Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Snapshots We Carry

The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. A first car ride. The first sighting of a plane in the sky. A first television set. The Hindenburg. The Stock Market crash, Great Depression, and Dust Bowl years. The Lindbergh and Earhart flights. The Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Pearl Harbor. Normandy. The liberation of concentration camps. These are the kinds of memories that punctuated the life span of my parents and grandparents. I am now older than my grandfather was in my earliest memories of him. My own freeze-framed memories have begun to chronicle the passing of time.

It was a frosty day on the Outer Banks. The sun was so bright that everyone was squint eyed from the labor of seeing. Blue jeans flapped in the island wind with ferocity. I wondered how my mother could withstand the icy attack as she hung them out to dry. A neighbor approached. There were a few words. She was tearful. The President was dead.

Hatteras Island, NC natives did not and do not evacuate. Don't believe what they guys on The Weather Channel tell you. It was a Sunday morning. Almost time for church. A storm had whipped up overnight and cut the island and our power lines in half. The power had been out 2 weeks. Sunday church would go on as usual. Mamma was struggling to get my wiggly, pre-school feet into socks and patent leather shoes. She was fraught with the strain of it all. The fan over the oil heater came on. “Look, the power's on!” I cried out knowing how happy she would be.

What?” she snapped. “Stop that! I don't have time for your mess!”

My tears began to fall. “But, the power's on!” In an instant she was crying too.

I was getting ready for Vacation Bible School. A summertime right of passage for all children in the Bible Belt of the USA. I had scored it big that year and was attending my 2nd VBS of the summer. 

The Today Show came on. Anxious for the moment I could bolt out of the house and toward the neighborhood church, I was eating Cheerios and watching the clock. Even back then, I was a budding cultural anthropologist and newshound. My spoon stopped midway between bowl and mouth. The dead President's brother was dead now too.

The world had really become a scarier place. 1968 was like a 1-2 punch which reinforced that my days of innocence were over. Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated only 3 months earlier. It seemed the world had shifted on its axis. 
The first landing on the moon. Apollo 13. Watergate. The Viet Nam War. The draft lottery. The fall of Saigon. The Hong Kong Flu pandemic. The day that Elvis died. The fall of the Berlin wall. The 1972 Olympic massacre. My first computer. My first cell phone. These memories and others are sandwiched in between the mundane events of my youth. I lived them in real time. My sons read about them in history books.

Courtesy Mad Penguin Creative
It was another squinty-bright day, but there was no wind this time. Altho' summer was gasping for rain, the drought and scorching heat were relentless. Autumn was no where to be found. The brilliant, dry blue of the sky was absent any clouds. We were mid-way in a spelling test. The phone rang irksomely, and I ignored it wanting to finish the test. It rang again. On the 3rd set of rings, I gave up and snatched up the phone.

I could hear the urgency in my brother's voice. “Turn on the TV.” Like so many others would do that morning, I turned it on just in time to see the 2nd plane hit in real time. I immediately knew that all hopes for a bizarre accident had just died along with many thousands of people.

The rest of the week is freeze framed in my mind. The 9/11 trip to 4H after we adults hurriedly agreed that the kids needed to do something normal. As we went, I noted the clusters of emergency and public safety vehicles lining up at gas stations to fill up 'just in case'. No one knew what 'just in case' represented – only that it would be bad. Later that day, my older son built twin towers out of Lego’s. He and my younger son flew Matchbox jets into them. Everyone was trying to make sense of something that was incomprehensible.

Courtesy Mad Penguin Creative
Fighter jets buzzed our neighborhood. It sat wedged so close to a nuclear power station that we soon got word there would be tablets available at the pharmacies in case of an attack. I ironed as President Bush spoke to the nation. His voice was nearly drowned out by the fighter jets again buzzing the air above us. I wondered, would our hearts ever beat again.

The churches were unusually full the following Sunday. Somehow it reminded me of scenes from World War II movies. From my seat in the choir, I as acutely aware that no one looked unscathed. Everyone seemed wide-eyed and newly startled even tho' the horror was nearly a week old. If anyone had whispered, “Boo!” I think some would have fainted dead away.

Courtesy Mad Penguin Creative
Ten years have allowed the immediacy of the horror to fade. That is, until the anniversary when we stop and focus on our collective horror and grief. Son #2 has only our memories to grab on to. For him, 9/11 will be a faint memory stirred by the history books his own children will read. Time moves on, and so do we. But, for today, our hearts will stop as we catch our collective breath. The snapshots of our lives will become the sighs of our hearts. We have not forgotten.

Carol Anne Wright Swett – 9/11/11
Dedicated to the Bass, Egli, Hutchinson, Squires, and Mendoza families and to the families and friends of those on the planes and in the Towers 10 years ago today.


  1. Absolutely beautiful, I hung on every word, you have an amazing gift as a writer!

  2. Oh, Elisabeth, given that there will be so many words said and read about today's anniversary, your words leave me speechless. That is the kind of writer I want to be when I grow up!

  3. I remember too . . . where I was, what I wore, what I had on my schedule that day . . .

  4. As you know, I will never forget. Thank you for the reminder of all those who didn't make it home.