by Austin Bay
Ellen's dad was a lieutenant j.g. on a Navy supply ship anchored
in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The bingo announcement just fit that dull
Sunday morning. The distant voice droning through the ship speaker system
moved at the cadence of the too usual. "This week's bingo game at the club
has been cancelled. Repeat. Cancelled." Yawn. Fifteen seconds later, the
klaxon went mad, as the first Japanese bombs hit the harbor, the speaker
erupting with frantic shouts ordering the crew to battle stations.
Sept. 11, 2001, Ellen was having breakfast with an editor friend
in Manhattan. A waitress sashayed back to her table and huffed,
"Electricity's out, we can't toast your muffin." Blink. Not 20 seconds later
the news arrived that a jet had slammed into the World Trade Center.
"When I realized we'd been hit by a terrorist attack, I thought
about my father's story," Ellen said to me. "For him the cancelled bingo
game was suddenly a lost world. An untoasted muffin. And my world changed."
Last week, I followed Patti down a Pentagon corridor, first
floor, an inner ring. She took me to the hallway, pointed to her old office
door, 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 machinery
dropped. Except I knew it wasn't. It shook completely. I knew this was wrong
and different." She led her co-workers out that door. "To the left, and we
die. I went right. We made it." Patti's tough, but with dozens of friends
dead just across the hallway, the quiet trauma remains.
I stood beside by the rebuilt Pentagon wall. I felt a terrible
heat. It wasn't flaming av gas. It was my sorrow and anger.
Frank was on jury duty in New York. Suddenly, jury duty was
cancelled. He left City Center and watched the hell of the burning World
Trade towers from a Church Street curb. There was a ripple in the south
tower. "Faint," Frank said, "like a fighter's knees giving out. Then, in six
seconds, it collapsed, and there was this cloud, like out of a science
fiction movie, a wall of dust coming up Church Street. I ran."
Nancy used to share a New York law office with my wife. She
later worked as general counsel for a large investment firm in the WTC, then
left that position a half dozen years ago. From her Wall Street office she
saw the second hijacked plane smash Tower 2. She lost over 90 friends and
former co-workers. Late last fall, she told my wife, "All I do now is go to
A couple of days ago, Frank took me down to the World Trade
Center. The debris is gone, a hole remains. Except for the banners (from
every 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 a
capella), it looks like a large construction zone, not the scene of mass
murder. 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 quite
lost worlds. They mark the passage from naivete to ghastly knowledge.
There were Japanese naval officers planning the Pearl Harbor
attack years before the bombs struck. An Islamo-fascist terror team set off
a bomb in the World Trade Center in 1993. Most Americans focused on bingo
games and toasted muffins. Tragedy re-framed the social, political and
Ellen's father had an immediate task --get to battle stations
and survive. Then came the long haul of World War II. The enemy in this War
on Terror, this Millennium War, is less definitive, and the haul will be
longer. For some people, the danger has already begun to fade. They want
their bingo games and toasted muffins. They need to meet Patti and talk to
Frank, and accept the sobering challenge of terrible facts.