A particular September day, 15 years ago

By Joanne Peterson | Sep 09, 2016

Labor Day Monday arrived, signaling summer’s end. Families drove home from final camping trips, damp tents and wet shoes stuffed in the backs of SUVs. Kids snacked and dozed while parents endured freeway traffic, inch by inch.

Adults who chose not to travel on Labor Day sat chatting on decks, while their children, in faded tank tops and outgrown shorts, ran wildly through yards and up and down sidewalks, celebrating a last, rich freedom.

Dogs romped joyfully behind them while cats watched disdainfully from front steps. Tomorrow, kids in school. Neighborhood quiet.

September dahlias and chrysanthemums colored late summer gardens gold, ruby and orange, with an occasional struggling pumpkin vine, survivor of springtime seedlings planted in kindergarten juice cups.

Labor Day. Annual bittersweet end of summer in the United States.

Tuesday morning found kids toting new lunchboxes and wearing new backpacks, off to school, ready or not. Longhaired girls wearing flirty new dresses their dads had not approved. Boys, recently taller, wearing longer jeans and new, favorite-team T-shirts.

Teachers began the year with a smile and a determination to reach and teach each child. Kids greeted last year’s classmates and sorted out new kids. They negotiated playground protocol and entered the maze of the cafeteria, praying someone would want to sit by them. It was a typical back-to-school day in the United States.

The next week, on September 11, 2001, as soon as the first plane struck the first tower, everything normal shattered.

The earth might as well have tilted, sliding everyone into the sea, so deep was the shock, terror, anger and loss ¬– loss of life, of peace, of possibility. And for the beloved children starting school with new lunchboxes and new backpacks, there was the abrupt loss of innocence.

Those young ones would see it all unfold on TV, over and over, no matter how their parents tried to protect them. It was September 11, 2001, in the United States, where life would never be the same.

Every American has a story about where they were that terrible day.

I was in Oslo, Norway, where someone said, “You’re American, aren’t you? Something terrible has happened in your Washington.” Which Washington? What? WHAT? And then three days sitting on the foot of the bed in the hotel, staring at TV news feeds from the United States.

Then there were more days in other hotels waiting for U.S. flights to resume. If I slept, my dreams were unspeakable. Daytimes, I lived uplifted by Scandinavian compassion.

At the Copenhagen airport, masses of travelers, many American, waited. Security endlessly examined luggage. Exhausted, I listened for a Seattle flight number and finally heard it. A kindly gate attendant, unasked, upgraded us to business class for the long flight, one last Scandinavian kindness.

Minutes later, I sat back and watched Copenhagen disappear beneath the clouds. I was on my way home to the United States.

(My book group is reading “The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland,” by Jim DeFede. I recommend it.)


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