One Call

Thu, 09/09/2021 - 3:30pm

The weather has been hot amid humid, and cool and dry, it has been everything and now the forecast is for more rain. There are great swells off the east beach, growing to long waves which surfers were attempting to ride this afternoon. The grass, at least, is as green as it can be this time of year, soft underfoot, not summer brown and burned.
It is only mid-week, the forecast for the weekend is good and the media, or the morning news from New York at least, is slowing filling with talk of the
approaching anniversary of September 11, and that terrible, beautiful week following, when the azure sky was cut by a plume of dark smoke so constant it had the look of a still photograph. It was the last day for years that I got up and wandered about without turning on the radio or checking the news. It stopped being so easy, so natural, especially on a summer’s day, to be up and out, to so easily hold the world at bay.
I blame technology, the ease, now, of connecting not only by the radio but by the internet to the ever-changing front pages of international newspapers, better than having to wait for the news to come round in between the advertisements.

The accessibility has changed so over these past decades and now I wonder more than ever where is that line between reporting and creating, how
often it is crossed, are we any better off having this immediate admission to so many venues and how many of them offer anything truly resembling “news” amidst the entertainment?
Ten years ago we were saying that span of time was both a lifetime and yesterday. It feels no different, today. So much has changed but the memories are so clear. It was the second Tuesday in September; things were slowing down after the summer, it was a day off after a few difficult weeks and I walked in the Town Hall in mid-morning and heard, related in an everything-is-SO-important manner I had learned to ignore that a plane – planes? – had hit the Trade Tower – Towers? - and immediately dismissed the fuss, visualizing that well-known photograph of a plane wedged in the Empire State Building. When I stepped into the next room I saw on the television someone had already set up the report of the attack on the Pentagon and realized something beyond a wayward pilot was going on.

We all know where we were, where family and friends were, on that morning. In this part of the country it seems impossible not to have known — or be
no more than one person removed from — someone who died, or survived, or by some quirk of fate was not in their office. The forecast for Saturday is good and I want that same perversely perfect sky, so clear we could stand outside and see the big planes turning overhead, heading back to the nearest airport.

Twenty years, though, and how the world has changed. There were visitors here on a beautiful Tuesday in September; the young man who covered my day off in the gallery where I still work, said people kept coming in, drawn by the radio, in tearful shock. They did not carry the news in their hand.
Then, I stayed by the television as much as I could, transfixed, as we all were by that blue, blue sky.
It was years before I learned of the extraordinary story of the evacuation of lower Manhattan, of 500,000 persons transported to safety in less than nine hours, all by vessel when the bridges and tunnels were closed. There is “Boatlift” and another short “I Was There” and I am sure there are many more about this, the largest maritime evacuation is history, even bigger than Dunkirk. A new edition of a book about it was created for this anniversary.

The question “how did it go so unnoticed?” seems easy to answer, it all went on, over by the next day, while the news leapt to Washington to Pennsylvania and around the world. It was noted, the scale and the success, but so much else was going on around the smokey ruins, we were in information overload. I may well have heard of it that very day, but it would have been good news, to be tucked away until the horror subsided.

There was no plan. The planes hit the towers, people headed for the water, vessels of all manner headed for the island we forget Manhattan is, then the
magnitude of the circumstance became apparent and the call went out “to all available boats, this is the United States Coast Guard, anyone wanting to help with the evacuation of Lower Manhattan report...”

A life time mariner in one of these shorts said “I’ve worked on the water 28 years and I’ve never seen anything like it, that many boats come together that fast, one radio call” and an armada mobilized. There are lists, the ferries and tugs already on the move, and work boats, party boats, catamarans, launches, so many summer boats still in the waters that surround New York, headed for the uncertainty of a smoking Manhattan, determined to help however they could.
Several others interviewed said the same thing of that horrific time: “It was the greatest day in all my years on the water.” Not the planes striking the tow-
ers, or the death toll, but the ability to do something, anything, to be part of some effort to make a difference.
Usually, when I think of Sept 11 it is wrapped in with that collective experience that united us as a nation, if only because we were watching the same
coverage of the same places at the same time, when — perhaps it only seemed— the splintering of the news could be put aside in the face of something truly huge.