James Stafford remembers the World Trade Center attack and its aftermath with a playlist.
This year marks the twelfth anniversary of the fall of the Twin Towers. The attack was a landmark event for Americans, one of those “where were you” moments that comes along every few decades. We all have our own stories of what we were doing, how we were impacted, etc. I personally am lucky not to have been directly affected: I lost no friends or loved ones either in the attack or the resulting wars, nor am I one of the many first responders who survived the chaos only to deal with chronic illness.
But I was affected nonetheless, we all were. Music helps me organize my thoughts, so here’s my September 11 story told through a playlist:
“I’m Real,” Jennifer Lopez featuring Ja Rule: Jenny from the Block was on top of the Billboard charts that day, and I was in Hilton Head, South Carolina at a conference. The mood of that conference matched the country’s mood at that time: relaxed, fun, ambitious. That weekend was a big party, and we all dragged ourselves into Monday morning’s keynote address a little worse for the wear, ready to learn all sorts of great secrets about being even more successful.
“Burnin’ Sky,” Bad Company: General announcements were made, and the keynote speaker took the stage. Another man gently pushed him aside and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we just got a report that a plane has hit the World Trade Center. I think it would be best if we took a little break so that you can check on your families and friends. We’ll reconvene after lunch.”
Most people didn’t bother to go back to their hotels. We huddled in the resort’s empty bar, turned on the televisions and watched the coverage. Some complained about what this was going to do to their travel plans, others speculated on the nature of the accident. The second plane hit, and that’s when we realized what was really happening. The bar fell silent, and we watched the sky burn.
“America,” Bert Sommer: We were lost in America, this group of strangers in a bar on Hilton Head Island. Moments earlier all we had in common was the topic of the conference that we all traveled to attend. Now we were stranded and terrified. How would we get home? What was the next target? Some cried, most poked furiously at their cellphones, trying to get through.
Everything took a sharp focus: patriotism, love, life, death, obligation. We watched helplessly as those poor people leaped to escape the flames. We didn’t know them, but we did. They were our friends, mothers, brothers, sisters, children. They were Americans doing everyday American things, just like we were, and just like that everything changed.
“Let’s Roll,” Neil Young: Reports came in both from Washington D.C. and Flight 93. Sitting in a bar way down the Eastern seaboard the whole thing now felt completely unreal, like a bad dream. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to those passengers on Flight 93 who managed to get word via cellphone of what was going on. They knew their fate. Passenger Todd Beamer’s last overheard words, “let’s roll,” preceded their heroic effort to take back the plane from their hijackers. They diverted an attack on the United States Capitol but lost their lives in the effort.
We knew something amazing happened on Flight 93 while we sat there in the safety of a Hilton Head resort. A field in Pennsylvania obviously was not a target. I still get a knot in my stomach just thinking about it.
“Can’t Find My Way Home,” Blind Faith/Steve Winwood: All I wanted was to be home with my family. Nothing else mattered anymore. My mind scrambled. The airports will be locked down, all the rental cars will be taken. Maybe a U-Haul. I’ll drive cross country in an empty U-Haul. Anything to get back to my family. Anything to find my way home.
“Helden (Heroes),” David Bowie. Heroism came in many forms that day, from the passengers of Flight 93 to the first responders, to the thousands of citizens who rolled up their sleeves and helped. Some were just passersby, others were trapped in the wreckage of the Pentagon and the Twin Towers.
And it wasn’t just American citizens. Countries all over the globe offered assistance, condolence, support. Whatever talking head was babbling on the bar’s television commented that the world was forever changed, and I remember thinking, “No, what’s changed is that America is now part of the world, and look how compassionate that world can be.”
“New York State of Mind,” Billy Joel. “We were all New Yorkers” is a cliche, but that’s exactly what it felt like. A week after the attack I was finally able to board a plane back to my home in California. My fellow passengers looked at me and I looked at them. We sized each other up, looking more for allies than enemies. People smiled and were courteous, making every effort to assure each other that we were safe.
I asked for an in-flight magazine. “Why do you want one?” the flight attendant asked me.
“I want to do the crossword puzzle.”
“We took them all off the plane,” she whispered. “There was a photo of the World Trade Center inside.”
Later that night we passed a city, its sprawl of lights flickering beneath us. I asked the flight attendant what city it was. “Why do you want to know?” she asked. How close to home were we? How close was I to my family? “I’ll have to ask the captain if I can give you that information,” she said.
We were all in a New York state of mind, ready to roll.
“Scarecrow,” Ministry. Once the dust settled and the initial shock wore off, the anger set in. Who did this? Why? The villain’s photo made the rounds: tall, thin, a bearded scarecrow in a robe. He spoke calmly, unlike the villains I’d always known, no screaming or wild gesticulations. He didn’t even wear a uniform.
I felt confused and ignorant. I knew nothing of Osama Bin Laden or al-Qaeda.
“Let’s Have a War,” Fear: The language of fear and paranoia angered me. Talk of evil-doers and verbal bear traps like “you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists” made me doubt motivations. An American hero embarrassed himself in front of the United Nations, tarnishing an otherwise distinguished record of public service. We knew who the bad guy was, and he wasn’t in Iraq. The march to war felt like a tumble down a bizarre rabbit hole.
Let’s have a war / Jack up the Dow Jones. I tracked Haliburton stock prices daily until I grew too depressed watching the little graph climb higher and higher.
“(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” Elvis Costello: Here we are, twelve years later. I’m in my home now, my kids almost grown. I love them dearly. Since that day on Hilton Head Island I’ve valued every moment with them in a way that I don’t know I would have otherwise. Life is so fragile.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone who witnessed those events of a dozen years past could wish for anything less than peace, love and understanding, but here we are again on the brink of war. I think I’ll go play XBox with my boy and give my daughter a hug.
What songs evoke your memories of that day and its aftermath? Add your own songs and recollections in the comments, I’m listening.