the spanish division of youth specialties, called especialidades juveniles, had been holding an amazing youth workers convention in argentina for a few years already. but in 2001, my wife attended with me. my parents traveled from michigan to san diego to stay with our young children. jeannie and i added a short-but-wonderful trip on the front end to visit iguazu fall, on the border of argentina, paraguay and brazil. other than our time at iguazu, mike yaconelli was with us also, and that trip is one of my fondest memories of time spent with him. jeannie, mike and i had a blast in buenos aires, eating bife de chorizo steaks the size of a prizefighter’s fist, making daily trips to our favorite cigar lounge, and spending wonderful time with the youth workers of central and south america.
we flew home, overnight, on september 10 and 11.
after an all-night flight, we landed in chicago. in that strange space of being tired and wired at the same time, looking forward to seeing our kids, we cleared customs and boarded our flight to san diego early in the morning. about 20 minutes into the flight, the plane made a noticeable 180-degree turn, bringing all of us to our first of dozens of alerts. the pilot said we were being sent back to chicago, but he didn’t know why. groans and complaints all around. it was the concerned look on the face of the flight attendant, however, that really caught my attention. she was standing nearby, and in her nervousness, started chatting (probably more than she should have) with one or two passengers. “in all my years of flying, i’ve never had this happen without an explanation.”
fifteen minutes later, we banked right, heading south. the pilot said we were being re-routed to st. louis. st. louis? then he told us something that caused emotional pandemonium: “all air traffic in the country is being grounded immediately.”
if this happened today, we would all instantly know it was related to terrorism. but we had no reference for this kind of terrorism. it wasn’t a concept in our lexicon of potential explanations. even, just as we landed, when a passenger turned on his cell phone and announced the news that there was something about a plane and one of the world trade center towers (the first tower), no one even mentioned terrorism — it just wasn’t on our radar, so to speak. theories abounded, the flight attendant grew increasingly jittery, and everyone grumbled about the inconvenience and how we were all going to get out of st. louis.
as we were grabbing our things to leave the plane, we got just enough information to formulate a very fuzzy understanding of what was going on; and it was clear we were not going to be leaving st. louis on the next flight home. we stumbled into the concourse, trying to figure out what to do next. walking down the concourse, we stood nearby a bar with televisions playing the news (i notice this bar, and these televisions, every time i pass through the st. louis airport). while standing there, we watched the live footage of the plane flying into the second tower. i remember that, after a collective gasp, the entire airport went momentarily silent, as everyone tried to make some sense of what was happening. an announcement came over the p.a. saying that the airport would be closing.
we realized we had to find a place to stay, and that it would be tricky with so many people doing the same. jeannie and mike went to get our luggage while i scrambled to find a hotel. i didn’t travel with my cell phone on international trips at that time, and mike’s cell phone was useless, but i found one of those banks of phones with ads for hotels above them. i called many and was told they were already sold out. eventually, i found us two rooms at a big casino hotel on the river.
fast forward: we spent 5 days in st. louis. for much of it, we were glued to the tv, either in one of our rooms, or somewhere else in the hotel. the sports bar has a massive multi-panel tv, and it was constantly on cnn. for the remainder of that first day, the casino was empty (though the incessant ding-ding-ding of slot machines continued to call out their ‘notice me’ clarion). we vacillated between nervousness, horror, and sheer boredom, with tiny bits of the enjoyment of being in this together thrown in. i’m sure it sounds strange, but i look back on those days with a bit of fondness, because it was time spent with yac. jeannie and i were relieved that my parents were with our kids.
of course, we were trying to figure out how to get home, and the story from the airlines was changing by the hour. one of us was on hold with the airline multiple times throughout each day. at about day 4, we started talking about renting a car and driving all the way from st. louis to san diego. my dad, who had pressing issues to get back to at work, flew home to detroit, and my mom was alone with our kids. we were sick of waiting, and not getting anywhere with the airline.
on the 5th day, we made a car rental reservation, checked out of our hotel, and took the casino shuttle back to the airport, where we planned on catching the car rental shuttle and start our long drive home. but, while waiting for the car rental shuttle, we decided to go inside the airport and check flights one more time. and, while our airline was still a mess, a gracious agent was able to get us on a partner airline leaving soon.
we were home that night.
on the way to the airport yesterday morning, i noticed a large collection of inflatable attractions in the parking lot of a mall. one of them was a giant inflatable slide in the shape of a sinking titanic, its propellers up in the air, its bow, by inference, below the parking lot surface. what is it, i wondered, that allows that, while the events of 9/11 still bring such an emotional response? is it only time? is it that 9/11 happened to us?
why do i not feel the same kind of emotion for travesties — man-made and otherwise — around the world in the last decade? i can only conclude that it’s because i had a personal, emotional experience of 9/11.
i was only inconvenienced by 9/11. others, of course, experienced life-altering loss. either way, there’s no denying that the world — my world — has changed since that day.