noteworthy or galvanizing or important about us. I really wished I was back there, just to hear what he had to say. He was someone I held in high regard, and maybe I wanted him to tell me how to feel about all of this.
My last recollection from that day is lying in bed and listening to Loveline with Adam Carolla & Dr. Drew, as I did nearly every night at 10 PM. They took 9/11 calls all night. A girl called in to tell the story of her cousin, in the tower, who made one final call using a satellite phone. Although that's a noticeable coincidence to think about now, I prefer not to think that someone lied to get on a late night radio show on that day.
Ten years isn't really a long time. I'm still lucky enough to be at a point where most of my life isn't in the post-9/11 era. That's going to change in 5 years, but until then, I can still identify with a time before our greatest American tragedy. I can still identify with a time when security wasn't such a dominant specter, when we didn't know what it was like to be collectively taken to the edge and back, and when wars were a thing that happened in the past.