Peggy Noonan — the pride of Rutherford, New Jersey — comes closest to expressing how I felt yesterday, especially the bit about how sometimes you have to jealously guard your pain, because it’s a reminder of how you got to where you are.
I was a senior in high school. We were outside on the Ramsey High School football field doing a physics lab on acceleration. Like a lot of other folks in the New York and Washington areas, I remember it as the most beautiful day of the year. Warm with a tickling little breeze, azure skies, the whole deal.
When the principal came on the loudspeaker the first time we thought — everybody thought — it was a poor schmuck in a Cessna.
We watched the towers come down in third period, political science class. The teacher — 65 years old, a good man, an army veteran, a liberal — cried aloud.
But it probably wasn’t real, wasn’t really real, until lunchtime, when we drove out on to Route 17 south and saw the plume eating half the skyline.
Two classmates lost fathers. My Spanish teacher’s husband was on the middle floors and just got out. Sitting on my couch that afternoon, staring at a TV I’d turned off a half hour ago, I remember the dread hearing the roar of jet engines outside, and running out to see two F-16s screaming over a ridge line at a couple hundred feet, where they had no right at all to be.
I spent an hour yesterday digging through my old files to find the columns I wrote for the high school newspaper and the speeches I gave as class president in the months after 9/11. The purple prose and glittering generalities are only mildly cringe-inducing, the naivety kept, for the most part, at acceptable levels for a 17-year-old. One passage stuck out to me:
Our generation—some would say the most spoiled in history—has been given everything, has expected even more, and has never been asked a single thing in return. Until now.
For the first time in our fragile youths we have learned the price of liberty. Embattled in this, our first great test, I am amazed at our resolve. It moved me almost to tears to see the great giving, literally, of blood, sweat, and tears, to ease the burdens of others. The hallways filled with bottled water, with blankets and socks and cans of beans. The chests bearing ribbons, the shirt backs and cars donning American flags, the looks of defiance, of strength, of history, on every face.
The only certainty of this future is that it will be OUR future. If there is a war to be fought than it will be we who fight the war. If there is a peace to be kept than it will be we who keep the peace. Much has been taken from us, but much abides, and even more will come… [Y]esterday we remembered, today we reflect, and tomorrow we will act.
I was half right. All of us who were 18 had, as we were required to do, signed up for Selective Service. That day and in the weeks after we assumed there’d be a draft, and if any of us were scared of that prospect we dare not show it. “Sign me up” was probably the thing I heard most on the eleventh — to my shame I might have even said it. And indeed, Ramsey High School’s class of 2002 produced, by my rough count, at least a dozen officers and enlisted men (a disproportionate number of them Marines) from among its fewer than 200 graduates. Of those I know or knew, there are riflemen and tank drivers, helicopter crewmen and MPs, platoon leaders and mechanics. To a man (and woman) they’ve seen time in Iraq, Afghanistan, or both.
But most of us didn’t sign up. We went to college or we went to work. We hit the town on Saturday nights and studied abroad in Europe. All the while we were met in two land wars — and a third, bigger than the others, with a hundred amorphous fronts — and not a single thing was asked of us except that we roll our eyes and take off our shoes at the airport.
I’ve tried in little ways, with words that strike me as feeble and actions that strike me as feebler still, to do my bit to support those who did sign up. But what sticks with me most ten years after 9/11, what will stick with me forever, is how little most of us have gotten away with doing, because a few of us have done so much.