by Austin Bay
May 29, 2002
Ellen's dad was a lieutenant j.g. on a Navy supply ship anchoredin Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The bingo announcement just fit that dullSunday morning. The distant voice droning through the ship speaker systemmoved at the cadence of the too usual. "This week's bingo game at the clubhas been cancelled. Repeat. Cancelled." Yawn. Fifteen seconds later, theklaxon went mad, as the first Japanese bombs hit the harbor, the speakererupting with frantic shouts ordering the crew to battle stations.
Sept. 11, 2001, Ellen was having breakfast with an editor friendin Manhattan. A waitress sashayed back to her table and huffed,"Electricity's out, we can't toast your muffin." Blink. Not 20 seconds laterthe news arrived that a jet had slammed into the World Trade Center.
"When I realized we'd been hit by a terrorist attack, I thoughtabout my father's story," Ellen said to me. "For him the cancelled bingogame was suddenly a lost world. An untoasted muffin. And my world changed."
Last week, I followed Patti down a Pentagon corridor, firstfloor, an inner ring. She took me to the hallway, pointed to her old officedoor, a scant 45 feet from the hijacked plane's initial impact and blast."It shook my body," she said. "Like a train, a heavy piece of machinerydropped. Except I knew it wasn't. It shook completely. I knew this was wrongand different." She led her co-workers out that door. "To the left, and wedie. I went right. We made it." Patti's tough, but with dozens of friendsdead just across the hallway, the quiet trauma remains.
I stood beside by the rebuilt Pentagon wall. I felt a terribleheat. It wasn't flaming av gas. It was my sorrow and anger.
Frank was on jury duty in New York. Suddenly, jury duty wascancelled. He left City Center and watched the hell of the burning WorldTrade towers from a Church Street curb. There was a ripple in the southtower. "Faint," Frank said, "like a fighter's knees giving out. Then, in sixseconds, it collapsed, and there was this cloud, like out of a sciencefiction movie, a wall of dust coming up Church Street. I ran."
Nancy used to share a New York law office with my wife. Shelater worked as general counsel for a large investment firm in the WTC, thenleft that position a half dozen years ago. From her Wall Street office shesaw the second hijacked plane smash Tower 2. She lost over 90 friends andformer co-workers. Late last fall, she told my wife, "All I do now is go tofunerals."
A couple of days ago, Frank took me down to the World TradeCenter. The debris is gone, a hole remains. Except for the banners (fromevery corner of American life), and the mourners (dressed come-as-you-are),and the choir on the side street (American pilgrims singing a Latin hymn acapella), it looks like a large construction zone, not the scene of massmurder. The Dantean hellscape is disappearing. With the girders trucked off,it's no longer London after the Blitz.
But I felt the same heat I'd felt in the Pentagon.
The cancelled bingo game and the untoasted muffin aren't quitelost worlds. They mark the passage from naivete to ghastly knowledge.
There were Japanese naval officers planning the Pearl Harborattack years before the bombs struck. An Islamo-fascist terror team set offa bomb in the World Trade Center in 1993. Most Americans focused on bingogames and toasted muffins. Tragedy re-framed the social, political andindividual perspective.
Ellen's father had an immediate task --get to battle stationsand survive. Then came the long haul of World War II. The enemy in this Waron Terror, this Millennium War, is less definitive, and the haul will belonger. For some people, the danger has already begun to fade. They wanttheir bingo games and toasted muffins. They need to meet Patti and talk toFrank, and accept the sobering challenge of terrible facts.