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Sunday, September 11, 2005

9-11 From a Foreign Country

On 9-11 I was in Canada. I never meant to be in Canada, that's just the way it turned out. You see, I am a true computer consultant, a geek-for-hire. I work at jobs for a while, then move on to something else, just like a high-tech construction worker.

After the big dot-com burst, times were tight, and I was looking for work wherever I could get it. I had a couple emails from Canada -- "Would you like to work in Winnipeg?" to which I always said, "sure!" Who knew what would turn into a real job?

But sure enough, sometime in late August the phone rang. It was Nick, and he wanted to make sure I was serious, "It gets kind of cold here in the Winter"

Hey -- cold is one thing, starving is another. I signed up quicker than Mr. Spock could say, "logical" If there was money to be made somewhere up in the great white north, count me in.
On the way up, we had a blast. As an instrument pilot I tend to tell the flight crews that I am aboard, hoping to get a chance to talk to the "real folks". In this case, the pilot of the 337 going into Winnipeg was very kind. I got a tour of the cockpit and a good discussion with the copilot of the new flight controls. It was way cool!

My first day on the job was Tuesday, September 11th. The first week I try my best to make a good impression: work extra every day, ask the right questions, and learn the ropes. This day was no different. The first thing I noticed was the girl in the cube next to me did not talk correctly. I found this to be the case for a lot of those Canadians.

"If you can't understand me, don't worry. I'm a frog," she explained when I got there, would that tell my anything new? She was a frog? Was this some sort of strange Canadian club? I didn't see any kind of frog pin on her outfit. Was she a member of some weird frog-worshipping cult who had to hide in Canada? Sadly, I had no answers to these questions.
My boss gave me a big pile of computer printouts. "Get up to speed on these, and we will talk at lunch", he said.

Geesh! What a bunch of boring paperwork! But I had to read it, and I had to know it all in a day or two. I heard the lady in the other cube talking to someone in some other language. I took 4 years of French in High School, that couldn't be it. She must be Italian or something.
I read some more. Blah-blah-blah, blah-blah-blah. Yikes! I will never get finished! But I have to make a good impression!

Then that weird frog-lady started getting even stranger. She was talking partly in English, and I couldn't help but hear her. Something about plane crashing? Into a tower? Looks like an accident? What is all that about?

I made a snap decision: I could sneak out to CNN very quickly and find all about it. If there were a plane crash, I would know. So I booted up the browser and typed in the address.
No go. CNN was not coming in. I tried another address. It did not come in either. What? Was there some kind of block for news? Was that my boss coming by? I decided to let it go and go back to the paperwork.

The lady got more excited over there. A big plane? Something in that language again. New York? Ok, I had enough. I booted up the browser. I knew hundreds of internet web pages. Surely I can get through to something. I tried a bunch, but every one came up the same: service unavailable.

What the heck? It seemed like something big, so I got on the phone and called my wife.
"Honey. There seems to have been a big crash in New York. Have you heard anything?"
"I'm cleaning the floor in the kitchen. What to you want?"
"Can you turn on the news? CNN? I think something is happening."
There was a pause. She came back to the phone.
"Just some people talking. Nothing much. I will call you back."
There was another pause. I thought she was going to hang up. Must have been something stupid, I thought. Silly me.

Then she came back on. She had a hushed voice, like two people talking in a masoleum.
"There is some sort of crash, Daniel," she said, "looks like a plane crashed into the World Trade Center"

I was a commerical pilot. I studied airplane crashes.
"Must have been fog. Pilot busted minimums on the way in. A lot of light planes don't have competent pilots," I said.
"It's a big fire," she said, "I can see the building on TV. It's on all the channels. Looks like it was a bigger plane."

"Still," I was reaching for straws, "there are a lot of cases of big planes flying into things. There is even an acronym, CFIT, for good airplanes flying into things when they shouldn't. The pilots must have been pre-occupied with some computer problem." I was thinking of all the computer code in front of me -- could I understand it all in five minutes if it could keep me from crashing?

I thought not.
"Looks pretty bad," she whispered. The kids were playing.
I flailed away on the internet like I have never before. I typed addresses, I tried tunnels, I even tried using my cell phone as a modem. Nobody could get on the net.

What was going on? It had to be a simple pilot-error crash. Almost all plane accidents were pilot errors -- to the chagrin of most pilots.
"I'm watching it on the Today Show now," she said, "they have a better camera angle. It looks like the whole building is on fire. Daniel!"

I held my breath.
"There is another airplane! Oh my God! It crashed into the other tower! Jesus!"
At that moment, I never felt so hopeless in my life. My life just emptied out.
"I guess it must be deliberate," I said to nobody in particular, "this must be the beginning of something."

We talked on the phone for quite a bit, me huddled in a cube somewhere in Canada and her in a little sleepy town in Virginia. There were other crashes, other stories. Snipers in DC? Bus bombs in New York? I couldn't get off the phone. I had to know.

Later that week, I turned in my time card. "Sorry boss. I didn't get a lot done this week. I should have done better."
He smiled and gave me a hug. I know, he said, don't worry about it.

When I got to the airport the next week all the people had little American flags on their lapels. As I boarded the plane, the entire flight crew looked very scared, and very dangerous. I noticed a man with a head scarf sitting in front of me -- a Sikh I think? I made a mental note of what I would do if he did something strange. What would something strange look like?

The Canadians were kinder than I could have imagined. "We're all Americans," one lady told me, gripping my hand firmly.

"Somebody needs to find them and make them pay," a man up the aisle told me, "we should hunt them down no matter where they go."

I only had one bad encounter. I was walking after work, trying to find the shopping mall. There was a group of 4 teenage boys ahead; I thought I would ask them.
The first boy approached me before I got to them. His eyes were burning and his muscles taught.

"Can you guys tell me where to find the mall?" I asked.
"You from the States?" he asked

"It was your colonialist policies that caused this attack. You should be ashamed of yourself!"
What to say? Do we begin with a discussion of Islam, then fundamentalism, then colonialism? Should I ask him about Britain? How about his views on North Africa? Chechnya? He was just a kid, for Christsakes.
"The Mall?"

He gestured to his left, disgusted with me. I had no answers for him that day, and he wanted plenty.

Since then, the one feeling I have had was worry. People will forget. This is a great country -- we do not want to be pulled down by anything, even things that should pull us down. We want a quick fix. Find me the man, I want some one person to blame! Let's do something quick and watch the superbowl next week.

This war would not be like that. Strategic moves are not tactical moves. The "one man" may be completely insignificant in the world of things. This could really be a war inside of Islam, with us the "collateral damage" Nobody wants to talk about that.

I don't fly any more. Not as a hobby or for work. I have a picture of a pistol on the refrigerator, a Sig-Sauer military model. Each terrorist attack, I look it up and check my balance on the credit card. The article said it isn't pretty, but it gets the job done reliably. My next job was in downtown DC. Each day I walked by the SWAT teams and the bomb dogs -- men in combat outfits and mirrors under the cars -- all on the way into work.

People ask me if I support the war on terror. Some ask me if I've been scared enough to vote for one person or the other. If I am a pawn of some party or another. As a former marine, I just smile. I know a war when I see one.

photo credit: CNN determined to be a fair use picture from Wiki


At 9:02 PM, Blogger B O B said...

Dan, I can't beleive I failed to comment on the best post that has ever been made on this blog. You told this so well.


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