Fourteen years ago I was getting ready for store opening. I was working in the Jewelry department of JC Penny's in the Orange Park Mall. My register phone rang as I was setting out the diamonds. I usually ignore the store phone when we are still closed but that I day I answered it.
"They're gone." My wife was crying. "Your Towers are gone."
"Honey, what's wrong?"
"Your Towers. They are gone."
"What do you mean gone?"
"Turn on the news."
With that I ran upstairs to the employee break room. There was already a crowd of people standing in shocked silence. I looked at the TV just in time to watch the second plane hit the South Tower. It was surreal. What was I watching? All the employees just murmured. To themselves, to each other, to no one and everyone. People started to cry. I was numb.
I went back to the sales floor and found my manager. I told him what had happened. He looked at me and I must have looked more shook up than I felt because he told me to go home. I left, leaving a half million dollars of diamonds unlocked and on the counters. I didn't even realize I left the diamonds until Security called me into their office a few days later.
Driving home I remember listening to the local rock station. The DJ's were talking about the tragedy and taking calls from their listeners who wanted to dedicate songs and share their confusion, anger, sadness, and pain. I only remember two.
"Hair of the Dog" by Nazareth with the lyric, "Now you're messing, now you're messing with a son of a bitch."
"Levon" by Elton John, with the lyric "He was born a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas Day / When the New York Times said God is dead and the war's begun."
That was the first time I thought about retaliation and truly thought we were on the cusp of World War Three. Thinking about that possibility I got really scared and started to cry in my car.
I got back to my in-laws house and we sat around watching the nonstop coverage. My mother-in-law kept talking about war and asking if I would fight. She kept talking about the beginning of the Apocalypse. My stress level was going off the charts and I tried to turn it off in my mind. The two mini dachshunds, Schotzie and Malachite, kept running around the living touching their noses to each one of us and kept it up until the entire family was together. It was if they sensed that something bad had happened and they needed to make sure we were all safe.
During the rest of the day I tried to call my mother, sister, and friends back in New York. My brother in law frequented the Trade Center for business and my oldest childhood friend worked downtown, splitting his time between Trade Center 5 and Trade Center 2. Of course phone reception was down so I had a few days of sleepless nights before finding out that everyone was unharmed.
The next day was spent in line to donate blood. It seemed all of Duval County had turned out to donate. Although the wait was several hours long no one minded or complained. There we all were - black, white, old young, male, female, conservative, liberal - united as Americans. At least something good came out of this terrible tragedy, I thought. How long will it last?
It was eerie no hearing planes overhead for several days. I lived right behind a military airbase and I was used to hearing the pilots logging their hours at all times of day. The silence was unsettling.
Over the next few weeks things slowly settled into what was rapidly becoming the new norm. Three things stick out in mind during the first few weeks of recovery and the baby steps we took as a nation into a "new" world.
David Letterman's first show back after 9/11. He returned with no opening music or comedy monologue.
The first baseball game played in New York City after 9/11. The Mets and the Braves played on September 21st and Mike Piazza told New Yorkers it would be okay with a 2 run home run in the eighth inning that energized the city and gave the Mets the victory.
And President Bush's first pitch strike at Yankee Stadium before Game 3 of the World Series between the Yankees and the Diamondbacks. President Bush, wearing a FDNY pullover, gave a thumbs up to the crowd and proceeded to throw a perfect pitch to Todd Greene. The crowd spontaneously erupted into a chant of, "USA! USA!"
The only real lesson I learned from the tragedy was this:
Tomorrow is not guaranteed so do not hesitate to tell the people you love that you them.