Five years and one week ago today, I was two days into a week-long visit to Provincetown, taking a break from my job as a Chicago-based consultant. I spent much of that week completely engaged by “The Outermost House,” wandering the bike trail dunes and studying the tidal changes of Herring Cove. Reading Henry Beston while wandering the cove’s grassy marsh as the tide returned, first trickling in with herring fry at its forefront and then flowing waist deep only 15 minutes later, felt like an immersion course in the ecology of tidal marshes. The weather was early-September perfect, with that touch of approaching fall mixed in with the clear skies and mid-70s temperatures that can make early fall so perfect on the Cape. I felt cocooned by sand and sea and a small town that seemed to exist in a dimension unique to that particular nexus of latitude and longitude.
Five years and one day ago today, by date, at least, was a Monday. I was back at my desk in Chicago, still high from a week of sun, sand and salt water, trying to explain to my co-workers the miracle of the cove and the tiny fish, and the gulls that migrated back every 12 hours to feed on that tide’s batch of herring and crab. It’s a place I’d move to in a heartbeat, if I could, I said. Sitting across from me, my friend Mary drew a plan for the vehicle she believed could make this relocation happen – a bicycle pushcart set up to vend freshly-shaken martinis to Herring Cove beachgoers. It would surely earn me the money for a nice little P’town condo, she argued.
Five years ago today I was back at that desk, booting up the computer a few minutes before 8 a.m., central time. For some reason, I wasn’t able to get to the New York Times website, the usual accompaniment to my day-starting coffee. The office network is just kludg-y today, I figured, until Mary showed up a few minutes later. “Did you hear about that plane hitting the World Trade Center?” she asked. So then I tried CNN.com, and it was overloaded, too, as was WashingtonPost.com and every other online news resource I could think of. A few minutes later she was back with her coffee and the news that a second plane had hit a second tower, and soon, a gathering number of us were circled around a conference-room t.v., watching Peter Jennings narrate that now-iconic video feed.
Within 45 minutes, as news that the Sears Tower, sited diagonally across the street from our own office building, was being evacuated and the second tower to be hit became the first to collapse, we were told to pack up and go home. Take your laptops, we were told, because no one knew when we’d be coming back. Down on the street, as I made my way to the el, it was like evening rush hour at 9:30 a.m. Mayor Daley had ordered the Loop to be evacuated, and I blended in with the crowd of other workers who had suddenly found their day had been fast-forwarded. Almost everyone, it seemed, had a cellphone to an ear, providing a real-time update as my Brown Line train headed northward – the North Tower had collapsed, there really had not been a car bomb at the State Department, that out-of-touch plane had crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside. Once home in my condo, which sat directly under the flight approach to O’Hare, the skies were eerily free of jet noise, in that kind of silence that falls in the countryside as birds and other animals sense an approaching storm. Only the sound of the occasional fighter jet pierced the quiet, as I picked up the uninterrupted news coverage where I’d left off, glued to the sofa in front of the television for the next 12 hours straight.
Today, I’m sitting at a different desk watching that video feed all over again. CNN.com is streaming the tape of its Sept. 11, 2001, coverage in real time today, and watching it is providing an experience of sense memory I wasn’t expecting when I first clicked on the “start” link. The most heart-affecting point for me was at the beginning of this re-broadcast, which started about 10 minutes before the first plane struck. What one saw was a brief glimpse into a time before the numbers 9-1-1 became anything other than an emergency phone number – an insipid interview with a maternity-clothes designer, a check on the weather, that annoying morning-show banter- and no mention of terrorism, or IEDs or that phrase that epitomizes the term “oxymoronic,”: homeland security.
My setting is very different today, as I watch this five-year-old rebroadcast. Instead of staring directly into the raised back of my friend Mary’s laptop screen, I look out a window at the scruffy Cape Cod woodland that is my new backyard. I made it to the Cape, albeit Brewster and not sky-high-priced Provincetown, even without that martini push-cart (but the idea is still a possibility, so I’ll come after you if you try to cash in on it without me). I’m hoping to be here five years from now, when, possibly, that video feed rebroadcasts again. But I can’t help but wonder, what will the context be in which we recall those events of what will then be a decade in the past?
Just 10 minutes before American Airlines Flight 11 tore a hole into the Trade Center’s north tower, we were oblivious to the extent our lives would change just 10 minutes later – that we’d soon be routinely slipping off shoes before airline flights, staring concernedly at a backpack left behind by a forgetful tourist and even eyeing neighbors suspiciously simply because they followed a religion we didn’t understand. That such acts could occur was simply inconceivable to us then, at that moment five years and 10 minutes ago. I pray they could be just as inconceivable, again, when we watch that tape five years from now.