By Molly English-Bowers
The most urgent issue I faced on 9- 11 was making sure the paper got out the door by 5 p.m. That the first plane hit just before 9 a.m. made an eight-hour work day even more difficult in an industry dictated by deadlines, and our normal production day of Tuesday worsened quickly. With nonstop coverage on the office television (poor reception and all), I had to ramp up my normal role of office taskmaster. And that meant any reflection on the news of the day would have to wait. Talk about delayed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder!
The fall semester at Syracuse University was less than three weeks old, and the three editorial department interns could not be consoled—they stood, watching TV, sobbing and getting nothing done. A former staffer, who shall remain nameless, was no help, his normally distractable demeanor exacerbated to the max by a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Now I don’t want to sound coldhearted but it’s nigh on impossible to make deals with the deadline devil. While I understood the world seemed to be coming to an end, I also knew that if the paper left late, I would be held accountable. The buck has to stop with someone and, even on 9-11, it came to rest atop my desk.
I remember making the decision that we couldn’t run Joe Glisson’s comic that week because it just didn’t feel right to put anything lighthearted in the front of the paper. I thought about placing a black box over the space Glisson’s work normally occupied, but that felt artificial. We filled it with an extra letter to the editor. Other than that decision, I don’t remember much, workwise, about the day except that the paper did leave on time.
Personally, I emailed my husband—not yet at work—to “TURN ON THE TELEVI- SION!”—because in those days of dialup phone lines were always busy. I remember the father of my two children calling me, asking if we should get them at school. I didn’t think it was wise to disrupt their already confusing day by doing so. “I highly doubt Osama bin Laden cares about two Catholic schools in East Syracuse,” I told him. Funny how I knew it was bin Laden who had done this. I don’t know how I knew that exactly, but remembering his 1993 attempt to bring down the North Tower with a parking garage bomb, I guess I just put two and two together. “He hates us,” I told him.
While I understand that the television coverage of that day was history in the making, I didn’t really want my children— then 12 and 9—watching such a momen tous disaster apart from me. I knew they would be scared, and maternal instinct told me that if they were scared it should be with me there to try to comfort them. As it was, Tuesday meant Mom couldn’t leave work early, so they were left to deal with a lot of this on their own.
Do I remember talking to them about it? Not in a formal way. It certainly was discussed, and I have always answered my kids’ questions, I just don’t remember being asked a direct question and then supplying a knowing answer. Maybe they did ask, but I certainly felt as helpless in the knowledge department as they did. How do you explain to a 9-year-old boy, who just spent a summer playing Little League, that not everyone likes America, that, in fact, we are so hated that some Middle Eastern bad guy spent a lot of time and logistics planning to kill thousands of Americans?
In my house, he clearly felt the impact of 9/11 more overtly than his big sister, which is odd, since he has always been the more stoic one. I’m sure it didn’t help my children feel safer that we were glued to Peter Jennings and ABC News every night (at the time, Tom Brokaw anchored the NBC nightly newscast, and I’ve just never been a fan), getting our 30-minute fill at the end of the workdays and schooldays. It seems we just soldiered on, even though I remember struggling to sleep when the reality of what had happened really took hold.
Just last week I asked each of my children what they remember from that day.
Georgia Keene, now 22, had just started junior high at Bishop Grimes. An avid reader, she devoured the Saddle Club series of books, all focused on girls and their horses (we used to tease her that the plot of each book was the same—a girl falls off, and then gets back on, her horse). “I didn’t know what the Twin Towers were,” she says now. “I thought they were talking about the twin towers at Churchill Downs.”
She remembers being scared that day:
“I thought there were more planes coming and that there were more targets. I had no idea what the World Trade Center was, and I didn’t know who Osama bin Laden was, but my teachers were very helpful. They cleared up some misconceptions for us. There was one class where the teacher didn’t have the TV on, and that pissed me off. We felt that something kind of important was going on, and the other teachers were watching TV with us.”
Will Keene, now 19, was the rightfieldplaying boy whose elementary school innocence was snatched that day (or at least that’s how I saw it). He was in fourth grade at St. Matthew’s School, and he reports that the teachers did not turn on any televisions. He says that rumors were flying around the cafeteria that someone “blew up bombs at the World Trade Center. Finally it came out that people thought planes hit, and then they called us to the church and told us there.”
Will reports he was allowed to leave school early (though I don’t remember that), and his stepfather picked him up. “I asked him if it was safe to play outside, and he said he wasn’t sure,” Will says. “So I went next door and finally saw what had happened on TV. I don’t remember my emotions. And I didn’t understand then why the terrorists did what they did; I think that’s a little beyond a 9-year-old.”
he seemed the most affected member of the family. A few days after the
planes hit, and with the skies over Syracuse empty of jetplanes (an odd
lack of sound, if ever there was one), Will came to me. “Mom, do you
have my blue blankie, the one I slept with when I was a baby?” Of course
I did! I pulled it out of the linen closet, handed it to him, and he
proceeded to put it on his bed. I don’t remember how long he slept with
that comfort from his infancy, but I do remember being profoundly
touched by his need for it. He tells me he doesn’t remember asking for