I’m privileged to belong to a kick-ass writing critique group. Several of our writers have been working on memoirs and personal essays. They inspired me to write this piece.
Cardinal rule of photography – have something red in the picture to focus the eye. A little boy in a red sweater was running around in San Marcos Piazza on the island of Venice chasing pigeons, on a sunny day in September of 2001. Thousands of pigeons. I sat on some steps, camera to my eye, waiting for the magical moment when he would enter their nexus and they would all fly up, giving me a shot with action, red as the focus, and glee on his face. Unfortunately, these were wise pigeons, and aside from an undulating lifting off the ground and settling again, they paid the boy no attention.
“I’m not going to get the shot,” I said to my husband. He agreed. A man with a dark complexion approached us.
“It is too bad what happened at the shopping store in America,” he said. Ken and I looked at each other. Without words we said, ‘uh?’ and one of us mumbled, ‘yeah, sure.” I pictured an explosion at the Mall of America or something like that. The man walked off and we decided to head back to our hotel and check out the international news.
On this trip we traveled with my parents. To give each couple some time alone, we split up that day. Ken and I wandered the island, explored alleys, and saw the Bridge of Sighs. As we walked back to the hotel we passed my folks sitting at an outdoor café. Dad saluted us with his beer and we joined them at their table.
“Someone said the strangest thing,” I said and proceeded to tell them about the man.
“It’s worse than that,” Dad said. And that was when we learned what had happened in New York, on that day in September. September 11, 2001.
We made it to our hotel room and turned on the TV in time to see the plane hit the second tower.
“We’re at war,” I said. I didn’t appreciate the psychic gravity those words held. My next thought was, “we’re at war and we are in a foreign country. How do we get home?” The US had cleared the skies of planes. Nothing took off and everything in the air landed as close to where they were as possible. We were stranded.
Over dinner that night we discussed our options. Our return trip wasn’t due to start for four days. Perhaps US airspace would open by then. If not, my folks had friends who had a new daughter-in-law whose parents lived in Germany. Ken had black level status with Marriott and we could cash in some of those points for lodging. But what if it went on for months? We couldn’t be house guests with people we didn’t know for that long.
Florence was next on our itinerary. So, we went. Might as well try to maintain some normalcy. The first night in Florence my company called my sister, back home in Michigan, to see if I had made contact. Furthest thing from my mind. She called my parents, who passed along that we were fine. It made me feel good that they did that, and that perhaps they would have stepped in with some financial help if we faced a long-term stay.
We toured Florence, saw the statue of David, took a bus ride to Pisa and took pictures of us holding the tipping structure up. All along the way, Italian vendors posted signs in their windows, “We Stand with our American Friends.” The outpouring of mutual grief and confusion was shared by all we spoke with. The defacto expat community of travelers pulled together in hotel bars. Our eyes were glued to the TV, watching the plane hit the towers over and over. Seeing bodies fall, or jump, out of windows multiple tens of stories high. Knowing that they wouldn’t make it to the ground alive. We talked. We shared where we were from, and where we were when we heard the news.
Our plane was scheduled for September 14. Florence to Frankfurt to Denver to Los Angeles. Airspace in Europe was unaffected, so our flight to Florence was on schedule. As we stood in line to check in a man approached the woman in front of us and explained that he was moving and had too much luggage for the airlines limit, would she be so kind as to carry some of his luggage aboard? I freaked out.
“You CANNOT take anyone else’s luggage. Especially after what happened.” Security was called, and the woman did not take the extra bags. I have no idea if he was legit or not, I wasn’t taking chances.
We arrived in Frankfort to find an airport in chaos. Flights to the US had been cancelled for four days at that point, and tourists with no options were bunked in the ballroom of the Hilton adjacent to the terminal. Others were camped on the floors of the airport. We scanned the boards for our flight and saw that it was cancelled and headed for the Marriott. They gave us a room and we unpacked what little we needed for the night, and our bathing suits. They hotel had a rooftop pool and I hadn’t been in water for two weeks. I’m part fish. We sat by the pool, read our books, and decided we needed to get dinner. Dressed and hungry we passed through the lobby to the restaurant. A television screen had the same flight info as the boards in the terminal and our flight scrolled up. It was no longer cancelled. We raced to our room, tossed everything back in the bags, and checked out.
The line for check-in was epic. Everyone was hoping they could be on standby. Residents of Frankfurt walked up and down the line offering spare bedrooms and couches to the stranded tourists. We had an hour and 45 minutes before the flight. After 45 minutes in line, and two or three people away from the desk, they closed the flight. New rules. All flights close one hour before doors on the plane shut. Ken blasted the lid off the poor counter worker, who probably, no, didn’t have anything to do with that decision, but his rage had to go somewhere. She was the unlucky human in his path. Back to the Marriott, which graciously gave us our room back, still unmade, and again we headed down to dinner. By now it is about 9:00 at night, and we ate simply because we knew tomorrow would be a trial as well, and we needed strength.
The next day we got to the airport with ample time, checked in and headed for the security checkpoint. The first of three. We showed our ticket and passport at each stop. The terminal was quiet except for the shuffling of feet and the mummer of voices to ask directions, quell crying children and answer security questions. At the last stop we were locked into the gate waiting area, with another armed guard blocking the door. The air was tense, like everyone was afraid to take a deep breath. I scanned the other passengers. Just as they scanned us. Was this person likely to take control of this flight and ram us into a building? Maybe that’s why taking a breath was so hard, it might imply guilt.
On board the plane we sat in our seats and stared ahead. We had bought the first Harry Potter book, two of them, so we could each read. The perfunctory safety briefing seemed ridiculous considering four hijacked planes had heard the same words. Lot of good it did them. The in-flight entertainment was silent, the map of where we are in the sky turned off. The food served with plastic sporks. No one is going to overwhelm the captain with a spork, I guess.
We landed at the Denver airport at ten at night. The passengers erupted in cheers when the wheels hit the ground. We were safe on American soil, hadn’t blown up or crashed. The relief expanded my lungs, a felt I could float through the dark terminal. Nothing was open. We were the first flight to land in Denver since September 11. They lit just enough of the cavernous United terminal, to allow us to make our way to baggage, and customs and then a line of taxis called to take us to hotels. Our footsteps echoed off the tile, concrete, and glass of the building.
The next day when we returned, the airport was up and running as if nothing had happened. Except for the security lines, which were long. No one minded.