“Turn on the TV… the world’s gone crazy.”
These were the first words I heard three days before I started college. The voice on the other end of the phone was my mother’s. A moment ago, I was floating on my waterbed, still dreaming between the summer sheets.
“Jeez, Mom. What are you waking me for?”
“Just turn it on and see.”
Mom, who was known to everyone she didn’t give birth to as Elaine, had little sympathy for me, her sleepy son. She’d been up for hours working at a job she loathed. It seemed to me that this was what it meant to be adult: forcing yourself to do things you didn’t want to do so that someday your kids could do the same.
Mom worked for a school district in the payroll department, essentially getting paid to pay people. In the not too distant past, this would have involved the exchange of hard currency, but in the infancy of the third millennium, it’s all done with computers. Instead of counting out bills into a person’s palm, Mom typed some numbers into a software program, which caused the numbers in a person’s bank account to go up.
While this might seem a bit abstract, these numbers are not arbitrary. They are symbols, which represent pieces of paper, which represent pieces of gold. Gold doesn’t represent anything; its value is inherent in its glitter.
I wiped the sandman from my eyes, stretched my arms and cracked my back. What the hell could be happening on TV that I’d be roused so rudely to stare at it?
Our baby Golden Retriever, Iris, lay asnooze on the kitchen floor. She was the only one home besides me. My parents, of course, were both at work; my siblings were all at school.
I tried to sneak past her but my footsteps made the floorboards creak and Iris popped up like toast to say hello. While most dogs wag their puppy tails, she wagged her whole puppy ass. I mussed up the hair atop her head and made her promise she wouldn’t urinate in the house again. She seemed embarrassed that I’d brought up her bladder control issues, but agreed to piss outside.
I shuffled into the living room, where all the furniture faced the TV, and collapsed on the couch. I pawed my immediate surroundings for the remote but came up empty-handed. Technology is supposed to make life easier, allow us to change the channel without having to move. Sitting is easier than standing and walking (less suffering is involved).
After upturning every cushion in the room to no avail, I relented and trudged over to the TV set where my index finger was forced to come in direct contact with the power button. A picture faded in as my dark reflection faded out.
The same image was on every channel: two skyscrapers billowing black smoke into a clear blue sky. The bottom of the screen read America Under Attack!
My first thought was aliens. Extraterrestrials had finally made it to our planet and were announcing their presence by crashing their spacecraft into buildings. Wouldn’t that be something?
Reality, however, was rarely as fun as my imagination. It wasn’t UFOs at all but airplanes that did this. American airplanes flown by foreigners, the TV called them terrorists.
But I wasn’t terrified, not even a little. Perhaps if I’d been sitting at my desk on the 99th floor, looked out the window and saw a Boeing 767 coming toward me at 400 miles an hour, I’d want to jump out of my body. But I wasn’t there. I was asleep in my bed half a country away, unconscious even of my own existence.
My gaze stayed fixed to the screen for the rest of the day, as the buildings came down and the tears came down and all those important papers rained down from the skies. The picture seared itself into my mind’s eye, sure to leave a scar.
A few thousand people were dead because religious nuts had turned airplanes into incendiary guided missiles. The Wright Brothers would be disgusted. I highly doubt that back in 1903, when they first flew their flying machine, they could have guessed that their invention would one day be used to kill.
Nor could Einstein have known that E=mc2 would give birth to a bomb that’d let one human kill a hundred thousand other humans at the push of a button. I hope no one ever figures out how to turn the TV remote into a killing device. We’d never find the evidence.
I knew at once that this would be the event that “defined my generation,” although I wasn’t quite sure what that phrase meant. While my mother cried all day when Oswald killed her JFK, I found myself just numb. A few thousand people were dead for no reason, the vast majority of them innocent. I should surely have shed a tear or two, but I wasn’t sad enough. It was all too far away.
Had someone I’d known been murdered that morning, I am certain that I’d feel it. But as things were I could only watch, bewildered, as this crazy world came down before my eyes.