"One should be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise." --F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I remember it like yesterday, though it's now six years gone: the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, Shanksville. The utter panic as I frantically sped off to gather my children from preschool and daycare, wondering what to do next. The agonizing wait as my wife, sitting in her office in Alexandria, Va., literally could not get home -- roads were packed solid not only with cars but thousands upon thousands of walkers as Washington D.C. evacuated on foot. The days and nights that followed, the skies empty and silent except for the occasional roar of combat air patrols.
The worst part came from realizing I knew people in the places hit by the terrorist planes -- especially in New York City, where a good reporter and former co-worker, Gordon Forsyth, worked in one of the Trade Center buildings. Was he OK? It took a few days and phone calls but I finally reached him -- he'd just arrived at the office when the attacks started and so was one of the lucky ones, able to turn around and escape the madness.
I remember talking to him about that day much later. I didn't want to, in many ways, because I could only imagine the horrors he saw -- the people jumping from the burning trade center, watching the towers fall, all the awful things I only witnessed on the small, sanitized TV screen. He dealt with the smells, the screaming, being packed cheek by jowel on the ferries that carried so many away from the city. The worst of it all, in some respects, came after finally reaching home in New Jersey. That's when he went down to the train station, the place where he left for work -- and gazed upon row upon row of parked cars whose owners were never returning. It felt more like a cemetery than a parking lot, Gordon recalled -- giving him a cold feeling it would take a long, long time to shake. To this day, I still admire how he dealt with it all.
For months after the attack it felt like the worst kind of waiting game -- waiting for the other shoe to drop, the next terrorist strike. That feeling still hasn't left me -- we've got supplies in the basement, clothes packed in a duffel bag, ready just in case for what I do not know. You go on with life, of course, but you recognize that it's forever different now -- that your neighborhood, place of work, where you're visiting that day could be potentially be on the target map of some terrorist cell and not even know it. Living so close to Washington, D.C., feelings like those are just part of the landscape now.
Yet it isn't all hopeless gloom and doom, and should never be. Our eyes are open now in this country as to what can happen when it comes to terrorist activity; they will never be completely shut and ignorant again (at least that is the hope). We owe it to ourselves, the 3,000-plus that died that terrible day, not to be so soundly asleep at the wheel ever again.