Where were you when…?
That’s a question that resonates from generation to generation. For my parents, it was "when Pearl Harbor was bombed?" and "when JKF was shot?"
For me, it was multiple events as well. I was old enough to remember the JFK assassination. I was in 5th hour Home Economics class, having just put cinnamon rolls in the oven when the voice of Walter Kronkite came on the radio. We were allowed to listen to the radio in home ec. Most kids in my school didn’t know what happened for another hour.
"When the Challenger blew up?" I was home in bed with pneumonia. I got a call from a desk clerk at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and thought he was playing a sick joke. (Sorry, Rick.)
"When the Twin Towers came down?" I was in a World Trade Conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Wichita along with up to 150 people whose full-time jobs involved an office in one of those towers. And yes, details have stuck with me.
Anniversaries of 9/11 always remind of that day. I was at the Hyatt very early, way ahead of the start of the conference because I had an appointment to do some catching up with Sally Lundsford, a friend from my college days in Minnesota, who was working for the Department of Commerce in Kansas and was instrumental in the organization of the conference.
I was already checked in when the news started coming in. Everybody thought it was an accident and gathered around the television in the hotel lobby. When the second plane hit, it was obvious it was an attack. And when the Pentagon was hit, any doubt about a hostile attack was removed.
Japan was the headliner of the trade event I was attending and had a large delegation present. As we watched the smoke rising from the Pentagon on the screen someone said, "I think I know how people felt at Pearl Harbor." There was a gasp behind me and I turned to see tears on the face of the Japanese representative standing there.
"And at Hiroshima," I said. He held out his arms and hugged me.
A lot has happened since that day. A war in Afghanistan. A war in Iraq. Destabilization in the Middle East. But on that day and time, I remember a feeling of coming full circle. I was there sharing grief with someone who was on the opposite side of perhaps the greatest war in American history. And we were friends, suffering together the loss of people we worked with and loved and people we didn’t even know. We were entering a new territory where we didn’t know what would happen next or what alliances would be tested.
I wandered around the meeting rooms for another two hours, talking to trade representatives and watching people break down in tears as they couldn’t reach co-workers in the Twin Towers. Dozens of people in that room would have been at work in the Twin Towers had they not come to Wichita, Kansas for a convention.
I wanted to do interviews, but I didn’t dare bring out a notebook or a camera because there had already been a directive not to allow the press into the building. I figured if I got caught taking notes or recording anything, I’d be thrown out. I loved being there, where reactions were really happening. I figured if I couldn’t document it, I could at least remember it.
It was when I was talking with a past president of the Kansas Farm Bureau, Stan Ahlred, that I got caught. He told someone next to him that I worked for the Wichita Eagle and a security guard moved in. I explained I had already been in the room when the news broke, but he was not accepting excuses. I got escorted out of the building and moved into the "press pen" on a street corner across from the Hyatt. My special access was ended. From that point, we got "official" press briefings and no access to anyone who experienced anything.
I will never forget those hours. The sorrow was immense, and the human connection was strong. The people who were there were all people who wanted more than anything in the world to find pathways for the world to join together in finding ways to help move surpluses in one country to deficits in another. If only we could find an equitable way to do that.
There were also people who were almost ecstatic, talking about "Going to wipe out all those bastards," and people who wereterrified about what might come next: "Will this start an endless war?" and "Is this just the beginning?
I think the jury is still out on that question. Was it?