In September 2001, my friend Sarah and I took a trip to Oregon to visit her family, who had just relocated there. It was my first time traveling further west than the Mississippi River, and my first time on a plane since I was 16. Dave and I had only recently started dating, and I cried when he dropped me off for the shuttle to the Newark Airport. I was nervous about flying and being so far from home.
I don’t remember what it was like to go through security, or if there even was security. I just remember meeting Sarah at the gate and commencing the trip. We kept joking about the scene in Meet the Parents where Greg Focker has an altercation with a stewardess over his luggage and keeps saying the word “bomb” over and over. Bomb bomb bomb. You gonna arrest me? Bomb bomb bomb bomb! During the war I was a BOMBadier! Hilarious, right?
As the plane took off, the pilot pointed out how we’d be able to see Manhattan and the Twin Towers as we flew over New York City. The flight seemed like it took forever. We had a layover in Minneapolis which was foreign and weird to my young self. When we finally got to Portland, it was dark and felt like it must have been 2 am, though it was probably more like 7 pm. Sarah’s parents met us at the gate – you could do that then – and drove us another 2+ hours to Newport.
The Oregon coast did not disappoint. We spent the trip exploring the beaches and various scenic overlooks along Route 101. We hung out with Sarah’s family and met other Christadelphians in their area. I played Nintendo with her little brothers. We visited the Tillamook Cheese Factory. It felt a lot like Vermont, if Vermont had been plopped next to the ocean.
Jet lag hit me hard out there. I was always one for staying up half the night and sleeping in late the next morning, and every night we were staying up so late, it was getting to be early morning at home. My internal clock had no idea what was going on. The day before our flight home, I woke up to one of Sarah’s brothers shaking me and saying my name. I rolled over groggily and somewhat confused. He quickly told me how planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon, and another one had crashed in a field in PA.
I didn’t really comprehend what he was telling me – I thought maybe he was just pulling my leg to get me to wake up. When I headed into the living room, I saw Sarah’s whole family was gathered there, eyes fixed to the TV. On the screen, black smoke billowed from the towers. It was surreal. It looked like something from a movie, but from the emotions in the reporters voices, it was clearly real and happening live.
The shock of something like this happening in our country was immense. Our plans for that day fell to the wayside. Our flight home the next day was cancelled. The jolly mood we’d been enjoying came to a screeching halt. Personally, I was absolutely terrified.
If you are a Christadelphian, or ever were one, you will get what I am about to say. There was excitement in the air among the group. Christadelphians are constantly on the watch for “signs of the times” pointing to the return of Christ. Usually, to read these signs you needed to be a dedicated student of bible prophecy and have a keen understanding of foreign politics (neither of which I was interested in doing). Well, this particular sign was written in smoke and flames, so even the lowliest among us would see it.
That night, we went to a bible study group at the home of a Christadelphian family nearby. I sat silently as the others chatted excitedly about the possibility of these attacks meaning that the end was near. Maybe this would be the beginning of World War III? Christ’s return was just around the corner! Christadelphians love to fantasize about the Kingdom. “It will be just like being at Bible school!” they always say.
Well, I certainly hoped it wasn’t true that Christ was about to make his dramatic entrance down through the clouds. I had already been questioning my faith and thinking about leaving the Christadelphians, although it would take me several years before I would finally cut the cord. I was still very much afraid of the wrath of the Lord Jesus Himself if he returned.
Since our return flight was cancelled, along with every other flight in the nation, we weren’t sure how we were going to get back to the east coast. No one knew when flights would resume, or if we we’d be able to get on one right away once they did. We looked into renting a car, thinking we could make it a cross-country adventure. But we were too young to drive a rental car across state lines.
I emailed my family and Dave, and my friends back home. I wished I could transport myself through the phone lines somehow. Not knowing what was going to happen was stressful. My mom told me that my Uncle Bill was stuck in Alaska, and my Uncle Brian was stuck in Boston. He had actually been scheduled to fly out the next day on the same flight as the one that hit the north tower.
We were able to get a flight home on the 16th. We left Sarah’s parents house at 12:30 am. We had to arrive at the airport really early because security was expected to be extremely tight. We got there at 2am and got in line. I can’t remember how long it took to get through security – I wrote surprisingly little about it all in my journal. I do remember that once we got through, we bought bagels and they wouldn’t even give us plastic knives to spread the cream cheese. We had to use spoons. And of course there was no joking about bombs this time. Everyone was on edge, but at the same time, it felt like we were all in this together. People actually looked at each other and made small talk.
The flight was direct to Newark. One thing I did write in my journal was that they let us watch movies for free, so we saw Dr. Doolittle and Bridget Jones’ Diary, and I was glad that there was something to keep my mind occupied. As the plane descended into Newark, the scene in lower Manhattan was visible. Smoke was still rising from the rubble.
Sarah and I parted ways and I took a shuttle back up to Connecticut. It was a somber scene as we drove across the George Washington Bridge and looked towards where the towers had been. There was a haze of smoke and dust where just a week before, I had seen the two towers standing. Again, the feeling was surreal.
I was so glad to be home again. I held so tightly to Dave in the days thereafter. We watched so much news coverage and cried so much in those days. I had nightmares about it being the end of the world. I felt sick with grief and worry, even though no one I knew had been directly impacted. The following weekend I drove up to Vermont so I could see my family and hug them all tightly. Everyone was so emotionally raw at that time. It really made you think about what was important, and what wasn’t.
Of course I am grateful that nobody close to me was directly impacted by the events that day. Inconvenienced, maybe. Frightened, definitely. My still heart aches for all the families who lost loved ones that day. In reflecting on the past 15 years, it saddens me to think that we really haven’t come very far, in terms of feeling safe, or unified as a nation. In fact, it seems that we are more divided than ever, and that animosity towards “the others” is growing stronger every day.
Next week, I fly out west again. This time for a business trip. I think I will make more of an effort to keep my head up and look people in the eye. It is so easy to pretend to be occupied on the phone, or so busy with responding to emails that you can’t possibly make small talk. But it helps to remember that we are all just fragile human beings. You never know what difference one small, kind gesture can make.