Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Ten years ago


Ten years ago today, my alarm clock radio awoke me to a report that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. My immediate thought was, “Oh, come on. Please. Not falling for that.” Because, given the alarmed tenor of the broadcast, I assumed that this was the latest attempt to duplicate Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” fake radio broadcast. It wasn’t until I tried to get on the internet and every news site I tried was overloaded with traffic and utterly inaccessible that I decided that something big must be up, and so switched on the television, and saw what everyone else everywhere saw:  orchestrated pandemonium and the sight of one of the towers on fire, with a large smoking black grease stain on one side.

That sight reminded me of the failed attack some years previously to the base of the trade center, and I already had a sinking feeling. I called each of my employees at home and told them to stay home. I also called my nephew and told him that I thought he should come spend the day with us, just in case, and did the same with a close friend. They both came over. My wife and I performed a quick mental checklist of our provisions, again, just in case. No one was sure what was going on or what was going to happen. I found myself thinking about nuclear weapons for the first time since the Carter Administration, when tensions between the Soviets and the U.S. had been at a periodic height.

At some point in all this, a plane hit the second tower, and at some point after that, first the first tower, and then the second, fell into atomized dust.

My nephew came over and we took my kids to the park a few blocks from my house. His cellphone rang, and it was my brother with the news that the original pilot of that second plane had been Victor, my brother’s friend since high school, his best friend, in some ways his only friend. My nephew was struck by the experience of hearing his very level-headed, competent, well-put-together father completely broken down over the phone. Nobody knew what to say. I certainly didn’t.

We also didn’t know what to expect. Were we at war? Who was the enemy? What was next? This was obviously some small coordinated attack, but what would follow it, from them or from us? Like everyone else, I made a mad dash for the supermarket and bought oversized dispensers of water and canned goods and batteries.

A couple of nights later, we got the first  inkling of what the American mood would become, as our pleasant, peaceful suburban neighborhood was transformed into a third-world backwater with cars and pickup trucks adorned with jingoistic bumper stickers and signs about Arabs and Muslims and ragheads driving up and down in the night flying  flags and honking horns, their drivers hooting and  hollering through open windows. My wife was at work. My friend and I kept the kids inside and talked about the Wallace Shawn play “The Designated Mourner,” which concerns a junta taking over a society too much like our own.

It’s been said that what became known as “9-11” changed everything. Well, as the phrase “the butterfly effect” reminds us, everything changes everything. But 9-11 certainly changed everything for me. It’s my rage at the illegitimate Bush Administration’s completely wrong response that drove me more deeply into politics and ultimately led me to the several political roles I’ve held since then. But even more importantly there’s this:

One morning the month after the attacks, all the power went down here in Burbank. I found a battery-powered radio (and if you asked me now where to find a battery-powered radio in this house, I couldn’t tell you) and turned it on to hear an alert informing me that authorities were investigating the source of the outage, but that under no condition should parents go pick up their children, repeat, parents should leave their children in their schools. I turned to my wife and said, “I’m going to go get our kids.” I imagined a traffic snarl as every other parent tried to drive to their school to pick up their own children, so I decided to walk. Before I left, though, another broadcast came on saying that it turned out a car had hit a power box, that this emphatically was not a terrorist attack, and that power would be restored — and then, rather soon, power was restored. Our kids were safe and we were safe, at least for this one day, we had somehow survived again, against the backdrop of constant thoughts that surely Los Angeles would be next to be attacked, and my wife and I collapsed into each other with relief, and, it turned out, made another child right then.

So, yes, I have a September 11 baby. He’s now 9.

I share all this today in an effort to document the moment, 10 years ago, when we all wondered if everything was coming to an end. In some ways, we are still in that moment. In retrospect, the 90’s were a paradise, especially in the United States. I remember my brother, the same brother who just a few years later was to lose his friend to fiends who slit his throat and took over his plane and flew it into a building, telling me that overall things in the country looked good. It was true, and I’m glad he said that, so I could lodge that memory. Since then, we’ve fought at least one and probably two and maybe three wars that we didn’t need to (Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan); our economy has collapsed or nearly collapsed several times; and we’ve entered an era where every single move by our political leadership seems made and judged through the spectrum of political gain or loss, rather than improvement to the common good. Nine-eleven definitively capped off the period of good feeling from the previous decade. Since then, every day has been filled with lingering dread, with only the most recent peer over the cliff engendered by the utterly contrived crisis of the debt-ceiling increase.

What’s to come? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. The pendulum of history does swing, but Americans seem unsure if it’s going to swing back for us, or if it is, when. Nine-eleven was more than an occasion when two jets were flown into two buildings. It was an assault on the exposed belly of America, and we’ve been bleeding from it ever since.

2 Responses to “Ten years ago”

  1. Joe Says:

    Between the stories of Victor, your nephew, and your children – born and yet to be born – your story solidifies how intense the memories of 9/11 comes to me. I said then…and say now…the world, my world, and that of my friends…will never EVER be the same again. I will say this for future hopes, those in the midst of the Revolution in July of 1776, say, in Philadelphia…could never have foreseen how great our country would become, thus we cannot foresee how great the years to come will be. That’s what gives me hope.

  2. Rideaux Baldwin Says:

    I have been, intentionally, avoiding the news today, because I didn’t want to rip apart the scar tissue that has healed by reliving the one time in my life that I can say I went into shock. But I read your blog, and it is just enough reflection and thoughtfulness and never goes into the self-flagellation that the media has built up for a few weeks now. I don’t know anyone personally who died, but we lost three co-workers from Boeing on two of the flights, and my department was in charge of the widows benefits. I remember that one woman was pregnant. And I also remember that the cause of death of their death certificates was “Death by Total Obliteration.”

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