I don’t necessarily make a conscious effort to note the anniversary of the moment the 9/11 nightmare began. But every year, within a couple minutes of 8:52 a.m., I seem to look at my watch and then I remember.
I was in a hotel in the Rosemont area near Chicago O’Hare aiport. I was beginning a sales trip and was ironing my shirt while watching the Today Show.
I remember the first sketchy report that a plane hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Within minutes, NBC News hunted down a woman on the street who had witnessed the event; Katie Couric interviewed her by phone.
I remember Katie insisting that it was some kind of small plane with propellers, right? The woman was adamant. She said, to the best my memory serves: I think it was a jet.
Katie pushed, obviously hoping for the least-worst-case scenario: Yes, but like a small corporate jet, right?
The woman replied to the effect of: It seemed pretty big to me. Like the kind of jet you get on at the airport when you’re going somewhere.
In my mind’s eye, while this interview was going on, the visual was a live shot of the burning tower. But I could be wrong.
And then it was 8:03 (central time) and the second plane hit and it was immediately obvious that whatever had happened was no accident.
My insides did a flip-flop. I tried to call my wife, but she had taken the kids to school and wasn’t around. I called my mother and suggested she turn on the TV.
I had to go down to the lobby to wait for the salesman I was working with; we were scheduled to make our first call by phone from my room. He arrived; he had heard the news but apparently didn’t think much of it yet.
The phone-call meeting was short. I don’t remember a bit of it. Before moving to the car for a trip to our first in-person appointment, I suggested to the salesman that we call to see if they were still interested in meeting.
“Nonsense,” the salesman said. “They’re waiting for us.”
I went along. Passive. Happy to be told what to do. But as we listened to radio reports in the car, more information was becoming available. We called the first appointment from the car; the company had sent everyone home. We stopped at a gas station as the salesman called all of our appointments in an effort to salvage the day.
“Jim,” I told him. “The trip is over. Take me back to the hotel.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “You flew all the way here; we’re going to get some work done.”
“Nobody wants to see us,” I said. By this time, the Pentagon had been hit and Flight 93 had crashed in a field. But I don’t remember if we’d heard about it yet. “The radio just said downtown Chicago is being evacuated. I’m not going up in any skyscrapers today. I don’t feel like selling. Just take me back to the hotel.”
“I think you’re being a little dramatic, Bob,” he sad.
The salesman wasn’t insensitive, though he was making me crazy. It was just his way of dealing with it. I was in the acceptance stage and ready to move on to mourning. Jim was simply still in denial, perhaps his higher thinking processes being hijacked by the immediate tension of having his boss in town and nobody to call on.
I eventually succeeded in getting dropped off at the hotel. Jim didn’t want me to be alone, but I told him to go home and be with his family. It was a relief when he left me. I called the office to send my staff home; I needn’t have — the corporate staff had already shut the office. I spent the day in my room, sitting at the end of my bed, still dressed for sales calls, staring at the TV. I talked with my wife somewhere in there and let her know I didn’t know how or when I’d be home.
At about 4 p.m. I went to the hotel bar and got very very drunk on the expense account, enjoying the simple companionship of strangers like me; stranded away from home, refusing to feel alone.