Every generation has it’s defining moments. Those events where you can remember where you were and what you were doing at that time. I can remember three such events during my lifetime, the moon landing, the Challenger explosion,… 9/ 11. I know we all have our recollections of that day. Here are mine.
We were stationed at RAF Lakenheath, in England at the time. There were two other bases nearby and we were living in the housing units just outside of one of those bases. The circular street, called a close, had about twenty-five, neat brick houses surrounded by a fence. It was just outside of the main gate of RAF Feltwell, just outside of a village with the same name.
“G” was taking his nap and I turned on the TV to CNN. It was nearly two o’clock in the afternoon. I watched what I thought was a report about a terrible airline accident. Then, live on the TV I watched as a second airliner circled around and crashed into the South Tower. As I sat transfixed watching the events unfold, it still hadn’t sunk in that this was a deliberate attack. Then came the crash at the Pentagon. I know at some point during this time I must have prayed. Prayers for the people at the Pentagon, prayers for the safety of my family and my husband’s family even though they were thousands of miles from New York and DC. And prayers for the people trapped inside a house of horrors as I watched through the TV screen as the South Tower collapsed. I knew life on base was about to get very complicated. My mind turned to some mundane thoughts. “Did I have enough milk and bread? What about diapers? Heaven forbid I run out of diapers.
It was just after three pm, school had just gotten out and “A” came rushing through the kitchen door. “Mom, I left my back pack on the play ground and we have to go back and get it.” “We’ll have to hurry before they lock the gates” I told her. “Why would they lock the gates? “ She asked, unaware of what had just happened. “I’ll tell you later.” I knew that any minute the base would be going into Threatcon Delta and if the base was locked down we might be stuck there for hours. I grabbed “G” and buckled him into his stroller, grabbed my purse and a couple of diapers, just in case. We ran a block to the street that separated the houses from the main gate of the base. As I showed the guard my ID, I asked him how long we had before he would be locking down. He gave me a strange look and said he wasn’t closing the gate. Obviously he didn’t know yet. We ran to the playground, found the backpack, then ran the couple of blocks back to the gate. We crossed the street just as the guard pulled the big iron gates, that would block vehicles from coming on to the base, closed with a loud clang.
Why did we have to run? Why did they close the gates? How do you tell an eight-year-old child that we are at war and maybe in danger? I had to be straightforward. “A” would not accept a half-truth. We sat down and watched as the events continued to unfold on the TV. Some people thought that it was wrong to let a child see the coverage. But I have never lied to my children even when the news might be hard to bear. The phone rang. It was the hubs calling to say he would be home late. “I know,” I said. Then hung up the phone. I know at sometime during the evening I called my family. Even though I knew they were fine, I need to hear it from them, and “A” needed to know that they were OK.
The next morning, the gates to our housing unit were locked. In front of the pedestrian gate where the kids would meet the lollipop lady that helped them across the road, was a Humvee with a .50 caliber machine gun on top. For the next three days we were locked in. Only the active duty military members were allowed in or out on their way to and from work. No school, and very little information about what we were supposed to do. This was new territory for us military spouses. Some kept their blinds closed, others kept their lights off after dark. The BX was closed, the Commissary was closed. After a few days the walls began to close in. We decided it was safe to let our kids play outside. Under the watchful eyes of the guard, we walked by the gate. There on the other side of the street in front of the entrance to the base was a mound of flowers. Our English neighbors showed their support in so many ways. The Queen even ordered that “The Star Spangled Banner” be played at the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. The only time another country has been so honored.
Slowly we settled in to what was now the “new normal”. The Humvee was replaced with a portable guard shack. The gates were open, but were filled with iron obstacles that resembled giant jacks. The kids having to show ID’s to the gate guard, the vehicle searches and the dogs became routine. As we once again returned to the villages we were often greeted with, “we’re so glad to see you out and about”. It wasn’t the greeting of shop owners, glad for the returning business; it was the kind of greeting you would give a friend who was finally outside after recovering from a serious illness.
The whole experience was surreal. As I went about my normal routine, it seemed somehow inappropriate to do so. After so many had lost their life, it seemed wrong to go to the market, to go out to eat or to the pub, or go to London to do some Christmas shopping. But carry on we did, because to do otherwise, was to let the terrorists win.
My most poignant memory of that time did not happen on 9/11 or the days following. It came several months later. “A” was learning patriotic songs in music class. In her backpack I found a paper the music teacher had given them, and this was what she had doodled on the page.
The patriotism, the pride, the tribute of an eight-year-old girl. There is hope for this country after all.