9/11 as a moment of Historical Transformation

by NORMAN SIMMS September 7, 2016

It was about 3 o'clock in the morning when the phone rang.  In a breathless voice my sister who lives in Manhattan said, "We are all here and we are safe", and then the phone went dead.  I live at the other side of the world.  I wondered who is "we" and where is "here" and "safe" from what?  It took several minutes for me to wake up properly.  For some reason, I turned on the radio which sits on the kitchen bench next to the telephone.  There were incomprehensible reports of airplanes crashing into buildings in New York, missing planes over Pennsylvania, and explosions at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. 

About ten minutes after the phone call, I went to turn on the television, and on every channel there were strange images of tall buildings burning, plumes of smoke, and excited people running about in the streets.  By 3:30 all this gibbering and racing about began to make sense.  Then I tried to telephone my sister's number, but the long distance operator said that all calls in and out of New York were blocked.

I remembered that my wife had flown off for a family reunion in Missouri and would then visit with our son in Manhattan.  I would telephone her to see if she was safe and well, but she had not given me a number where she could be reached; she said she wasn't sure of which relative would put her up and she would let me know as soon as things were arranged.  Had she made it to Saint Louis?  The news reports said all flights were grounded and many planes diverted to the nearest airports.  I began to feel panic replacing confusion and concern.  As more and more reports came in through the radio and the television, both of which I kept on, it was clear that these events were no mere coincidences, accidents, or random explosions.

At 4 am I called my daughter who lives in Wellington.  My granddaughter who was then about thirteen answered the phone.  I said it was grandpa and she should wake up her mom, but also turn on her radio.  There was a tremor of fear in her voice when she came back. "Has a world war started?"  "I hope " I said,"but I don't know"  Then my daughter came to the phone, groggy and still mostly asleep.  I told her about what was going on and that I didn't know where her mother was.  She cried.

Then I tried phoning my sister's number in New York again and got through about 5 a.m.  She explained to me that my son and his wife had come to in Greenwich Village and they were staying over because the streets were cordoned off, that in Lower Manhattan there was nothing but dark smoke and a terrible smell, and that they could not contact friends and relatives in the City.  Later, months and even years later, I found out how close my son was to the World Trade Center; he was not at work in Connecticut as usual but around the corner in a court house.  His wife worked further uptown.  The dust, the smells, the plop of bodies on the pavement.  They both managed to get to my sister's apartment.

Meanwhile, for the next twelve hours at least, I was busy trying to locate my wife by telephoning her sisters and brother who turned out to be, according to their own relatives who answered the phone sometimes, en route to Missouri, and no one knew where anyone else was.  I used my ability to phone into New York City to convey messages from friends and relatives in one borough or another to each other, as none were able to get through inside the city. By then, too, I remembered I had email, so started writing people that way.  In those days, you could not have both the phone and the email connection on together, so had to switch from one to the other, just as I had to run from the room where I kept the computer to the living room to watch television or into the kitchen to listen to the radio.

It was a kind of unbelievable madness where someone at the other end of the world, in New Zealand, served as communications center for several dozen people in the United States.  Only late that night did my wife phone to say she was well and with some uncle outside of Saint Louis.  She had not phoned me as soon as she landed because she didn't want to waken me or cause me to worry until she was settled in with her relatives. 

The next day finally I went to work, much more to see friends and colleagues than to actually do my lectures and student conferences with any enthusiasm.  Then the other kind of shock.  The statements by long-time fellow lecturers that the United States only got what it deserved and bravo for the terrorists in bringing home the reality of war to the smug ugly Americans. Not a shred of compassion. The indifference of students who couldn't understand or care about what had happened.  Only two old friends sat with me in the café and discussed what was going on as best we could.  That ended my respect for most academics, for no-nothing and care-less students, and for New Zealand in general. 

These are moments when one's own personal history seems to intersect, violently, almost traumatically, with world-important events.  The globe seems to tip off its axis.  One's whole way of seeing the world, feeling how things have meaning, and sense of what is worth remembering changes.

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as amazon.com and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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