All over the web today, people are talking about where they were on 9/11, their thoughts and memories, and reflections after eight years. I haven’t blogged much about 9/11, partly because I was deeply distracted by things like parties, car accidents, andtrying to breathe, but also because, although I have many opinions about the issues of our day, I don’t tend to blog about them. Then today on facebook one of my friends, who was with me on 9/11, posted something about how her experience was unique, and I thought, “You know, it really was.” So I thought that, while it is still 9/11, I’d tell you Where I Was On 9/11.
I was at Camp Wapo, a Lutheran Bible Camp nestled deep in rural Wisconsin. It was the autumn of my first year with a traveling youth ministry called NET (National Evangelization Teams). Every year NET takes over Camp Wapo for a month or so, turning the counselor’s cabin into a Eucharistic Chapel, celebrating Mass every morning in one of the main buildings, and having Confession during the lunch break out at the picnic tables which were dragged away from the main path. It was a time of grace, a time of deep spiritual growth, a time of preparing for the trials of the months to come, when the pressures of living in close community with people you were still coming to know while carrying out a rigorously demanding ministry would start to tell on you.
It was gorgeous in Wisconsin that September. Clear blue skies, leaves just starting to turn brilliant colors, hazy early morning mists as we sleepily stumbled our way to prayer in the morning. We were still in the part of our training where we started the day off with an hour or so of training in how to pray: a short talk about some aspect of personal prayer, and then time in which we were supposed to go put the lecture into practice. This was followed by daily Mass, then breakfast at about 9am. The only TV on camp was back in the cook’s office where we were strictly forbidden to go. There was no internet, no radios. The first we knew that this day was any different was at breakfast. We were sitting down waiting to be led in the grace before meals when Christopher Kraker, the Associate Director, came out and asked for our attention. He said, “I don’t know how to tell you guys this, but about an hour ago a plane flew into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. And for a while people thought it might be an accident, but we now know that it was not an accident, because another plane has just flown into the other tower.”
We were stunned into silence. I thought he was joking, that this was a practical joke, the prelude to some silly skit or training exercise, or God knew what. They were always doing silly things. Surely this was another one. But as the silence lengthened, and Christopher started leading us in prayer I started to feel sick, like I’d suddenly found myself on the edge of a precipice I hadn’t know was there, and had nearly walked off. The girl next to me turned chalk white, and rushed out of the room to the pay phones. She was from New York, and her brother worked in one of the towers. She later found out that, although he had been supposed to work that day, he had traded hours with a coworker, and stayed home.
We ate breakfast in a stunned hush, and afterwards split up until our first training session of the day. I didn’t know what to do with myself. As I passed the kitchen door, I looked in and saw one of the 2nd year guys sitting in a chair watching the TV with the most devastated look on his face. He was also from New York, and his uncle worked in the World Trade Center. By now we had been told that the towers had fallen, and it was presumed that anyone who had been in them was dead. Everything around me, the bright sunshine and beautiful leaves, looked surreal, too bright, too glossily beautiful. I walked up to the Eucharistic Chapel, and sitting in the silence with the other Adorers, prayed a Divine Mercy Chaplet for the first time. “Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins, and for those of the whole world.” The enormity of the sins of the world, of the sins committed just that morning, staggered me. How could someone do something so completely unloving to another person? I couldn’t comprehend it.
At this point I still hadn’t seen any of the footage of the attacks, the images that were searing their way into the collective American unconscious. I had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon in town, and while I was sitting in the waiting room, I saw the attacks for the first time. I’ve never watched a TV in a doctor’s office with such attention. When I got back to the camp, a TV had been set up in the downstairs room of the lodge, and people were watching the coverage in strained silence, speaking in hushed voices, as if in the presence of something that demanded reverence.
After that first day, the TV was put away, and we went on with our demanding training schedule. We heard the news of the outside world, of how our country was responding to the crisis, but distantly, in drabs of news garnered from phone calls home. We heard that the girl’s brother was ok, and that while the guy’s uncle had escaped from the twin towers, he had been caught by the falling rubble when his tower fell, and crushed from the waist down. He survived, but barely. We heard that all air traffic had been suspended, that the skies over America had gone silent. I found out that my Aunt who lived in Manhattan, was fine, and had been watching from the roof of her apartment building when the second plane flew into the towers. My cousin, who worked at an investment banking firm in Manhattan, was fine too. Our time at Wapo ended, and I remember looking up in the skies as we drove back to the Twin Cities. They looked so empty without airplanes. We heard about prayer services being held, about memorials in countries all over the world, about the outpouring of support.
This stuff was going on around us, but it was a little distant somehow. Our training demanded our full attention. I remember one night while we were in St. Paul, I came back to our host family’s home after a long day of training. They were watching the phonathon raising money for the survivors. The sheer number of stars taking part was impressive, but what really astonished me was that this was the only thing showing on every channel of the TV, and that there were no commercials. I’d never seen America take something so seriously.
The next September found me back at Camp Wapo, getting ready for another year serving God with NET. Life was busy and absorbing, and I didn’t think too much about 9/11. Then one crisply gorgeous morning, I came out of my cabin and started down the hill through the morning dew towards the chapel. And the bottom fell out of my stomach. This was where I was, this was just what it was like, when the world changed. I stopped a moment, then pulled myself together and kept going. After breakfast, I grabbed the arm of one of the other 2nd years. “This morning,” I said, “When I was going down to chapel… it was just like last year.” “Yeah,” he said, “me too