Nine years after that terrible day, I’m still at a loss to describe my feelings. This is a hard thing for a newsman to admit, but we were a few hours into it before I became aware of what was happening. It was my day off, and for whatever reason, instead of idly flipping on the TV, as I would usually do, I just puttered around the house. Nobody called, not even the office. When I finally did turn on the TV and see the image of the plane looping around and then crashing into the tower, I just went numb. A few seconds later, I saw the second one and my knees went out from under me. And there I stayed.
A group of my friends, guys who have been in a fantasy football league together since the early ’90s and gather yearly for a draft and convention, were in the city that day, and at some point, I scrambled to a computer in an effort to find out if they were all safe. They were, thank God. And then it was back to the TV.
The litany of horrors — towers pierced and then toppled, a plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, yet another plowed into the Pentagon — was almost too much to comprehend. I watched and watched. I prayed. I burned with anger, confusion, frustration. Just like everybody else.
I also felt distress on a deeply psychological level. For as long as I could remember, I’d had a specific death dream. I was in an airplane, flying low. It would slide under overpasses, above city streets, until it was aimed directly at an insurmountable obstacle and … I woke up. I couldn’t begin to count the number of mornings I awoke, sweaty and with choppy breath, as a plane I rode in my subconscious headed, yet again, for a collision with some object rooted to the earth.
9/11 was the reality of my most common nightmare, multiplied by 2,996.
To say I’d always been a reluctant flyer is to cheapen the word “reluctant.” As it turned out, I had a ticket in hand for a trip to Texas in November 2001, and in the wake of 9/11, I had deep fear that I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to step onto the plane. Flying, for me, had always been a triumph of selfish pragmatism — the ease of movement eventually winning out over my fear of putting myself at the mercy of a pilot I didn’t know and machinery I couldn’t trust. Rationally and statistically, I knew my objections were silly. But rationale doesn’t hold a lot of currency when your dreams send you continually crashing into buildings and you’ve just seen that same horror play out in the conscious world.
My day of travel arrived, and I sucked down liquid courage in a bar at the San Jose airport before boarding. A funny thing happened next. I slept — deeply. I didn’t feel the plane take off, and I didn’t pull out of it till the wheels touched the ground at D/FW. When I went home a few days later, the same thing occurred. On the dozens of flights since, I’ve either slept or sanguinely sat through my ride. No more white knuckles. No more thumping day-of-travel fear.
I cannot explain it. Don’t really care to have an explanation. On a day that took so much from all of us, I somehow retrieved a small scrap of my fear and stashed it for good. I would give it back, in a heartbeat, if it meant that the losses of that day went away. The galvanizing national experience of 9/11 manifests itself in our lives in so many ways, and for me, one of those is what I remember every time I get on a plane.