Never mind the nutjob in Florida with the book-burning party, or even the wrenched and fractured bit of World Trade Center steel that New York brought here to Arlington a few weeks ago, so heavy with symbolic freight that no one is sure what we are going to do with it.

I live about three miles from the Pentagon, give or take, and friends of mine heard their windows shiver or saw their trees bow in the wake of the aircraft hurtling toward the building’s west front nine years ago. South Arlington shut down; unlike Manhattan, where dust and debris rolled out in a cloud and an entire metropolis emptied in all directions, the county was eerily paralyzed under a lucid cornflower-blue sky, only a trickle of weeping or dumbstruck Pentagon workers trudging westward along Columbia Pike, which passes a few minutes’ jog south of my house.

As soon as it was clear we were not all going to be asked to leave the area, I laced on my boogie shoes and took off eastward along the back streets to see what I could see. Intersections were blocked by police cruisers detouring people from the interstate ramps; engines and rescue vehicles from as far away as Pennsylvania were already staging at the nearest fire stations. The Pike was blocked at the Washington Boulevard bridge, a crumbling antique which for years before had dripped — and drips to this day — some ingredient of its dissolving structure onto the pavement below in disturbing glossy concretions, like guano. Eastbound traffic, allowed neither to the Pentagon nor to the I-395 ramp just past the bridge, was being detoured down Queen Street into the modest neighborhood of Arlington View. The redirection, as I approached, was being indicated by a lanky, leathery man in a reflective vest and shabby ill-fitting clothes; bearded and slightly pop-eyed, he neither looked nor moved like a county public-safety worker. It dawned on me that with a shelter for homeless men just over the next rise, many of them alcoholic vagrants trying to pull themselves together, the police had temporarily deputized the most willing and able of the residents to help keep things moving. He turned and gestured like an Indonesian dancer, as if he had more than the normal complement of joints — grinning from ear to ear, greeting everything around him with the sweep of his arms, working, needed.

I stood at the top of the rise above him and watched for a while; the steam of the Pentagon — white heaped vapor, not dust or smoke — rose in a luminous and almost static column behind him. Now and then you could hear sirens, the rest of the time the stunned silence of the earth turning. The people streaming out of DC across the bridges had yet to arrive.

I wonder what happened to him, sometimes.


17 thoughts on “9/11

  1. great story Sled. I’ve mentioned on blogs before that I was in New York at the time and saw the first plane fly into one of the Twin Towers. Not a sight I’ll ever forget.

    When Guiliani made all the trains out of NYC free, Stephen and I escaped to Philly for three days and then went to Washington. Maybe we even passed you in the street one day…..

    • I never crossed paths with your story. New York terrifies me at the best of times and I think I’d still be running if I had been where you were. I don’t own a television, so it was a long time before I actually saw footage of the plane strikes.

      The eerie thing here, as I said, was how still everything was compared to a normal weekday.

      And alas, I rarely go downtown (even that’s a bit too much commotion for me most days), so I wouldn’t have passed you…

  2. I hope he found more ways to be needed.

    As you watched the steam rise, a high school friend of mine was in the building, absorbed in rescue efforts and realizing his own office had been destroyed while he was down getting coffee.

    It’s more academic three thousand miles away.

    • There was an unreality about it even here, with the way everything was cordoned off, and the way it seemed that very few people were much injured who weren’t actually killed at the moment of impact. I remember being told that the dogs brought in to search for anyone trapped alive in the structure began to get visibly distressed that there was no one to find, and their handlers had to play hide and seek with them in the incident command area out in the parking lot to keep them sharp.

  3. I hope he found more ways to be needed as well …… for different reasons obviously.

    The symbolic freight could be dropped on the nutjob’s nut/nuts I suppose …… just a serving suggestion of course.

    [Beautifully written Sledpress ……..]

    • I’m not sure if any words can really catch it, nevertheless. I suspect almost anyone who was close to either strike, without actually being called on to act, would say the same thing — that it had some of the simultaneous immediacy and unreality of a dream.

      I repeated the run this morning, on a day that was almost a duplicate of the day the plane hit. Everything hummed and churned around me, and there were airliners angling up from National Airport away to my right as I looked down at the Pentagon. That was probably the biggest component of the silence on 9/11 — air traffic shut down, except for fighter aircraft in a defensive pattern. You forget the background hum those passenger flights create, until it’s gone. They didn’t fly again for a week. It was like living inside a crystal ball.

      • When the flights had stopped and the people of the DC area had found their often difficult ways home, it seemed as if the world had shut down, for the first time ever.

        I finally got a VRE train back to Broad Run. I looked at the cars in the parking lot as I got in mine to drive away. Some of the people who left those cars would never be back to claim them again. That memory and the stunned silence of the train ride into work the next morning stick with me very intensely.

  4. You inspired me, or lead me into temptation. I’m not sure. I struggled with writing about this today. Finally, I set down and “penned” a bit of screed.

    • One thing that we had, for a short while, certainly close to the scenes of the attacks, was a complete consciousness of how much people have to offer each other if they will pay attention. I wish there were more of that in the commemorations, and less boundary-drawing.

  5. Terrific piece of writing with a different angle.

    I appreciate your sharing (and Zeus too) because here on the west coast, that day nine years ago, we saw the news feeds and photographs and heard the commentary, but we weren’t there to hear the silence.

    • It went on for days in some ways — no planes flying out of the airport and a lot of people staying home from work.

      Life has to go on, but the pause was necessary in a lot of ways, and a reminder of how much we often need similar pauses and don’t take them.

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