Sunday, September 11, 2011
I was Administrative Officer for a small agency with US Dept of Agriculture in South Carolina, and that day the boss was in Phoenix, leaving me as acting director in his place. That morning I called in I'd be a couple hours late due to a headache and a repairman dropping by.
Around nine, the repairman pointed at the television I usually ignored. I had to sit down to make sure this was real, not a hoax. I recall my breath catching in my throat repeatedly as reality tried to set in. In that moment, as newscasters spoke of deliberate attacks, I halfway expected to start hearing additional reports, as if the Trade Towers were just the start. Attacks in other major cities, maybe in my own state where we were known for an abundance of nuclear power plants and military bases. I worked in the state capital. Then it hit me. I was in charge of an agency headquartered in a high-rise Federal building, a likely target.
Tossing the repairman out, I grabbed keys and sped to work to leap into our contingency plan. As expected, we vacated. I had to see everyone off the tenth floor, to include a manager who didn't take it seriously and demanded to stay behind and work on a project. I all but kicked his butt to the elevator. He called Phoenix to report my behavior. I didn't care. I grew up military. Not following orders had consequences, some deadly. I never thought I'd be thinking such thoughts.
Building cleared, by now it was noon. My children were in high school. My federal agent husband was on a training trip to Glynco, GA, at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center where they were all on high alert yet ordered to remain on site. I had no one to go home to, and the adrenaline was still pumping strong.
Another manager and I decided to head to a sports bar downtown, noted for the most and biggest television screens, to watch multiple stations and wait . . . for some kind of direction, for signs of more terrorism, for signs of when to run for cover. Deja vu growing up on US Air Force SAC bases during the days of Viet Nam and the Cold War, where they enforced curfews, and sirens sounded alerts for fathers like mine to report.
Everyone in that bar had similar personal thoughts. We could hear them talking, heads together. There was a camaraderie there that afternoon, but tension still hung like a cold fog in the air, amidst the low lighting accented by repeated scenes of crashing towers.
What happens next, and what does this mean to me?
What if I'd been in New York, Washington DC, Pennsylvania?
What about people I know in those places?
Were they safe? Are we safe here?
How do we know where safe is?
My life shifted that day, as if the nine-to-five was frivolous. As the only woman manager in an agency founded on farmers, I still fought for respect. For over two decades I'd climbed that ladder, butting a plate glass ceiling, and now I wondered why I'd tried so hard when it wasn't what I wanted to do, or who I wanted to be.
I'd been writing part-time for two years at that point--FundsforWriters was a young publication. I went home and made a plan.
One year later in September 2002, after paying off bills . . . after building up my writing portfolio . . . after a serious family meeting where we agreed what was really important in our lives . . . I left the job.