ben franklin grave

My 9/11: Coming Home

Everyone has a 9/11 story. We all remember where we were and
what we were doing that day.  Our memories are like a quilt stitched together from our shared history of the event that changed this country in a lot of ways, forever.

My experience was a strange one. The events of the week arched
over me like a black rainbow and changed parts of me forever, in a good way.

I flew to southern California on September 10th,meeting Steve R., flying in from North Carolina. We were planning to spend a week visiting the long list of the California universities and colleges that were our clients.

Our hotel was right across the street from the Orange County Airport, AKA, John Wayne Airport.  That location put us smack dab in the middle of Southern California and located us  where we could get to all our schools easily. The rental car company gave us a baby blue Lincoln Continental. I was horrified and all for returning it, but they were having a run on cars and the Stinkin’ Lincoln was the only game in town, so we would be making our calls in the rich old lady Sun City Special all week.

After the car shock, it was nice to find the hotel rooms were great.  My room faced the airport and I was up high enough to get a great view of the planes coming and going. Steve
and I dumped our luggage off and met for dinner to finalize our schedules for
September 11th.

I woke up to the sun shining in my windows and staggered off to put the tiny hotel coffee pot to work. Half asleep, I sat on the foot of the bed and flipped on the television to the Today Show. I thought I had gotten the wrong channel, and for a few seconds I thought I was watching a horror movie. I remember clearly being really confused.  Yes, that was Katie Couric on the screen but that couldn’t be real.  When I finally came to grips with the
unreality of what I was seeing, it felt like I had stumbled into War of the Worlds.
Was this Armageddon? What was happening? Was it everywhere?

I called Steve’s room. We didn’t know what to do. We were in California at an airport and this seemed to involve unknown numbers of airplanes with unknown destinations. We simply carried on. It was all there was to do. The universities were open for business, but I remember our first visit at Cal Tech was like going to a ghost town with everyone in the office clustered around a television set.

By that afternoon, there were no planes or helicopters in the sky and the police presence was high. Police cars and security were everywhere we looked.  When we got back to the hotel and climbed out of the Lincoln that evening, I went up to my room and walked
out on the balcony. Across the road at the airport there were airplanes parked all over on the runways. Not pulled up at terminals, just parked everywhere and abandoned .They looked like children’s toys scattered up and down the runways.

We talked to our families and wondered how we would get home. No planes were flying for who knew how long? Businessmen in the lobby of the hotel were talking about trying to find cars or any form of transportation to head east.  Suddenly, that blue Lincoln
looked really good to me. We coped, we made our calls, we got through the week
and we decided we would set a company record for the most clients called on in
one week. It was a way to stay focused and stop worrying about home and what
happened next?

By Friday, Steve was working the phones to get home. He was a platinum frequent flyer with a zillion miles, so the first plane out had him on it headed east.  The guys in the hotel
lobby had actually rented a bus. They sold seats on it and it left full of people in suits with briefcases, everyone wanted to go home.

I still had the Lincoln and I wasn’t giving it back. I called Hertz and explained I would be returning it in Washington State instead of Orange County.  I was terrified. I had
never driven that far all by myself but it was the only way to get home to my family.

I filled the gas guzzling rocking chair with an engine and headed out on a sunny afternoon. I discovered that at some point in my life I had actually driven almost every mile in that route. just not all strung together at once and all alone.  I found that my comfort zone travels with me.  You don’t drive all those miles at once; you drive them one at a time surrounded by people who are mostly local. Everyone on the road  is not flying south, or in this case north, like homing pigeons.

I relaxed and began to enjoy the drive and I discovered something else. I like traveling alone. I can play any music I want as loud as I want and sing along annoying no one. If I see something interesting, I can go look at it without asking anyone.  I can
eat what I want and stop when I want. That trip was the beginning of my love of
long solo trips.

I’m not saying it wasn’t grueling.  18 hours home, two very long days with a stop
in Redding for some sleep before I headed home with a car so covered with bugs
it was no longer blue.

The most important thing I discovered on that trip was that it was okay to be an American and proud of it. After Vietnam, being patriotic felt wrong and most people were not overtly patriotic because of the politics of the preceding years.  The one place I saw
patriotism in action was in of all things, local parades in my town of Olympia.

Along with everyone else, I stood and cried and cheered when our rag tag band of Vietnam vets proudly marched by carrying an American flag.  It was finally okay for them to come home all these years later.  I had friends returning from Vietnam in the 60’s and 70’s who went into airport bathrooms and changed into civilian clothes. They didn’t want anyone to know they had served in Vietnam; most of them did not volunteer either. We still had the draft.

I thought of those soldiers when I headed up the California freeways and discovered almost every overpass had an American flag draped over it. In a lot of cases, people stood with their flags and waved to the cars below. It felt like it was finally okay for all of us to come home and be proud again of this amazing country.

As for me, I discovered with that trip that I am stronger and more independent than I knew and it felt so good to be home in America, even if it was just for a little while. Sadly now, I believe Congress and the people we have elected to represent us are taking that pride away again, leaving dissension and fear in their wake, another black rainbow over us
all.

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