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This must be the place: ‘Tall building shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs’

The Twin Towers. The Twin Towers.

Sitting in a camping chair next to the small fire, I sipped a nightcap and reached for my phone to check what time it was. The screen said, “12:24 a.m. Saturday, September 11.” 

Also huddled around the campfire were two of my best friends. Having just returned to our site from a whirlwind day of live music at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Festival, it was hearty conversation under clear skies in depths of East Tennessee. Pass around the bourbon. Throw another log onto the fiery pit. 

“Y’all realize what day it is right now?” I said in a matter-of-fact tone to my cronies. “It’s September 11. Twenty years ago, everything changed. How crazy, eh? Feels like that day was, well, yesterday, you know?” 

After a slight sigh and pause in acknowledgment of the anniversary, the three of us started to compare notes on where we were, what we were doing, and how we felt that day. 

“I was a freshman in college at N.C. State. Just got back from my morning class and turned on the TV and saw the breaking news,” my buddy said. “I just sat there all day and watched the whole thing unfold and get replayed again and again.” 

“I was in sixth grade,” his girlfriend added. “I don’t remember much of that day, except for that I didn’t have to go to my chorus practice. So, I was excited to not have to go and sing. I hated chorus. And all the adults around me were sad and crying — it was a pretty weird scene to be part of as a little kid.” 

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Where was I? Second period social studies. Ms. Trudeau’s classroom. As a junior in high school, I vividly remember Sept. 11, 2001. Just after 9 a.m. I left my homeroom study hall at Northeastern Clinton Central School, stopped at my locker to grab my history book, high-fived some friends in the hallway and strolled into class. 

It was not long after Ms. Trudeau took attendance and began her lesson for the day that our principal, Mr. Mosso, knocked on the door, entered with a solemn look on his face and whispered something into her ear. Her face dropped, this expression of fear and confusion on an adult’s face in front of a room of teenagers. 

He left the room and proceeded to knock on every door and enter every classroom in our high school. Flustered and somewhat speechless, Ms. Trudeau explained to us what was going on in Manhattan. Shock and awe. This kind of feeling of not knowing what to do or where to go. 

The TVs in every single classroom had the news on. Replaying the tragedy over and over (and over again). Our eyes glued to the screen. The bell would ring signaling the next period, but nobody would leave their desks. Being in Upstate New York, I remember how the sky was sunny and clear blue, just like six hours due south in New York City. Sunshine on an otherwise normal day in America. 

Being a couple of miles from the Canadian Border, the school was put on lockdown, though we were allowed to be picked up by our parents or head home if we had a car. My cross-country meet was cancelled. So was seemingly everything else. 

But, none of that mattered. Nothing seemed to matter anymore except to hold your loved ones tight and remember what it means to be a human being — this vessel of compassion, sacrifice and solidarity. 

I left the school parking lot in my rusty 1989 Toyota Camry, but I didn’t head back to my childhood home. I drove to the next town over to see my girlfriend at the time, who went to another school. We sat on her couch and watched the news, holding hands and wondering if this was the end of the world as we knew it. 

Truth be told? It was the end of the world, well, as we knew it. The line in the sand had been drawn between the naivety and brash nature of Americans before 9/11 and the absolute vulnerability we felt after the towers collapsed, a nation collectively coming to grips with realizing we weren’t as “safe and sound” as we’d once thought, or had been told to feel by the powers that be — on the newscasts, in the government, etc. It was the end of innocence for many of us, myself included.

I was 16 years old when 9/11 happened. I’m 36 now. Twenty years ago. The magnitude and scope of all that has happened since that fateful morning. Abrupt changes in our everyday lives that are now permanent in our respective realities. And the wars we ended up in all over the Middle East (with our involvement in Afghanistan coming to a tumultuous end just last month).

I think of my high school friends who felt compelled to join the military in the months and initial years after 9/11 to fight for the freedoms they (and all of us) truly believed in. Teenagers my age leaving for war — some returning in body bags, some returning with PTSD and a social presence of a ghost, some returning from the front lines only to commit suicide in later years. 

And I think of you and me. How no matter the distance we’ve traveled, whether physically or emotionally, the impact and toll of that day will forever reside in the back of our minds, for good or ill. As an eternal optimist, I aim to continue down the journey of life with those memories of 9/11 in-hand as inspiration to bridge the differences and find common ground in creating a better tomorrow — I remain hopeful for a better tomorrow.

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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