In the Spring of 1998, I packed my bags and flew to New York City for an annual meeting of Lincoln Brigade volunteers. I was nervous and excited; I was going to meet guys who were heroes and legends to me, guys I'd read about in history books. And aside from driving through New York City on foggy night with my brother in late 1984, I'd never really been in New York City. To get to the conference, I was going to have to navigate my way on the subway system from the airport to the New York City College auditorium in Tribeca that the conference was being held in.
I got off the flight and following the instructions that someone had given me, made my way to the train stop for the train that would take me across Brooklyn and into Manhattan. I was amused, looking at a sign near the station, which was in Queens, that directed you to Rockaway Beach. I thought of the Ramones song "Rockaway Beach"-- I'd always thought that the Ramones had made the improbable name up.
I got on the train. At one point, I had to switch trains. I was surprised how many people were on the trains on a Sunday morning. I was also surprised at the friendliness of people. Growing up in the midwest, I'd been indoctrinated to believe that New York City residents were gruff and unfriendly. This couldn't be more untrue. A couple of strangers stopped and helped me navigate my change of trains.
I got off at the subway stop I had been told to get off at and was surprised to find myself near the World Trade Center. I knew virtually nothing about Manhattan geography, and hadn't realized I'd be near the towers. I took out my camera and took a quick picture. I was surprised at how big the buildings were-- bigger than they looked in pictures.
That picture, the one above, turned out to be the last on the roll, and the only picture I took on that trip.
I got to the conference a few minutes later. I had a great time, meeting Harry Fisher and other guys I'd read about. I spotted actors Richard Dreyfus, and Richard Masur in the crowd. There were speeches, and Pete Seeger performed. I hadn't seen him since a concert I'd seen at Ravinia in 1979, right after I graduated high school.
As the conference ended, I made my way up to Washington Heights, where I stayed overnight on the couch of a friend of a friend. On the flight home, my friend Chuck Hall and his wife Bobbi were coincidentally on my flight. They told me that they were forming an organization of Chicago-area Lincoln Brigade vets, and asked if I'd help out. I said yes.
Flash forward three years.
On September 11, 2001, I was awoken by a phone call. My friend Dan, who works for an airline, told me that airliners had been flown into the World Trade Center; both towers were on the ground. Furthermore, a jet was down in Pennslvania, he told me. Rumor in the airline business was that the jet had been hijacked, and that the Air Force had shot it out of the sky in order to prevent it from hitting another target.
I had taken a day off of work at my job as a substitute teacher in Evanston, Illinois because my car was in the shop for repairs. I turned on the television, and immediately saw a shot of an airplane striking one tower of the World Trade Center, while another stood burning. Shortly after, there was a shot of one tower, then another collapsing. I was literally sickened, realizing that I was watching thousands of people being killed.
I was sickened again later in the day seeing news footage of Palestinian people cheering that same clip.
Over the next few months, the New York Times provided profiles of people who were killed that day. A lot of them were moving, but the one that really hit me was a young hispanic guy, in his mid-twenties, who worked in the lobby of one of the towers. He had stayed in the lobby after his building was hit, helping direct people out of the building. His organizing efforts that morning probably saved a hundred or more lives; he could have gotten out easily, but stayed to help. He was killed when the tower collapsed. He left behind a young son who was just a little younger than my own son. I thought about what he'd done, and if I'd have done it, knowing I had a kid to raise.
In the years since the attacks happened, I've been infuriated at what a tragicomedy it all was: how it turns out that the Bush Administration completely ignored FBI and CIA warnings that attacks were about to occur. And then there were the botched attempts to get the people who were behind it. And of course the completely unnecessary invasion of a country that had nothing to do with the attacks-- an invasion that has tied up the resources needed to get the evil bastards that slaughtered nearly 3,000 people. Six years later, I'm done being sad. I'm angry now.