Remembering What You Can’t Remember

I spent most of the day on Sunday, September 11, remembering. I watched some of the documentaries on what happened that day, because it’s important to know, so we can stop it from happening again.

I didn’t watch too much of any of the observances, the speeches, the tributes. Those are important, but I think I do that every day, by committing to protecting myself and my family. Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, my self defense commitment was spotty at best. Now, it’s every day.

The two things the TV shows and retrospectives and tributes couldn’t capture were the two things I felt the most on September 11, and in the days and months that followed.

The first was the incessant bombardment of what had happened. The American media doesn’t report any more, they beat us over the head with news events. After the first two hours, there seemed to be nothing new to report, yet the new outlets kept reporting it. Over and over. The same thing, all the time.

What could not be remembered, therefore, was the incessant stress and fear and worry we all felt, for the days and weeks and months after the attacks. Part of me is glad we can’t get that back, because it sucked to live like that.

The second thing I felt in those months after, was anger. When I think about the attacks, I continue to feel it. I let some of this out on my son yesterday, and I owe him an apology. He didn’t deserve that.

I’m angry that we responded to this attack by fighting back on the terrorists terms, instead of by using the best of what America has. We’ve corrected that a little, with the use of unmanned drones and the like. But we still fight them on their turf, on their terms.

The rantings of one person does no good, though.

So, I did what I could do. I cooked pork barbecue, and I cleaned my guns and did an ammo inventory. I didn’t get a chance to shoot, thanks to the length of time it takes to cook good barbecue.

But I enjoyed what I could. And for that, I am thankful.

When the World Changed – Part 2

Yesterday, I told about how things at work changed on September 11, 2001.

When I got home that day, things changed, too.

We had moved back to the Atlanta area a few months before, and we were renting a friend’s house until we decided where we wanted to buy. We hadn’t personalized this house very much. But when I got home that day, the first thing I did was put up a flag pole on the front porch, and fly an American flag. I left the porch light on to illuminate it at night.

When we moved into our new home a few months later, I installed a spotlight to shine on the flag. It flies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I’ve replaced it three times in 10 years, and only one flag has been worn enough to warrant disposal. I’ve kept one flag, and I’ve given the others to the local Boy Scout troop.

I also fly a flag from my mailbox to honor my brother Michael, who serves in the US Army. I started doing that when he enlisted 19 years ago. These smaller flags only last about 9 months on the mailbox before I have to replace them. I keep the best of the old flags to fly in my yard on national holidays, like in the picture above.

(I don’t know if my brother reads this blog, but I’m going to give away a secret – when my brother retires from the Army in 6 years, I’m going to box up all the old flags I’ve been flying and send them to him. I’ll tell you more about him at a future time.)

Does this mean I’ve become more patriotic since September 11? I don’t think so. I think I’ve stopped taking that patriotism for granted. I’m not a covert patriot now, I am overt.

I’ve also made changes to how I look at personal security. I now carry a gun just about everywhere, not just “when I think I might need it.” Like most people, my concept of “when I might need it” changed on September 11.

Do I worry about terrorist attacks now, after September 11, and Mumbai, and the other attacks since then? I don’t worry about them or change what I do because of them, per se. I know it sounds corny, but if I change how I live my life, then the terrorists have won. And I know that’s not true.

Maybe it’s just being 10 years older. I know I am 10 years wiser.

When the World Changed – Part 1

Photograph by Richard Drew
Photograph by Richard Drew

On September 11, 2001, I was plant manager of a specialty chemical plant in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. This plant used railroad car quantities of very hazardous materials, but like most plants in the industry, our safety programs made it a pretty safe place to work, and the record proved it.

That day there was supposed to be a regularly scheduled plant managers’ meeting at the home office, two hours’ drive away. When it was obvious that the planes were part of an attack, I turned around and returned to the plant. We had no idea if this was part of something much larger, and how much of America was targeted, and I needed to be there instead of in a meeting.

The thing I remember most about the drive back to the plant was the lack of police cars. I was able to drive as fast as I needed to, since all the local police were obviously going elsewhere.

That day, I learned the value of knowing the people who worked for me. One of the things I had done when I took the job as plant manager was to read everyone’s personnel files, and I paid particular attention to those with prior military or law enforcement service. So I knew I had several trained former servicemen working that day. One of our plant operators had been an Army Ranger in Desert Storm. We had another operator take his place in operations, and I had him walk the plant perimeter fence, looking for signs of intrusions.

One of my supervisors had been a Navy SEAL in a previous life*, so I asked him if he would man the front gate. Normally, the front gate was open, since there was no way to drive straight through into the plant without someone opening another gate in between. On 9/11 that changed, and that gate has been closed and manned every day since.

He asked me if it was okay for him to move his personal car up by the gate. I knew why he was asking, since I also had gotten to know people well enough to know who kept guns in their cars. Since I did, I didn’t see any problem with others doing so.

I told him to do what he needed to do, and I asked him if he thought he might need an assistant at the gate. “Not if I can get to my car, I won’t.”

Other than the sense of fear, anger, and uncertainty that everyone felt that day, at the plant we had no problems, and we never really had any problems after that. I did hold a quick plant meeting that afternoon before shift change, to remind everyone to keep their minds on their jobs, for safety reasons.

The chemical industry eventually instituted a lot of extra security measures, some of which were needed, and some of which probably were not.

For me, the lesson driven home was to know my people and their backgrounds, and to train everybody in how to protect themselves and the plant. One thing was sure – things would never be the same.

*A lot of people claim to have been a Navy SEAL. One advantage of reading people’s personnel files is it included their form DD214. This guy really had been a SEAL.