Several of you have been following the saga of Erudite Redneck (http://eruditeredneck.blogspot.com/) as he first traveled to Washington, D.C., in September 2001, then found himself in the midst of chaos and hell after the attacks of 9/11. He's shared the story of attending an insurance industry conference which included plans for a presentation on disasters by FEMA -- a presentation interrupted by terror.
His escape from D.C. involved depending on strangers, family members, a bottle of whiskey and earnest prayer. What he didn't know, at least at the time, was how earnestly people from the office were lifting up their own prayers for his return as well as feeling frustratingly helpless to get him home.
I was new to the department -- I had transferred in less than three weeks before the world turned upside down. I hadn't really had enough time to get comfortable with my job and a new work environment. Where I had had my own cubicle upstairs, I was now seated in a far corner of the newsroom, facing a dull, gray wall which was constantly assaulted by a bouncing ball thrown by the sports editor, approximately 25.5 inches from my throbbing head. More than once I was tempted to hurdle the desk and choke the life out of him.
It was a cultural shock coming from my previous department. One of the rare bright spots was getting to know E.R., an enigma if there ever was one. Here was a serious-minded, intense young man whose focus drilled right through his work (this is the erudite side). On the redneck side, his desk decor included a stuffed chicken, up to 10 nasty coffee cups growing an assortment of molds and an assortment of spit cups. Newspapers were stacked up two feet tall or more.
I know I threw him for a loop when I had to have my desktop lowered (I'm more than a foot shorter than he and couldn't work with my desk at shoulder height.) The big problem was that I wouldn't let him cross the border between his desk and mine with his mountains of materials.
We were still working through the "getting to know you" stage when he left for the D.C. trip. I enjoyed reading his columns and stories that I edited every week, and listening to him was a hoot without compare. But I didn't know him all that well yet.
The morning of 9/11, I woke up to my clock radio blaring the breaking news about the first plane hitting the first tower. It didn't make sense to me yet -- I couldn't tell if this was a real news report or some sick script written by the "wacky morning crew". I snapped on the TV where I was assaulted by the visual images. Like so many across the country, I thought a horrible accident had taken place -- until I saw the second plane hit the second tower.
After having seen what happened on April 19, 1995, I wasn't surprised when the towers fell. I've seen other buildings that were imploded on purpose, so I was waiting for the clouds of dust as all the other horrors were showing on the screen. From my room, I was urging people to RUN and keep running, to escape the fall of debris.
I got myself together in record time and headed for the office, wondering how in the world we as a staff were going to handle this news. For several hours there was chaos on the newsroom TVs -- how many planes had crashed? How many were still missing? Was the one that crashed in Pennsylvania really the plane that was heading for California, or was there another one still in the air heading for another target in the Washington? How badly was the Pentagon damaged?
How many people died in the attacks? Who?
I'm not even sure now how we got the messages telling about E.R.'s pilgrimage. My thought is that She Who Is His Wife forwarded his e-mails to our boss, or called him. He then told us what E.R. was going through. I don't really believe he had the inclination or thought to e-mail the boss himself.
There's no reason for him to think we expected him to "work" the story. We just wanted him to get the hell out of there and get back home. We knew that being so close to one of the targets was enough, too much, to endure. Working through that would be a ridiculous expectation.
Many of our co-workers had been at Ground Zero at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. The woman who is now the department boss was there. She was at a post office caddy-corner from the building, getting a passport for her infant son. The ceiling fell in on her and the world went dark, she described. Somehow, in some way I don't understand today, she was in the office that afternoon, standing next to me as I watched the FBI storm the farm owned by Terry Nichols' brother. It was surreal with her standing next to me, her shoes filled with blood and glass, as the farmhouse doors were rammed. She was hurt, and the FBI was going after the bastards responsible for it.
Others from the office were in another courthouse building across the street, covering a trial. A staff artist had just taken his tiny sons to the YMCA day care center and was just pulling away when the bomb blasted. He told us he did a U-turn in the street to get back to the boys; a local TV crew filmed him carrying bloodied children to his truck so he could get them to the hospital.
Later in the morning, a photographer and reporter were on site doing their jobs when a gas line under the street exploded beneath them. They continued their work despite being shaken.
The point is, on our turf the staff did the job they were born to do. They did it at their personal peril and at the cost of being scarred forever by the things they witnessed. Never before had any newspaper staff in the country had to deal with a case of domestic terrorism.
To their immense credit, management did everything humanly possible to take care of the staff through the long months this story remained our reason for being. Food was brought in two or three times a day, every day for a month. Grace was extended whenever it was needed by those who reached their limits to cope. Psychologists were brought into the office and made available to anyone who wanted to talk.
We prayed that we'd never have to go through another experience like that. But it created a solid fraternity among all the departments of the newsroom. We weren't going to let any stinkin' cowards do any more damage to our people.
And so, when we got word of E.R.'s intense effort to get home, it was unbearable. We knew something of the pain, although 9/11 was a magnitude far beyond April 19. We couldn't imagine being spittin' distance from the Pentagon, of all places. He was there, and he was without us. We couldn't comfort him, couldn't protect him, couldn't get him home.
My helplessness was made more intense because in those few moments when the planes crashed, my new job virtually evaporated for weeks. My main job in this new department was to gather all the wire copy about national economic and business news.
Now there was NO economic or business news. All trading was suspended. The center of stock trading and America's economic center was out of business. Phone lines were destroyed, cell phone towers destroyed. Nothing in the world made sense for a good long time.
Our business section shrank by two thirds. Instead of a separate section, we wound up with one or two pages for local business news, maybe. I didn't have anything to do until the New York Stock Exchange reopened to trading. All I could do was read the news wires to try to understand what was happening, and fret.
Everything about E.R.'s journey home was filled with chance. Would he meet up with the friend? Would he be in the right place to connect with his sister-in-law? Would he really be able to get a rental car in Kentucky or would car lots be shut down like everything else?
Worse, would there be more attacks? What targets?
He made it home. He gave us cursory stories about what he'd gone through, but was too spent to tell us everything then.
For a little while, I didn't nag him about the nasty cups, at least not as much. And I think a stack or two did tilt over on my side of the border.
I was just glad he made it back. I'm glad he finally could tell his story. And I hope he knows that he's earned his place in the fraternity.
We're not accepting new members at this time. You hear that, bastards?