This may or may not be a long blog. It kind of depends on how much I feel like writing, rewriting, and editing. It will just be a personal memory of this day in 2001. I was about to type “we all have our personal memories of this day in 2001” but the truth is there are millions who don’t remember it or weren’t even born yet. To them it’s just a history lesson. To us, like Pearl Harbor was for many of our parents, it’s a wound that never heals.
We do a pretty good job of not thinking much about it for 364 days out of the year. We block it out and concern ourselves with traffic, groceries, rude people, and TV shows. Then we wake up and realize it’s September 11th.
I didn’t get a blog written yesterday, which was my regular blog day. I felt I had more important things to do. I played golf with my friend Terry and his son Dylan again. I’m getting back into the game after many years away from it due to back and neck compressed disc problems, and it’s like starting over. If you never picked up a golf club until you were well into adulthood, you surely recall how frustrating it is to learn how to do it. I’m learning all over again, from scratch, but it’s slowly coming back to me. I’m still terrible, but I’m getting better. That seemed really important yesterday, and it was. It’s friendship and camaraderie and good fun. I’m glad I did it. And then today I saw the date on my phone. September 11th. That day again. 19 years later and it’s still like it was yesterday.
To get back to that point in 2001, I’ll offer a little background. Barbara and I met in 1997 and were married, on the beach in Maui, on New Year’s Eve that year. When we met, she was living in Chapel Hill, NC working for IBM. I was living in Indianapolis working for Del Worsham and Worsham Racing. I’d just started that job.
We lived in Chapel Hill (and loved it there) until IBM promoted Barbara to a new position in Austin, Tex. That was 1998. Shasta the cat and I didn’t get to stay in Chapel Hill very long. That’s a bit sad, because it’s a fine college town.
We found a wonderful house atop a canyon, out in the ravine country near Lake Travis and the legendary restaurant The Oasis. At that time, Austin was a dream of a place to live. It hadn’t exploded in terms of development, population, and traffic like it has now. 6th Street was hopping and a truly wonderful place to spend any night of the week, roaming the street and listening to more live music than you can ever imagine. 4th Street was hip and cool, and we found a tapas bar there that was right up our alley. That’s actually a pun. The place overlooked an alley they’d turned into a live music venue. Traffic wasn’t bad. The weather was hot in the summer but lovely during the rest of each year. We loved it. Austin was really cool.
And then came the next promotion. IBM wanted her up at their world headquarters in Armonk, NY. That came fast but it’s an indication of how much IBM thought of my wife. We’d only been in Austin for a couple of years. Frankly, as much as she deserved and appreciated the promotion (she’d be one of the lead directors assisting the head of investor relations for IBM, one of the biggest and most important companies in the world, sitting on the same floor and just a few doors away from the CEO and CFO) the thought of moving to New York, or Connecticut, wasn’t very appealing to two newlyweds who were in love with Austin. So, she negotiated a “temporary assignment” for six to eight months, so we could get a better feel for life in that area and see what we could afford. That “temporary” assignment turned into something closer to two years.
I mostly stayed at the house in Austin and went to all the NHRA races from there. IBM provided a fully furnished apartment for Barbara, in Ridgefield, Conn. It wasn’t a bad commute to work for her. It was a spartan apartment in just another complex you don’t notice when driving by. Nothing special. I’d get up there as often as I could, and she’d try to get to races on weekends when she wasn’t traveling for her job. After a couple of months, I flew Shasta up there because I felt it would feel a little more like home for Barb if he was there with her.
The apartment was on the second floor, which was also the top floor. It had interior hallways, and at the end of the hall was a small workout room with a treadmill and some weights. Shasta was such a good boy. He’d walk down the hall right behind her, calmly smelling the various aromas of dinner being cooked behind all the closed doors, and would stay in the workout room until she was done.
We didn’t get serious about really looking at homes until the temporary deal was about up. We didn’t want to uproot from a place we loved, in order to spend a ton more money in a place we didn’t know much about. We finally started looking at homes around Ridgefield, which is a nice little town, but my gosh the dollar figures were imposing. You could easily spend three times what we had paid for the Austin home, which was spectacular, to get a fixer-upper we couldn’t even wrap our heads around.
So we struggled to keep it working, but we made it happen. I kept the house in order in Austin and she survived the corporate apartment and the long hours at work up in Ridgefield and Armonk. In 2001, as I recall now (and I really could be wrong) I flew into Hartford right after Indy. That seemed better and less of a hassle than flying into LaGuardia, JFK, Newark, or even Westchester County.
The race in Reading, Penn. was two weeks later and that would be an easy drive from the apartment. I’d hang out with Shasta each day and do my PR work while Barb commuted to Armonk to go to work at the sprawling IBM campus. Her job was hard work. It was important work. When it came time for their quarterly earnings announcements, all of Wall Street paid rapt attention. IBM’s results can drive the entire market. The message to investors had to be honest and factual, but also perfectly presented. During those weeks, prior to each announcement, it was not uncommon for her to work through the night and not come home. They even had rooms there for people like her to get a few hours of sleep. I couldn’t comprehend it. I still can’t.
On the Tuesday morning before Reading, I slept in a little with Shasta. Barbara had given me a kiss goodbye when she left for work. I’d gotten all my pre-race PR work done on Monday, so it was really a day off for me. Shasta and I were still being lazy when Barbara called me around 9:00 that morning. It was a stunningly beautiful day. The sky was impossibly blue and the temperature was perfect.
When I answered, she said, “Hey, can you turn on the TV? We’re hearing there’s a big fire at the World Trade Center.”
I got up and headed for the little living room. It was all over the TV. It wasn’t just a fire. Then, just minutes later, the second plane hit the south tower.
I called her back and told her what I could discern. To be honest, the only thing I fully recall about what I said was “Please come home. Come home right now.”
They were just learning about it at IBM, but the first thing I learned on my end of the line was that senior executives couldn’t just pack up their briefcases and go home. The company had a detailed and comprehensive “disaster plan” and it had to be followed every step of the way to safeguard their systems and people. It would be hours before Barbara could get back to the apartment. Those hours stretched on forever, with me glued to the television with disbelieving eyes. It was impossible to comprehend. Every major network was following the news, delivering some facts but also some conjecture that was almost universally wrong. The cable networks that only offered entertainment, like MTV, just shut down and put a graphic on the screen. It was beyond eerie.
Ridgefield is about an hour from Manhattan in normal traffic. At some point that morning, the entire Ridgefield Fire Department rolled by the apartment with sirens wailing. They were heading for Ground Zero.
When Barbara did get back, we weren’t really sure what to do. Both towers had fallen, the whole thing was unbelievable and appalling, and unlike IBM we never even had a thought about having a disaster plan in place. The first thought we had was to get some cash. There was no way to know how the world was going to be from that point forward. Were there more planes? Were there going to be more attacks? Would communications and electronics all go dark? We drove up to a bank and each got $300 out of the ATM. That was the most you could withdraw then. When we were doing that, a local resident in a nondescript car pulled up outside the bank and lowered the flag to half-staff.
The streets were mostly empty. Almost everything was hastily closed. We found a grocery store that was open and went in to buy as much as we could in case everything ended up being shut down. There were a dozen other people in there. No one spoke. No one looked up. No one made eye contact. They just pushed their carts silently, like zombies.
We finally managed to get our old-school flip phones to work later in the day, and checked in with the Worshams and our families. The racing team had been loaded and ready to pull out of our midwest shop in Auburn, Ind. to head to Reading. Del called them and told them to hold on. Soon thereafter, NHRA postponed the race. The world had changed forever.
When they allowed planes back in the air, a week or so later, I flew back to Austin from Hartford. I was on Southwest. They didn’t have to make an announcement about lining up or getting on the plane. The pilot just walked up to the six of us in the gate area and said “Are you guys ready to go?” We flew right over Manhattan. It was still smoldering. I could not believe my eyes. It was a horror movie, but it was real.
And all of that reminds me of now. The world has changed again, but not because of airplanes flying into buildings or the Pennsylvania countryside. It’s because of a virus. It’s all different. I actually had to learn how to put a mask on back in March, and how to crimp it around my nose. Now it’s second nature and I don’t think about it twice
Around 3,000 people tragically died in the twin towers and on the ground. Many thousands more were wounded. Many thousands more are still suffering the after-effects of being there, in terms of health and mental well being.
We’re closing in 200,000 Covid deaths just here in the USA. It’s incomprehensible. And today is September 11th.
That’s all I have to say. That’s my blog this week.