Our host stood at the screen door facing us, but glanced often over his shoulder as we pulled into his drive. He opened his door when my car came to a stop.
"You all better get in here and see this," he said.
We three looked at each other, grabbed our files and hurried into his home. As we had done every two weeks for several years, our little group of would-be authors planned to read, critique, comment and discuss our writing and publishing hopes. We thought our stories important that morning, but as reports on television played out, slowly our focus changed. The first World Trade Center tower had been struck as we unknowingly chatted during the morning's drive, the second structure about to become a victim as disbelief gave way to helplessness.
At some point, we moved to the round table where frequently we exposed our written thoughts and looked for helpful modifications. Here in Arkansas, and at that hour, we could not help New York City. Perhaps this morning we could help the winning writers we selected from the 31 entrants in the annual contest we sponsored.
I recall small details from the morning: gasps when the second tower trembled, differences of opinion about contest awards finally resolved with a mathematical scale that satisfied no one, my wife calling to make certain we were aware of the catastrophe, endless cups of coffee, the talking heads' seeming concern as on-the-spot reporters transmitted their knowledge, a slice of chocolate cake following the usual bologna sandwich, and silence as periodically we turned complete attention to the television.
Late afternoon, as we returned home, lines at gas stations and significantly raised prices greeted us on the outskirts of town. I suppose that scene summed it up for me. Disaster quickly evolves into survival. People streamed away from the clouds of rubble-dust pursuing them on the dim streets of New York; Arkansans streamed to replenish gasoline needs they hoped might keep them away from the morning's consequences. Neither group found complete success.
Those Sept. 11, 2001, events changed our nation, and likely changed me as well. In my younger years, the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. It, too, happened at a great distance from me. The event worried me, but even with those multiples of death that occurred during World War II compared to the thousands on 9/11, I believe the conflict of the early 1940s affected me less than the World Trade Center assault.
Japan sent incendiary balloons toward our western coast and Germany's U-boats sent silent torpedoes against our shipments of supplies to Europe. Americans went on with their lives, some as defenders with weapons on foreign lands, some as gas, meat and sugar coupon-laden citizens. On lands of other countries, not ours, American youth bore the brunt of the effort, but all citizens knew there would come a conclusion, for our success was measured and reported each day.
As a reservist embarking on an assignment to Chicago when President Kennedy faced Khrushchev and his Cuban missile-laden ships, I felt concern as I learned those projectiles could possibly reach my destination. Yet three million city-dwellers and I struggled on with our daily duties until Khrushchev pulled away from his thrust into our hemisphere and his United Nations shoe-pounding taunts.
That cold war ebbed and flowed for another quarter-century, a time when mature citizens of our nation constantly wondered if nuclear devices would someday puncture our azure skies. Then, with urging, the physical Berlin Wall collapsed under the weight of oppressed people, as did a three-quarter-century social experiment.
Here in my country's heartland, far from the ravages of New York City and physical battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and who knows where else, I rest at night. But in wee, dark hours as I sometimes toss and turn while sleep evades, I ponder. Suicide bombers? Unbelievable. An airplane as a weapon? Unthinkable.
Opposing countries have armies we can confront, but faceless terrorists evaporate like a startled covey of quail. What unforeseen methods of death and damage do they plan?
I pray for the evening peace of a whippoorwill's call and a night's undisturbed sleep.
Neil Chandler of Mountain Home has eight self-published books on Amazon. This story was originally published in the Baxter Bulletin near the first anniversary of 9/11, and was later included in a book of short stories.