September 11, 2001 From My Eyes

It was only my fourth day as a freshman at Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. – and I was hating it with a true passion. I was struggling to fit in and although I hadn’t been there very long, I somehow got the feeling I was an outcast; barely anyone knew who I was and if I wasn’t there, 90% of the people in the school would not have known the difference. I only had a handful of friends from middle school and I wasn’t in a lot of the classes they were in.

I was a minnow in the Atlantic Ocean – and I could not stand it.  

Some of the teachers weren’t making it any easier for me. Every freshman was placed in a biology class entitled, “The Living Environment,” as their first science credit. In eighth grade I had heard horror stories about an unbelievably stringent biology teacher by the name of Mrs. Cuesta. From the day I heard about her, I prayed every night that I would not get her as my biology teacher.

What do you think happened? Yes. Of course I got her (this is, after all, my life we’re talking about here). I was not very good in science as it was, so she and I were a very, very bad combination. I was terrified just to step foot in her classroom every single morning.

She would not allow her students to utter the words, “Yeah,” “What,” or “Huh” in class. If you were answering a question affirmatively, you were to use the word “Yes,” because “the word ‘Yeah’ is not in the dictionary.” If you could not hear a word someone said, you were not permitted to say, “What?” or “Huh?” You were to say, “Pardon me?” or “Excuse me?”

If you did use any of those words in her presence, you were required to give $1 to her – which she would then donate to some type of fund or mission charity. Luckily for me, I avoided ever giving her any money for saying “Yeah” “What” or “Huh.”

I made sure to choose my words carefully in her class – and most of the time I just tried not to talk at all, unless I was called upon to answer a question. Not for nothing it was for a good cause, but if you ask me, it is overkill.

I sat there in Mrs. Cuesta’s biology class on that fateful Tuesday morning, in the worst mood a 14-year old ninth grader could possibly be in. I would have wanted to be anywhere in the world but there in that classroom with a teacher who was more strict than most of the professors I had at Mercy College.

Looking back, however, I am grateful I was safe in school and not in New York City, like many other unfortunate people.

Around 10:15 the principal came over the PA system and addressed the student body. He only claimed there “was a fire at the World Trade Center” and he asked us to pray for those involved: the rescue workers and those inside the twin towers.

It’s funny how I can remember the exact thought that first ran through my mind the second after he made that announcement.

“The New York City Fire Department is the best of the best,” I thought.

“I’m sure they are going to do all they can to make sure everyone is safe and it probably won’t be a big deal; it’ll probably just be something I see when I pass by Dad watching the news on the couch later tonight and mom might briefly mention it over dinner, or something.”

It may have been ignorance or maybe me just being aloof. Then again it may have been the fact that I was a freshman and I was young, but I didn’t notice anyone’s franticness that day. There must have been kids in the school who were scared because their parents worked in New York City, but I never picked up on it.

Although the thought never even occurred to me, I didn’t have to worry about my parents. They weren’t divorced yet (as they are now) and neither one of them was in New York City at the time of the terrorist attacks. My dad was working for a software company in Connecticut and my mom worked at a radio station in nearby Fishkill, N.Y.

When I got on the bus to go home that day – that was when I was told real story; that it wasn’t just a fire at the World Trade Center. The principal only told us there was a fire so panic would not ensue within the walls of his school. The principal’s version of the story wasn’t altogether false – but it wasn’t altogether true, either.

I suppose I understand why he offered that explanation, though. He didn’t want his students to freak out. In hindsight, it was probably wise to go with that explanation rather than cause chaos among the students.

The bus driver, on the other hand, explained that not only did planes fly into the twins towers, but one smashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. What’s more, a plane supposedly headed for the White House came down in a Pennsylvania field.   

It was a little overwhelming. I just wanted to get home, turn on the TV and see this for myself – and getting home took forever; it was just another reason I disliked school. I was living in Beacon, N.Y., some 16 miles away from my school in Poughkeepsie. I got out of school at 2:30, but it practically took all afternoon to get home because there were a number of stops on the way back.

When I finally made it home a little before 4:00, I turned on the TV and bore witness to the carnage; thousands of people dead. Innocent people lost their lives at the hands of a sadistic and soulless man named Osama bin Laden and his band of terrorists.

The image of those two buildings imploding has not left my brain since that day.  

My mom came home from work a few hours later in tears; her car had an American flag waving proudly from the antenna. She was devastated, and the gravity of the situation didn’t strike me until I saw her face. I had never seen my mother in such disarray; she’s always been the strongest woman I have ever known, and to see her that heart-broken was scary.

I obviously knew what was troubling her, but I couldn’t understand why she was crying. So I asked her.

“Do you realize how many people, just like you, won’t ever see their moms or dads again?” she said to me.

“A.J., I’m sad more than anything else; sad for everyone who lost their lives today and their families and friends. And I’m a little scared. What happened today – you can see that on the news any day of the week. But it happens in places that are on the other side of the world. This happened an hour and a half away from my house.”

After she said that, I understood her tears.

Even my dad, a strong-willed man himself, was visibly shaken.

“This may be worse than Pearl Harbor,” he pointed out. “This is tragic; so sad.”

My neighborhood friends couldn’t believe it, either. A lot of them were just as young as I was, some of them even younger. We tried to wrap our heads around the whole thing and played a game of kickball that evening to take our minds off what had happened. We had some fun in the wake of such tragedy; we kicked the ball, caught the ball, ran the bases, and played until dusk fell and the porch lights came on.

I think it may have been our way of showing that the American spirit, although dented on 9/11, was not dead. We may have even dedicated our kickball game to those who lost their lives that day – it’s something we would have done. It’s just the type of kids we were – always thinking of other people before ourselves.

Just as we turned to kickball to take our minds off the terrorist attacks, a lot of people in New York turned to baseball – and New York’s favorite team – the Yankees. The Bombers were looking like another championship-caliber squad. It seemed as though nothing was going to stop them on their quest for their 27th title, and their fifth in six years.

MLB halted play for a week following September 11 and when the Yankees (and to be fair, the Mets too) returned to the diamond, they were cheered by every baseball fan. I remember one sign a fan held up that read, “We are all New Yorkers today.”

Longtime Yankee favorite Bernie Williams once said that whoever he could get his hands on during that time, whether it was a police officer or a firefighter, he would hug them. The players were just as shaken as the citizens and it was clear they did all they could do help those affected on 9/11.

The Yankees had some incredible moments the following October. One of the more famous plays happened in the American League Championship Series vs. Oakland, when Derek Jeter made the famous flip play.

Jeter raced out of position and flipped the ball to Jorge Posada, nailing Jeremy Giambi at home plate to preserve a 1-0 Yankee lead in the bottom of the seventh. The play might have saved the Yankees’ chances at going to the World Series.

One word: spectacular.

When the Yankees reached the fall classic, the four -year old Arizona Diamondbacks awaited them. New York dropped the first two games, but the Yanks took Game Three, winning a tight one, 2-1.

Before Game Three, then-President George W. Bush was on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. He wore an FDNY fleece, complete with a bulletproof vest underneath. In the clubhouse before he took the field, the President ran into Jeter, and asked him if he should throw off the mound or the grass in front of the mound.

Jeter advised Bush to throw from the mound – but not to bounce the ball, because if he had, the fans would boo him.

The President walked out to the mound and gave a thumbs-up, symbolizing that America was going to be OK. He then tossed a perfect strike, a perfect way to begin the night. Nobody booed; everyone in attendance at Yankee Stadium chanted “U-S-A!” in unison. It also marked the first time a President threw out an honorary World Series first pitch since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956.

Game Three was historic. But Game Four, however, was the game to be at.

Jeter came up in the bottom of the 10th, the game tied 3-3. The clock had just struck midnight and for the first time ever, there was baseball being played in the month of November.

With Arizona closer Byung-Hyun Kim (who had been lights-out automatic throughout the ’01 season) in to pitch, the Yankee shortstop pounded a pitch that landed in the short porch of the old stadium. As Jeter rounded the bases, he held his arm in the air; his fist clenched. World Series knotted, 2-2.

The next day at school my Global History teacher Mr. Umlauft lectured us about many things; the Byzantine Empire, the Code of Hammurabi, and the four noble truths. But at the end of class he had one last thing to teach us.

“There is some footage I want to show you that is very significant to the world,” he explained. “Let me show you.”

He rolled out his TV and proceeded to show us the clip of Jeter’s walk-off home run the night before, and the shot of the person in the crowd who held up a sign that read, “Mr. November.” According to Mr. Umlauft, he knew the person holding the sign quite well.

“You see that guy?” he asked us, pointing to the sign. “That’s my nephew. He was the one who held up the sign.”

Fascinating. Of all the people in New York who could have held up the famous “Mr. November” sign, it was my Global History teacher’s nephew.

The Yanks did it again in Game Five, coming back from a 2-0 deficit in the ninth inning (on the strength of a two-run homer hit by Scott Brosius). The Yanks went on to win the game in the 12th on an RBI single off the bat of Alfonso Soriano.

Magic and aura were appearing nightly at the big ballpark in the Bronx. But their momentum disappeared in the desert, as the Yankees dropped Game Six in the worst way, losing 15-2.

Game Seven was the last night of the Yankee Dynasty. The Yankees held a 2-1 lead going into the ninth with the greatest of all-time, Mariano Rivera, on the mound. He allowed two runs in the inning and the D’Backs won the Series. Sitting in my room stunned watching that game, I could only let out four words:

“The other team won?”

I had been so used to the Yankees winning the World Series year in and year out that it left me all but speechless. It would have only made sense for the Yanks to win the 2001 World Series, and give the people of New York a ticker tape parade – it would have helped even more in terms of coping with September 11.

Truthfully baseball wasn’t the main issue that year. America regaining its composure and getting back to its feet was more important. Yet, baseball did exactly what it is there to do during that tragic time: make people happy. In that regard, it was important and helped people deal with the tragedy.

Over the years I have become a little bit more understanding about things that happened on 9/11; I have heard people’s stories and have seen how crushed and heart-broken they were (and still are). Each of them lost loved ones to a senseless and callous act of terrorism. I have watched documentaries and it pains me to see some of these people who no longer have friends and family members.

I have also come across still frames of the twin towers while they were under attack. A pair of them piqued my interest…

It looks as though a demon’s head appeared in the fire when the second plane hit the south tower.

As the tower collapsed, it almost resembled another demon.

Who is to say if these really mean anything at all, but the fact is there is evil in the world; 9/11 proved that. These pictures look as though they are demons, but then again I understand that demons were the ones who orchestrated these horrific attacks.                                  

Although there is evil that manifests itself in our lives, it’s important to know that divinity and goodness are also present. New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, and America in general banded together during 9/11. Citizens helped each other and showed that even in the wake of such disaster, good things can come of it, like people doing everything and anything they can to aid a stranger.

There were so many Good Samaritans as a result of 9/11.

A lot of things have happened in my life since September 11, 2001. But I don’t believe a day has gone by when I don’t at least once think about sitting in Mrs. Cuesta’s biology class and the principal telling us of a fire at the World Trade Center – and the footage of the planes slamming the twin towers when I got home that day.

My mom crying, my dad upset: it’s still very fresh in my mind. I remember it all.  

But when I think of that time, I also think about good things, like the kickball game my friends and I played that very night, and the ’01 World Series.

No, the Yankees did not win which isn’t good, but if you were to ask me one thing I remember about that fall classic, it’s Jeter’s arm outstretched triumphantly in the air, rounding the bases after crushing that walk-off home run. It’s the one picture in my head I took away from the entire World Series.

That home run lifted everyone in New York, including me.

The point is to never forget where you were, how it affected you, and consider everyone who was affected. September 11 has been dubbed “Patriot Day” and the best way to honor it is to always think about those people on the airplanes and in the buildings; how many kids went home from school that day to no one, and were left wondering if their mom or dad was going to come home at all.

Remember those people; never forget 9/11/01.

I promise, for as long as I live, I will never forget.

1 Comment

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