The way we were

“Look, that building’s on fire,” my wife said, waking me. “They think an airplane hit it.” That last bit got my groggy attention. It was before 6:00 a.m. on a bright September morning.

“What kind of airplane?” I asked stupidly, fogged from my recent sleep. I wanted to know if it was a little Cessna or a large transport aircraft. Of course, she didn’t know. No one had a clue at that point. All we knew was one of the world’s most iconic buildings sported a jagged black hole, belching smoke, tens of thousands of papers fluttering to the ground like obscene confetti.

Now that I was awake, the television held my attention and, besides, it was a bright morning, one of those rare days when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky over the entire continental United States. I couldn’t go back to sleep. Like everyone else, we speculated. I knew the scale of the World Trade Center: over 200 feet on a side, that was too big a hole for a little airplane.

Incredulously, as we watched, a second aircraft struck the smoking tower’s undamaged twin. Even the morning hosts of the Today Show had difficulty believing what everyone’s eyes had just witnessed. This was no light airplane — a transport aircraft in familiar United Airlines livery had just hit the second tower. Hollywood couldn’t have executed the resulting fiery explosion in more spectacular fashion.

• • • • •

When I was 11 years old, two events occurred that shook me. Taking place two months apart, my reaction to these happenings became a seminal moment in my life as it was the point I realized the world didn’t revolve around me. I learned that things happen — horrible things affecting real people — but things that had nothing to do with me. As an adult, this sounds obvious, but to a child, it was a significant moment and one I will never forget.

In March 1977, two fully-loaded Boeing 747s collided in heavy fog on a runway on Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa. The accident was violent and fiery, resulting in 583 deaths. The reference clerks at my local library must’ve thought I was a strange and ghoulish kid as I requested — often repeatedly — all the material I could get on the crash. I borrowed dozens of periodicals, many of them special-ordered by the library and I wore the pages down reading, rereading and staring at the awful photographs. The crash remains the worst air disaster ever in terms of deaths.

The second event took place in May 1977, just a few weeks after the Tenerife catastrophe. This one was a fire at the oddly-named Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. The supper club was a sprawling maze of dining rooms, banquet halls and performance spaces. Over 3,000 people were estimated to be inside the club at the time of the fire — 165 of them died in the rush to flee fast-moving flames and suffocating smoke. The Beverly Hills Supper Club ranks as the third-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.

As a boy, these incidents fascinated me because they had nothing to do with me, personally, yet they affected me deeply. It was the moment I knew I needed to watch the news. Overnight — and weirdly, maybe — the news went from boring to something I watched regularly. I began reading my local newspaper almost every day. These habits I began at age 11 are habits I retain today.

One adult lesson I learned rather quickly after becoming a well-informed preteen was the tendency communities — from villages to nations — have to come together in times of tragedy.

• • • • •

On September 11, 2001, I arrived many hours late to work at this newspaper because I was glued to MSNBC’s coverage of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In 2011, MSNBC was a superb news network and its coverage over the next 30 days was outstanding. As news of the catastrophe expanded, so did news of heroism, miracles and, yes, unity.

Former U.S. Navy data analyst Lisa McCracken of McMinnville recalls driving to work at Naval Air Station North Island on Coronado, outside San Diego. Prior to 9/11, dozens of angry protesters permanently lined part of her route to work, waving impolite signs telling naval personnel they weren’t welcome. The night of September 11, the signs disappeared. On September 12, the signs of scorn were replaced by an equal number of signs effusively thanking the sailors and expressing undying appreciation for the base. McCracken found the abrupt about-face unsettling.

In a way, the signs on Coronado sum up the about-face many Americans did on that coldly clear September morning 20 years ago. For a short while, Americans were united in horror and grief, our boundaries between our fellow countrypeople lowered. We offered and received comfort, we focused our anger on a far-away enemy, knowing we were in this together with our neighbors. We demonstrated an amity and a unity better than at any other time in my life.

Where is this benevolence now? In the face of an unprecedented public crisis, we have sworn fealty to one side or the other and taken cover in virtual foxholes to isolate us from neighbors who don’t see it our way.

In recent weeks, I have been told repeatedly there is no longer anyone in the middle. To be fair, this opinion has been posited mostly by left-leaners who are convinced all the reasonable people on the right have gone down the dark Qanon rabbit hole of conspiracy, suspicion and paranoia. And to be fair the other way, a worrisome number of Republicans have, indeed, followed each other into the deep state abyss.

But I have news for those who believe no one occupies the middle ground: you’re wrong. Arguably, with the exception of the Qanon idolaters, the middle ground has grown. Yet, the middling people are terrified of speaking up for fear they’ll be pounced on by the growing number of angry activists on both sides. Right now, it’s not only the fringefolk who are speaking loudly. The educated and erudite people who tend to shape policy have found new passion and they’re nearly as loud as the edges. No wonder the mild-mannered middle is so afraid to speak: we’re all so focused on our differences that the middlers fear the slightest misstep will earn them an obscenity-laced public chastising and mockery on social media.

As we reflect on that cruel September morning 20 years ago, I urge everyone to recall the understanding we were so willing to show our fellow Americans immediately after that dark day. As I often suggest, reach out to someone who sees things differently than you do — I’m not talking about trying to connect with criminals, racists or paranoiacs. But those quiet middle people are out there and, if you want to convince a few of them to see things your way, it’s easier to do so over a latte and affable conversation than with shouting and name-calling.

When my wife woke me on that bright morning in 2001, I felt like I did when I was 11 years old. I’ve watched the news and read the newspapers regularly for almost 45 years now. It’d be nice to once again see the endless parade of grim news reports accompanied by a few stories celebrating the sweeping kindness and understanding we once demonstrated in times of crisis.

This essay originally appeared in the Sept. 10, 2021 edition of the News-Register, McMinnville, Oregon.

Photograph © Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

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