During the weekend of September 11, 2011, my husband and I traveled from Oklahoma to the Philadelphia area on family business, in the midst of intense media coverage and public observances about the terrorist attacks that changed our nation.
I love the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City. It is a easy to navigate, designed with brightly-lit interiors, and provides about the most trauma-free experience through airport security that I have so far experienced.
On Saturday, September 10, I arrived at 5:45 a.m., expecting a modest trickle of fellow travelers. Instead, we found a virtual avalanche, with rolling streams of people moving with bags through the large terminal spaces. Lines approaching the security checkpoints were long and inching along. More than one person around us complained about how “slow” we were moving. I couldn’t help myself. I caught the eye of a fellow traveler and said is slight exasperation, “We have chosen to travel on the weekend of 9/11. Why are we surprised that things are taking longer?”. He nodded in agreement, and said that he was going to New York and fully expected even more scrutiny when he arrived there. It’s the way it is, we agreed. Now.
We are still migrating through airport security lines, edging closer to the conveyor belt of inspection. I notice that the area is thick with Homeland Security personnel, not just participating in the screening, but as vigilant observers. When it was finally my turn to stack belongings in the grey plastic tubs, I became lost in the ritual—laptop out, shoes off, purse on the side, jacket folder, hold on to the boarding pass…and then I heard a voice calling me by name. I saw Michael S., one of the Resident Advisors we worked with during our stint of living as a family in Couch dorm, wearing a TSA uniform. Only the moving conveyor belt between us kept me from grabbing him in a big hug. Graduated and married, Mike said he was now working his way through graduate school. I pelted him with as many questions as possible, feeling guilty for each distraction it posed from his work. His fellow workers seemed forgiving of this lapse. As we were chatting, another screener yelled out, “Rose Rock?” I realized he was speaking to me. I smiled back, and confirmed that the object he was screening wrapped in a small box was a bit of Oklahoma’s unique geology. My bag made it through the process and I was finished. I wished Michael well and reassembled myself for the long flight back East.
I grew up in Philadelphia, and my memories are palpable. It was like scratching a familiar itch to see the span of the bridges, the length of the freeways, the city landscapes bumped up against some rolling country stretches. The foliage radiated in intense shades of green, although some of the leaves were beginning to change into their Fall colors. Not far from Philadelphia, the Flight 93 National Memorial for the passengers and crew members of this United airlines flight was preparing itself for crowds and somber observances over the weekend. This ground likened to the place were the Gettysburg War was fought, took its place as part of the iconic, sacred public sites the National Park Service manages for us all. In nearby Bucks County, the official Pennsylvania state 9/11 Memorial was also open, with specific tributes to the Pennsylvanians who died during this terrible attack.
On morning of September 11, 2001, I was living in Texas preparing for work when the phone rang. My mother said, “Turn on the TV. Planes are flying into buildings!!” Those of us in more removed parts of the country were trying to figure out what was happening to our country and why. I think about the Flight 93 passengers and crew members who realized so much sooner than the rest of us the horrific intents of their hijackers, and they took action. The enormity of their bravery still leaves gaps in my vocabulary to describe.
Life goes on, with a hiccup. We breeze through areas with cozy houses and children playing on the street, Italian restaurants with a variety that we miss, and posters for upcoming Oktoberfest celebrations, such as the big festival in Mifflinberg, PA, as well as much smaller galas in towns throughout the region.
We are passing through a mall, when suddenly, lights flash and the alarms sound. Everyone is ushered quickly out of this huge shopping complex into the parking lot. Within minutes, we are told we can go back in.
According to a passing security guard, smoke triggered the fire alarm and it was a false incident. But since, it happened on September 11, 2011, we had to wonder, at first, if there was more to this coincidence. Happily, there wasn’t.
Homeward bound. We are en-route to our flight, but first, we need to return our borrowed vehicle from Enterprise before boarding a shuttle back to the Philadelphia International Airport and the terminal for our flight. While we wait, this Enterprise office provided boxes of free Philadelphia soft pretzels. Even though they were served with without salt, without mustard and without the heat that only a warm over can provide, these soft, doughy surprises were as amazing as only the Philly brand of pretzel can make them. It was a little taste of childhood that made the stresses of modern travel just a bit more bearable.
Hours later, in the night’s darkness, we are on the last push home, waiting in Dallas for the short commuter flight to Oklahoma City. As we mill around waiting for the flight, another gate deplanes nearby, I spot another recently graduated student, Meredith, busily pulling her luggage with a sense of purpose. For some reason, I expected her to veer over to our waiting area for the same flight. Instead, she bustled out of the security door, in the direction of baggage claim, ground transportation, and live outside the airport. Then in hit me. Students don’t stay in school forever. Tragedy doesn’t have to paralyze a nation for eras without end. And, as written in PS. 30:5, sorrow may linger for a while, but joy can return if we are patient.
Many fine editorials were published in the media that weekend, such as this New York Times commentary, that reminds us of the tug-and-pull we still continue to feel about the past and the future meaning of September 11, 2001. I still remember the enlarged sense of community we all felt in those days when resilience won out over fear, and commonalities triumphed over alienation. And, I still believe.