In my lifetime, there have arguably been three events considered show-stopping cultural icons; instances when, years later, someone might ask: “Where were you when … ?” or “What were you doing when … ?”
The first was President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. As a young boy not yet in school, I didn’t grasp much of the turmoil.
I do, however, remember the image of little John-John, clad in shorts and a powder blue coat, saluting his father’s flag-draped coffin.
Next was the Challenger space shuttle disaster on Jan. 28, 1986. Then a young Army captain stationed in the former West Germany, I had finished up my workday.
As I began the drive home, a news flash broke out on Armed Forces Radio, but I lost the signal. I fumbled to switch to a German station, and for the rest of that drive, recall the announcer’s Teutonic echo: “Es ist sehr schade!” (It’s a great pity!).
Skipping yet another generation brings us to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. I sat in my college office in Albany, N.Y., sipping coffee and reviewing lesson plans for the new semester when my phone rang.
A former service buddy of mine, since retired, blurted out: “They hit the twin towers and the Pentagon, and the one headed for the White House went down in Pennsylvania!”
Knowing my friend had been a career counterintelligence analyst, I was used to hearing him speaking in tongues.
I asked: “What are you babbling about?” His answer: “Hang up the phone and go turn on a TV!”
I headed to the department conference room; the television was already on with a few people frozen before it. I remember smoke. Cylinders of smoke so billowing and endless you could have lost your thoughts in them.
And I did.
At the risk of sounding trite, so much of that day was a blur of people fixed to news broadcasts, cancelled classes, slow-motion replays of the World Trade Center collapsing, and of President Bush — just before his popularity peaked — calling the nation to arms.
People all over campus gravitated to anyone with national defense experience. Asked for the nth time that day where troops might be headed, my frustration finally boiled over to a colleague: “What do I look like, the secretary of Defense?”
With a hand on my shoulder, she reminded me how soothing familiarity can be in the midst of chaos: “Well, today you’re our secretary of Defense.”
One other moment stuck with me. It involved a freshman student of mine, a young man on an ROTC scholarship who must have sensed that his purpose in college suddenly had become serious. He exited the cafeteria visibly frustrated.
His family knew several people who worked at 1 World Trade Center, and he stopped before me, exclaiming: “I want to leave school and go kill some terrorists.”
My reply was simply: “No, you really don’t.”
He gave me a puzzled look, so I did my best to explain how the future might shape up.
It was a dark day, one of more to come. In less than four years, he would be commissioned and there would be plenty of fight left, perhaps even more than what we bargained for.
I told him that of all people, the soldier is a free society’s paradox: The one citizen who must train and be ready for war, but who deep inside must abhor it and never want it on his watch.
The warrior, I continued, sees the horrors first hand and often pays the highest price. So while history shows that fighting may be a necessary evil, there is no glamour or romance to it. It’s ugly business, and one that my student’s innocence could have skirted for a while longer.
As yet another anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is now upon us, many will trumpet the day with both tribute and demagoguery. I’ll remember all the victims of war — military and civilian — and that young freshman, now somewhere out in the maelstrom, a seasoned Army officer.
A generation ago, I was that officer, driving home in the German twilight, fumbling to find news of a different tragedy. I prayed never to have to salute a coffin, or have someone hand my mother a folded flag.
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
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