Retelling a retelling of my 9/11 experience in light of recent events

September 11, 2010

The Call came at 9:00 AM, from my son at his work, just a few blocks away:

“They’ve hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”

His voice was strangely flat and affectless. I’d never heard him speak this way before.

“Who hit what?”

“I don’t know who. Planes. Passenger planes I think. It’s on TV, but we don’t know what’s going on.”


“Yeah. I’m at work. Turn on your TV.”

I did as he said. There was the first tower, the way we all remember it, the way it’s been burned into our collective memory. Nothing being said made any sense, but the basic fact before me was clear enough. So was the fact the Pentagon had been struck in a similar way.

“I love you dad.”

“I’ll be right here. Call me back when you have a chance.”

My youngest, my daughter, would be in her dorm room at Georgetown, across the river from the Pentagon. Later I would talk to her, get her impressions, my baby who’s seen more kinds of devastation in her short life, who’s experienced more god-awful things — we’d talk later.

The second plane hit.

My girlfriend, living on the west coast, would be asleep still, would wake up in an hour or so and walk into a world of confusion. I decided to call her right then. Little bits and pieces of information were trickling in, but still, mostly chaos. While dialing I watched the two buildings, the replays, and I realized what would happen shortly. I will apologize to no conspiracy theorists here, either. I knew what would happen because I learned it in college, in fire behavior and building construction. I also knew who would be most closely gathered at the feet of the twin towers.

Then it happened. Everyone knows what happened next.

I called California and went through the drill. It was not unlike informing someone at work, at the Bethesda Naval Hospital where I was working again in the ER, that a loved one had died, but without the preparation that comes from sitting in a waiting room, hoping against hope. It was greeted with that same blank kind of voice my son had been using.

The television became hypnotic, like a terrible dream from which I couldn’t wake myself.

Another call, this one from my fire station. Would I be able to turn out to help man the desk while our engine company responded to the Pentagon? “Yeah…I’ll be over in a…”

Call waiting.

“Hold on.”

Someone from Bethesda Naval Hospital calling, asking if I would please report to the hospital ASAP.

“Yes. I’ll be there within the hour.”

Back to the caller from the fire station:

“That was work. I guess I’ll see them down there. I don’t know. I have to report to Bethesda.”

Then I sat, stared, collected the hebephrenic bits of information, slowly gathered myself, apparently drove to Bethesda, wound up at the Pentagon around 1:00 PM. There wasn’t much for us corpsmen to do there, but we did what we could. Some of us were rotated out early and of those, some retained on duty at the hospital. Others were debriefed and sent home.

I found a message on my phone at home. Just one. It was from my girlfriend, telling me the breakfast she was supposed to attend that morning was still on, that she was fine, that she’d call me later.

I returned to watching, having gotten, by then, a vague idea of what had happened. Over the following days and weeks we all know what happened. For a while we were all united in our pain, our outrage, our shock.

Then something happened that would become, in hindsight, a warning sign of the fact we might never regain our composure and move on:

My son, who was then part of a promising heavy metal band, was with his bandmates in a white van, making their third consecutive annual whirlwind tour of the deep South, which was, outside of the greater DC area and some parts of Europe, where their biggest fan base existed. It was October. They’d drive down I-95, get over onto I-75, pass through the outskirts of Atlanta, make stops in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and end with a show at a doom metalfest in Texas.

Something happened in Georgia that would wind up being retold in the first song on their first full-length album, released more than a year later. They were pulled over by a Georgia state trooper. No violation was committed, but it was a newly post-9/11 world. Here were three young men in a white van. The driver had long hair and a beard. The one in the middle, who is of Greek extraction, was bald and had a mustache. The one riding shotgun was black. They were all in their early 30s. White vans are automatically a bad idea, it seems. Beards, Mediterranean features, black, passing through Georgia…heading…south.

“Atlanta: Too Busy to Hate.” Do they still use that ironic slogan?

My son and the others wound up face down in the middle of the highway with guns pressed to their heads, being asked in urgent and angry tones “What’s in the van?” The answer, of course, was guitars, a drum kit, amps.

Slowly the story became more clear and they graduated to being locked in the back of a cruiser. Eventually IDs were verified. And at last they were turned loose to make up the lost time, but not by speeding, at least not til they were out of Georgia.

The lyrics to “Aftermath,” the first song on the subsequent album (“Thousand Vision Mist” by the now defunct Life Beyond) begin this way:

“Gotta go to the show

But you got me locked up in a cage

Gotta gun pointed at my head

And you think I’m a killer

“I warned you about those crazy people

Who try to make you believe what they say…”

and closing with

“It’s a dark and lonely road tonight.”

Nine years on, now, why is this road still so dark and lonely?

Some of us seem to like it that way.

Things that made some sort of sense in the immediate aftermath make no sense now, and things we hadn’t even begun to discover about ourselves til recently have a nightmarish and insane quality.

Surely there’s life beyond the nightmare.

Time to turn the lights on again.



Writer, activist, novelist, sixth generation DC, local historian-storyteller, and 1:1 patient care technician five days a week.

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AJ Calhoun

Writer, activist, novelist, sixth generation DC, local historian-storyteller, and 1:1 patient care technician five days a week.