(Photograph of an empty sky)
Stunned, silent, listening, watching, processing? Not yet. Just...watching: reporters trying to make sense of the senseless; wild estimates of what the Twin Towers death toll could be; wilder speculation about the scope of the attacks...all this info flooding into our lives as we sat in the extended stay on 9/11/01, finally back to our room after the harrowing, heart-rending morning's drive. As we sat and listened and tried to understand even the basics, we cried and wondered and worried, and a plan of action slowly emerged. We should go home.
We were on a research trip/vacation: seven nights at an extended stay in Maryland, with "easy" access to DC, where I needed to do research at the National Archives (the old one on Pennsylvania Avenue). We had driven in from Cincinnati on Saturday, and we had spent a wonderful Sunday out at Rehobeth Beach. On Monday we had made a huge breakthrough at the Archives. While I was searching for documents pertaining to a few key players in Kentucky's civil war within the American Civil War, The Bug was reading through ledgers of letters, many of which related to the struggles of former slaves to reconstitute their families in the face of both former owners reluctant to give up their "property" and a "reign of terror" being imposed on free black communities by bands of white supremacists. I remember at some point setting aside what I had thought important and helping mark these records so that we could begin copying them. These stories would in time become the heart of my dissertation, but we had run out of time for this day. Copying them would have to wait until the next day.
The next day...9/11/01. Why wasn't I in a hurry to get up and get to the archives? Maybe because it was a Tuesday, and the Archives stayed open late. Maybe because we had gotten up very early on Saturday to make the long drive in from Ohio, and then we had gotten up early to drive out to Rehobeth, and then we had spent a long day at the Archives on Monday. Whatever the reason, we slept in a bit longer than I had planned. Still, we had our Metro passes, we had a cart of records already pulled and waiting on us, and we had some very exciting stuff to process, so we headed out. I must say that I was very frustrated when we couldn't get parked at the Metro stop. My initial thought was to drive on in to another stop with which I was familiar, and take the Metro from there. Somewhere in that process, though, I began to think maybe we should just sight-see in the morning, then go to the Archives after lunch. I honestly cannot say exactly what led us to that park on the heights overlooking the Potomac.
Fast forward: noon, 9/11, and the DC news spewed chaos. There were so many reports: impending attacks on the Capitol, evacuations, lock-downs. This was just too much for rusticated folks such as ourselves, even if we now lived and worked in a more urban world. We needed somewhere familiar, ground of our choosing on which to make whatever stand the days ahead would require. So reluctantly we headed south, like Jubal Early retreating from the outskirts of the "enemy" capital in the summer of 1864. And like Early, we headed toward the Shenandoah Valley. Simply put, there was no way in hell I was going to try to go I95 south around DC on that day. There are advantages to being a Civil War historian, especially one with a fondness for maps and a very good internal sense of direction. Yes, it would would mean more miles, but I reasoned that heading to the Valley was less likely to get us stuck in a major traffic jam, and it would put me on familiar turf (remind me to write about our Civil War camping trip).
So we checked out of our suite, paying a one-night penalty for leaving early, and we hit the road. We had to take a very crowded interstate west for a bit, but once we got to the appropriate exit, we were on our own, following a very old road out of Maryland and into the Virginia countryside. In time, we made our way to the lower end of the Valley, and we decided to risk I81 at that point. It proved to be hauntingly quiet. We made sure to keep tabs on gas, stopping as soon as we saw an open truckstop, knowing that now we could make it to NC without having to refuel. And so while Brian Miller and so many other stranded passengers languished in airports, while people scrambled to find each other, establish phone service, and so much more, while the horror of the day's events began to sink in, while the possible death toll of the collapsed Towers continued to be debated, we drove on in our car cocoon, hour after hour after hour, with the occasional conversation, perhaps listening to music...I just don't remember.
What I do remember about our "retreat" is the empty sky...with a lone exception. Somewhere on I81 we saw a plane very, very high in the sky. It definitely seemed to be escorted by at least one smaller jet, and in the weeks that followed, I wondered if it had not actually been Air Force One. The president surely had quite a day that day, but he did, in time, return to DC, and while the timing is fuzzy, it just might have been him we saw. In any event, that was it...the lone sighting that day. And so we went home, not to the Midwest, but HOME to the red clay soil on which we had played as children, to the rolling hills of the Carolina Piedmont, to the familiar spare room, the familiar families, the familiar comfort foods. We went home and waited, and talked, and cried, and stared at the empty sky.
Slowly, very slowly, life began to resume. Almost immediately the emails and comments started flying. My friends, mentors, peers, all seemed to have an opinion that had to be shared about what this meant. Some of them could not believe that I didn't just ride it out in DC and keep at my research. Some of them were openly critical of US foreign policy, saying we had gotten exactly what we deserved and should just absorb the loss, the lesson, and move on. Some of them wanted swift retribution, but most just seemed very sad about the attacks and their aftermath. Many of my colleagues talked about what this meant for teaching American history (the fall quarter was about to start). Friends listened to me tell our story, attentive, sympathetic, stunned that we were heading toward the Pentagon area even as the plane flew into it. Few of them understood what I was feeling anymore than I understood their feelings. It was too soon, too raw, too much.
On a positive note, the staff at the National Archives did not even remove our markers from the ledger books and archive boxes we had checked out on 9/10. They simply returned them to the shelves. When I went back many months later to follow up on that breakthrough The Bug had helped me make, I found the markers in place, still designating those eye-opening, heartbreaking letters.
People like to say that 9/11 changed everything. It did not. Sadly, it did not change enough things. Forgive me, but way too much shit that went on before 9/11, even contributed to 9/11, still goes on, and as a nation we are no more united, maybe less so, than we were in 2000. But the attacks of that day did change some things, indeed they did. And they changed me. I still teach American history the way I did before that day. We study the bad with the good, the tragedies as well as the triumphs. But I am not the same person I was on 9/10/01. I lost something that day. Nine years later, the sadness of it, the pain of that loss, is still with me.
Springsteen's The Rising continues to resonate powerfully with me, including the stunning "Empty Sky," but the song that haunts me is one he claims he wrote many years before and reworked to fit the theme of this album, "Nothing Man": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKYYChoQIvI (9/11 tribute with graphic images)