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Aug. 19, 2016:  

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On the Wrong Side of the Line

Meghan M. Harney

A Girl's Recollections of 9/11

I think that morning I must have stretched as I awoke and lay there, dreaming in the last few seconds before slipping into the brightness of the morning. Perhaps I gazed up at the lovely crocheted lace canopy that hung over the four-poster bed in the quaint bed and breakfast. Then I hurriedly combed my hair and slipped on a soft cotton jumper, before walking down the stairs to the lavish, yet rather artificial, splendor of the dining room.

It must have been around that time, somewhere around 9:00 a.m., that the first tower was hit.

A week and a half before, my twelfth birthday had been rather uneventful. September 1 was the last day of our summer camp meetings. The week had been filled with puppets, Vacation Bible School, hours spent swimming and on the volleyball court, and five laughing girls on a blanket under the darkening August sky. Licking a birthday cone from the campground store, I sat proudly in the front seat as we drove home.

A few days later, as I lifted the latch on the cellar door with a can of veggies in my hand, the conversation in the kitchen abruptly stopped.

"She always comes back right when we're talking." Dad said softly, chuckling ruefully and rubbing his forehead. I swung the door open happily and handed the can to Mom. Of course I was going to stay around after that. My birthday had been spent taking down the tent, shaking sand out of towels, and unpacking dirty clothes – perhaps now there was a surprise on the way.

I was right. On Sunday morning, I jumped out of bed. The boys were already downstairs clamoring to know what the promised surprise was. I listened as Mom told them they would be staying overnight at Santamours' while Dad worked the overnight shift. Then Dad would pick them up, and they would spend Monday and Tuesday together working around the farm. My brow furrowed. This left nothing for me.

Mom turned. "Didn't you find anything on your nightstand?" she asked.

"No." The sound of my footsteps raced me upstairs. Mom's gentler steps followed. My room was bright with morning sunlight. On my nightstand, congested with books and trinkets, lay a blue invitation. Written in Mom's graceful calligraphy, it invited me to take a journey – into womanhood.

"What does it mean?"

She smiled as she gave me a hug. "We're going to Kingston for a few days. We'll leave as soon as you're packed."

It's strange, the things that form our view of the world. I remember when I was ten, lying in Mom's bed, a flashlight clutched in my hand; it was my safety, the object that would protect me from the darkness that threatened outside the window. The lamp on the nightstand cast a yellow circle on the ceiling; however, it couldn't be trusted. The covers lay heavy over my legs; my brothers and I were quiet, too worried to shove our way into the best position in the bed.

The clock slowly blinked to 11:56 p.m. Mom held the phone as her lifeline, talking to Dad.

Dad had to work in the Emergency Room that night. The hospital would rely on him if something happened – but we couldn't, at least for the seven hours until his shift would be done. Hopefully he would come home then; hopefully he wouldn't have to stay, caring for the people who were hurt, waiting for the next doctor who would never get there.

11:57 p.m.

The darkness lingered hungrily just outside the windows. A kerosene lamp and a lighter lay on the nightstand. Just in case.

11:58 p.m.

Were these the last seconds of civilization as I knew it? What would happen when the clock read 00:00:00?

11:59 p.m.

Any second now.

One one thousand . . . two one thousand . . . three one thousand.

The digits stood out, 12:00 a.m. We waited. It was the same as the past 365 days; the same as the past decade of New Years, except that tonight there were no party hats or hugs. Just several million sheepish people, sitting in rooms with lights shining in the first minutes of 2000.

And on that night, my world became just a little more impenetrable. The uncertainty and fear that had preceded that night became foolish in an instant. The darkness had stayed outside the windows; the lamp had not ceased glowing. The false threat of that night made me think that future threats would turn out the same way, convincing me that the world would take care of itself. It made the world seem peaceful. This was my point of view on that bright Sunday morning two years later, as mom and I drove towards Ontario, Canada, on my birthday trip.

The next days filled quickly with long walks, shopping, eating at fun restaurants, and scrapbooking. The bed and breakfast named The Secret Garden captured my imagination – a real library (although with a sad deficiency of books), the porch swing under the trellis, our room with the corner alcove in the turret. I gazed out over the bay, the boats bobbing on the water. My world began to open and grow; I began to realize the enormous physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual undertaking I had unknowingly committed to when I turned twelve.

Tuesday morning, Mom and I carried our bags down the stairs covered in oriental carpeting. Below me was the hallway, the coat tree, the door with stained glass, and the mumble of a television. I waited impatiently by the door to the library as the owner of the bed and breakfast came out of the living room across the hall.

"We're watching what's happening," she said in a hushed voice, motioning to her husband and the other three guests who were huddled around the flashing screen.

"I think we'll head out," Mom said, answering the invitation in her voice. "Thank you!" We carried the rest of our bags out to the car and began the drive back to New York.

The hostess must have thought we were extremely callous. We seemed not to be concerned about our country. She didn't know we hadn't heard what was happening.

Mom turned on Mars Hill Canada, the translator in Canada that broadcast the Christian radio station from home. Rich McVicker, one of the announcers, was talking.

I could hear the distress in his voice. The programs were cancelled, and no song relieved the tension. His voice went on and on, and I could see pain and fear in Mom's face before I understood those emotions myself.

It took some time before I realized fully what had happened. Someone was trying to destroy us. Several men had hijacked planes and flown them into the Twin Towers in New York City. And then the reports came in. Another plane flew into the Pentagon. Another crashed in Pennsylvania. Airports began closing. Were there more planes? We knew only a few people in NYC. Were they okay? Where was the President? What was . . . where . . . why . . . ?

I don't think I knew what hijack meant before. Now I knew.

We drove straight for the border. We needed to be home. I don't know if Mom wondered if we could get across. I didn't. To me, America was safety. Of course I would be able to go home. There had been an attack, but not in Lowville, not in the small northern New York town I called home. Home needed me in much the same way I needed it.

The border was closed. A man in a uniform standing at the highway exit stood in the way of my destination. We drove back into Canada. Someone told us maybe we could get across the border at the other station forty miles away. We drove, and fear began to curl in my stomach. It was closed too.

And they didn't know when it would be opened again. It was after noon. The sun was high and bright, making my hair warm through the window of the car. It was just a simple line drawn in the sand; it would only take a moment to drive across, to be home. But we couldn't. I expected America to be safety and freedom. To be inclusive and welcoming, to be the land of light. Today, however, it wasn't.

Less than a year ago, I had watched President Bush's inaugural speech as the first lady smiled gracefully. As I sat on the floor, playing Pit with friends, could I have known, could he have known what we would face in nine months, what we would face in the years to come? In a few days, I would watch, again, the silver screen broadcasting an event that millions would watch. I don't remember where I watched the memorial service. But I do remember Billy Graham's frail frame filling the lectern; it seemed fitting that the great evangelist should be the one to comfort, the one to point us back to the cross and the empty grave. On the television screen, somewhere, I watched President Bush's eyes fill with tears, again.

As we drove back into Gananoque, mom sighed.

"We should probably get something to eat," she said slowly, "but I don't feel much like eating."

"Why?"

She pointed at the radio. Oh.

I understood because the fear twisted in my stomach and made me feel sick too; at the same time, I desperately wanted to escape the cocoon of the car, with the bright sun, the never-ending road that might never lead home, and the radio with the voices that continued on and on. I wanted something normal, the sitting down, the eating, the safety of a smile across the table.

Finally, we heard that the border might be open. Mom pulled the car under the overpass of the border crossing. The glowering sun beat on my face. I sat still, pulling myself tall in the front seat, hearing the pounding of my heart.

Several men surrounded the car. All of them had guns at their hip, but two carried the biggest weapons I had ever seen in person. They were long, with strange handles on the bottom; they didn't have the shape of any gun I knew. The sun glinted green onto their inky blackness. They lay cradled in the men's arms, confident and proud. The ends were always pointed away, consciously, but they loomed all the same.

Mom handed her driver's license and my birth certificate out the window. Suddenly, they opened all the doors behind me, the back hatch, the two side doors.

I sat immobile, too frightened, almost, to breathe. My mind felt like the Scrambler at the county fair, spinning with uncertainty. Yet, I attempted to look casual.

Mom's voice hung in the hot air of the car as she answered questions. "We were in Kingston on vacation . . . since Sunday . . . Yes, we were planning on coming home today . . . No, we didn't purchase anything."

Outside, the man's voice was kind but blunt. The questions continued – similar to a normal border crossing, but now with deadly seriousness. I could barely hear him, though he stood only a few feet away; the sounds behind me dominated the van. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the officers carefully looking over the contents of our minivan. I wondered what was going through their minds, if they were as scared as I was.

I remember later driving in the long warm circle of the driveway, parking in front of the garage. Dad ran to give us a hug, the boys trotting behind him, carrying tools for the project they were working on. It was too frightening to sit in the house, waiting. The sun was comforting, hanging in the west over Tug Hill. The grass on the farm was still green, not succumbing to the dryness of fall.

Dad explained that he went to town to get copies of all his medical paperwork in case they called for doctors, in case it happened again. He left the boys at Santamours, our friends down the road, with instructions that they were not to watch TV. None of us saw much footage. We didn't have a television. Frenzied and tearful reports were everywhere, and no one knew if we would be hit again. Mom and Dad often explained what was happening but tried to protect us from the media versions of the catastrophe.

So began months of anxious waiting. "Lord, help Mr. Bush make good d. [decisions] for our country," was a constant entry in my journal, my frustration with spelling showing through. I began to learn that all is not peace in this world; light is not always comforting but can be harsh and demanding. We went to war and promptly forgot, in the following years, why.

It was 2005. We walked past shops, some quaint, some just scary. The brilliant colors of graffiti marked every block. A May breeze made the city air almost pleasant. I tried to plug my nose discretely as we passed a Chinese fish shop. Fish hung, just beginning to rot, in the front window; cases of smaller fish stood open to the air on the sidewalk outside the shop, ice barely repelling the heat of the setting sun.

Finally, we made it to Ground Zero. The chain-link fence was dusty, the offerings of the grieving placed along the base.

We grouped ourselves near the cross made of rusty I-beams. I pushed forward to look down into the gaping sore which marked the New York skyline. Twisted remains of the buildings lay in the hole. One friend bought a book of photographs of that day. As he flipped through it, I saw the pictures I hadn't seen before.

I can't help wondering what would have happened if the towers hadn't fallen, if someone had discovered the plot and believed it. The towers would stand regally, capturing the essence of American trade. The skyline would have remained unchanged, beauty that characterized our state. The sun would have set behind the glory of New York City, the sight that millions of immigrants had wept over.

I don't buy into conspiracy theories, of any time, of any event. I don't know whether anyone had received a tip or if someone had wondered while stamping the visas of the hijackers. But what if someone had? What if someone had stopped it? What if, at that moment, I didn't stand next to the ruins where so many people died?

We cannot undo the past. We can only learn from it and walk forward. We forget the terror of those first days and then judge harshly the decisions that were made in them. What do we choose to remember? Will we make the same mistakes again? What do we choose to learn from?

I sit now, looking out the window. I think about my friends who were standing only a few feet from the car that started smoking in Times Square just a few days ago. The homemade bomb inside didn't go off. The guy who made it almost got away. He was arrested on the plane, waiting to fly to Dubai.

Terrorism just got a little closer. Have we forgotten? Tears sting my eyelids, and the back of my nose burns with unshed tears as I read over a timeline of the events of 9/11, remembering, again. But I want to weep because of the perspective I have now. I see things with a maturity I didn't have then. I think how my world is different, the elections, the wars, the crises. We are no longer invincible.