Eleven years ago was a tragic day in America, and I was one of the unfortunates there to witness it. I was a resident of New York from 1998 – 2006 and on the morning of September 11th, 2001 I was a senior in college…immortal in my childish mind and nothing like the man I am today. What I have to tell you today is not a story of the tragedy I witnessed (and I saw plenty), but a lesson I learned about myself I want to share with all of you. My story starts on 9/10…and like most stories about 21-year-old boys it involves a girl.
My sophomore year I had found love…true love…as any 19-year-old sees true love when their priorities are sleeping in and throwing a good party over the weekend. My junior year I found that love takes work and at 20 I was in no place to love someone if I didn’t know how to love myself. Two weeks before my senior year I got dumped (as I should have been) because I was an old shoe with a stitch that made your foot itch. She was not my true love…but I wouldn’t understand that till 2002. So half way between getting dumped and realizing it was time to move on was a LONG period of being a lost puppy who would do anything to win back my love. I was lost. I was hurt. I was scared. I was lonely. So when the girl came to me on 9/10 and said “I want you back…” I disintegrated.
We stayed up all night talking about the past and what we had done to anger each other so much. We drank wine, we embraced, we thought we were in love…and maybe we were that night. My phone rang, and I shot a glance at it. It was my sister Lindsey. I debated this for a minute and then said to myself, it’s probably nothing. I ignored the call. She called again. Nothing could be more important that getting back together with my true love whom I had been re-pursuing for months now! So I turned my back on my family and stepped closer to the fire that would burn me again in just a few days time.
Hey this is Ryan, sorry I missed your call. Please leave me a detailed message with your name, number, and time you called and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible!
My sister heard this message a few times as sheer panic surged through her body. She had just been mugged…and not just mugged, held at gun-point. Her robber had cornered her right by her apartment, shoved her against a building, and pressed the barrel of the gun into her head…hard. This was what she was calling to tell me. She was calling to tell me that she didn’t have keys to get into her apartment and had to get a spare from the neighbor. She was calling to tell me she had lost her cell phone. She was calling because this had happened right outside and her attacker had robber her of her feeling of safety in her own home. She was frantic. She was calling me over and over again begging me to come over to her place and hug her. Calm her. Just be there..stand watch. But I was busy stepping closer to the fire. Burn, burn, burn Ryan.
On 9/11 I woke up in the best mood. I was back in a relationship, I slept without sadness, I felt rejuvenated, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Seriously, it was the most gorgeous day of the year! I tossed on my sweatpants, running shoes, and t-shirt and stepped out into that gorgeous day with AC/DC blasting in my headphones. Then everything got weird. People were not acting right. Something was happening. The first thing I heard from a classmate running across campus was “We’re under attack! They’ve bombed the Pentagon!” This was scary but not as scary as a gasp from a window behind me as someone shouted out the window “They’re attacking the World Trade Center!” Being a film student I instantly thought of Red Dawn and plotted where I would go to hide from the attackers. Up State was the place to go and I had a truck! All I needed to do was grab my true love and get my sister…oh. My sister. She called last night. What did she want?
I listened to her messages with horror as I realized what had happened to her…but what really freaked me out was the end of her last message. My sister is an actress, a damn fine one, and was always going to call backs, readings, etc. In her last message she explained that she had a big call back in the morning and needed to get calmed down so she could read her lines and get some sleep. She was trying to tell me where she was going and couldn’t remember the address. All she could remember was “It’s right down by the World Trade Center.”
I saw the first tower fall on TV and was heading south toward the George Washington Bridge before I knew it. Cell phones stopped working that day. All communication broke down. It was complete chaos…and I had lost my sister in that chaos. Not just my sister…but my best friend. The person who had stood up for me when I got in trouble in high school. The person who taught me all the skills in life. The person who inspired me to chase my dreams. My hero. My sister. Lost in the chaos of 9/11.
Occasionally my phone would ring (everyone’s did) and it would be some random person you hadn’t talked to in years saying, “I’m watching this on TV…are you okay?” You assured them you were and asked them to call who you were trying to get a hold of. Wherever they were calling from…the phones were not completely overloaded yet. Finally I got in touch with my folks in Wichita and assured them I was okay. No word from Lindsey yet. I told them about her messages and explained why her cell wouldn’t work. Hours later, by the grace of strangers and good fortune, my folks had calls from both their children confirming we were alive and well – and thus communicated to Lindsey and I that we were both okay. When I finally spoke to Lindsey later that day I broke into tears…knowing I had failed her…knowing how selfish I was.
My sister (who is 4 years older than me…2 if you ask her agent) had always stood up for me throughout life without question. She was my protector. 9/11 was my turn, and I missed the call.
A few days later the fire of the college girlfriend burned me yet again making everything seem so useless and futile. I couldn’t believe I had turned my back on my sister for a college romance that had burned me over and over again. In the weeks following I visited Ground Zero numerous times and easily came to see there were things much bigger than me in life. Issues far worse than “I still love you.” It was a coming of age. I was down there to film for the AP but the idea of making a profit from filming what I was seeing made me sick. I filmed the odd and pretty things that emerged from the chaos and stored the terrible sights away in my memory for no one else to have to see (and I still see them from time to time). I filmed massive crowds of people moving in silence. American flags flying from everything you could imagine. Military guards in what looked like a Hollywood war zone…in downtown New York City. Then I would get back in my truck, drive north to Yonkers, shower the dust out of my hair, and cry.
I still had classes to go to and soon the writing-table began its debate over if it was too soon to poke fun at 9/11 (we were comedy writers). Not only was the answer “Yes…way too soon!” It sparked a conversation that led to a pact we all swore on. Comedy is needed when there is tragedy. Its hard…but we need to laugh. So we began to laugh among ourselves. We hypothesized what would be a movie that would use 9/11 in the future. We compared it to “Titanic,” a terrible tragedy turned into a romantic love story with Leonardo DiCaprio’s hair billowing in the wind. We pictured some terrible movie with two lovers…trapped in opposing towers…trying to reach each other…but alas, the towers fall…but one lives to tell the tale. It’s not crazy. Your grand kids might go see it 100 years from now. However, we all swore we would never do anything like that – nor condone something like that. 9/11 can never be made into a movie like “Titanic.” I think there is a similar feeling among filmmakers out there, so instead we get documentaries designed with one theme underlying them all, the theme of 9/12 and beyond: “Never Forget.”
“Pornography.” That is what 9/11 footage is. It’s the train wreck you can’t take your eyes away from. It’s a bunch of build up and then WHAM! Plane hits. WHAM! Plane hits. WHOOSH! Tower falls. WHOOSH! Tower falls. …and we all stare (11 years later) glued to the TV like a teenage boy watching a skin flick on Cinemax. We’ve seen the crashes and falls thousands of times…yet we stare every time. A week after 9/11, the paper ran a special edition with a fold out frame-by-frame picture of the planes flying into the towers. It tumbled out of the paper like a pin-up girl. It was pornography, only instead of naked bodies we were looking at falling bodies…jumping bodies…bodies in the act of death. People. In the same way snuff films gave way to porn sites online thus turning fantasy into a desensitized access to fantasy…these images desensitized us to horror I think. I don’t know. All I know is I will never see any of my footage on the TV for the rest of my life on 9/11, and that makes me happy.
Yes, I paused today to remember the tragedy. Yes I am an American. No I will never forget…but I will also never forget that what I personally learned that day: Never turn your back on family, never exploit death, and always be thankful for what you have in life…when it is gone, its gone. September 11th is like Thanksgiving for me, but with a somber overtone. I think of all I am thankful for and remember the day as best I can…which is hard to remember now. The images burned into my brain in the days/weeks following have blurred to faint memories. However, the memory of my first love comes back to me every year vividly to remind me that I needed to grow up. I am thankful for my wife Kate who is the true love of my life. I am thankful for my son Max and my baby-to-be. I am thankful my sister didn’t die in the cloud of dust she ran from 11 years ago and that she is still here to guide the way for me. I am thankful for my family and I will never turn my back on them. I am thankful for my past which has brought me to here. I am thankful for my life…for life is a miracle, and if you do not believe so you have never witnessed a birth. I mourn for those who lost loved ones that day and hope they have found things to be hopeful for as the years have passed.
I pause. I remember. Then it slips away and tonight I may have the same dream I have every year…the dream that haunted me for months in 2011. I am riding a jetski on Lake George (this is where I’ll take my love and my sister to get away from the terrorists). It is a perfect day without a cloud in the sky like September 11th, 2011. Up ahead, I see another person on a jetski slam into the buoy in the middle of the bay where I live. He is thrown into the water and is drowning. I race towards him full speed…his head goes below water…then his arm is all that is left, and I dive from my watercraft headfirst into the water to save him. I clasp his hand! I’ve got him!!! However, he is dead and his eyes are looking directly into mine. His hand which I am holding is attached to nothing…it has been severed just below the wrist and has been floating for weeks (like him). Bloated. I turn to swim to the surface to find I am in 30 feet of water and surrounded by severed body parts, decapitated heads, pieces of torso, and blood stained personal effects. They seem attracted to me like a magnet. I try to swim to the surface to get air but there is too much in my way…and although I am in the middle of Lake George, 4 hours from Ground Zero, I see the tower tumbling down towards the surface of the water. The man I went to save had been dead for weeks…everyone was dead…there was no saving them. I am helpless and all is inevitable. The tower tumbles to the water and I am awake in my bed again. I can barely see the images I saw at Ground Zero anymore…but I can see that drowned man’s face clear as day when I shut my eyes. No, I will never forget…but I am thankful for everything I have. So please mourn the dead…but honor them by being thankful for what you have and the life that can grow from tragedy.