Thursday, September 11, 2008

One Day

I woke up later than normal.  It was a Tuesday morning, and I had a College English II class at 10.  Bridget, however, had things to do on campus, and Danielle needed to be at her on-campus job, so unless I wanted to use the Newark Light Rail and the 31 bus to get to school, I was getting up and going with them.  

I got my shower, I got dressed, and hurried down the stairs and out the door to jump into Bridget's car.  The drive over was as it always was - happy and pleasant, chit-chat about nothing in particular, jokes about Danielle's spaziness, with background music provided by The Scarlet Pimpernel and Godspell (sing-a-longs were quite frequent, especially with Godspell - "OH BLESS THE LORD MY SOUL!!!").  

Danielle went her separate way, and Bridget and I went over to the Pirate's Cove, the campus coffee bar and secondary social center (main one was the Caf, downstairs from the Cove - however, it was also rather cold down there, and the Cove at least had heaters venting onto the tables).  Bridget sat down with me at the table closest to the side entrance and proceeded to break out the books.  I stepped away to get us both hazelnut cappucinos (sp?) at the coffee bar and came back and started up my laptop.  By now it was about 9 AM and various friends had started to congregate around us, including Bridget's best friend Steph Johnson.  Steph started up her laptop and both of us noticed something on the Drudge Report about a small plane crashing into the World Trade Center.  I didn't really think anything of this, mainly because just a week before I'd read somewhere about a plane or a dirgible crashing into the Empire State Building and that being the reason the docks on the top of it were no longer used.  It was, as far as we could see at the moment, just another piece of news out of The City that didn't affect us Jersey folk in the least.  

That's when Adam Budeshiem, a senior and the man I credit with giving me the swift kick in my ass that I needed to stop screwing around and start taking my scholastic career seriously, IMed us and asked us to try to get to another website, and it was extremely slow, on both our machines.  Network traffic, it seemed, was at a standstill.  As Steph needed to take care of a registration problem (she was trying to get into another class with Bridget, I believe), she asked Bridget if she wanted to take a walk over to Bayley Hall, across the campus.  Bridget was reading, and since the computer wasn't working, it seemed, I said I'd go.  

We took the walk over to Bayley and I remember there was something markedly different about the center of the campus that day.  There weren't any folks going back and forth to classes or the Caf, which was odd for that hour of the morning - most people, like me, had realized after the first semester that 9 AM class was always a bad idea, so they opted for the 10 AM class this time around and spent that extra hour, bleary-eyed and zombie-like, staggering from their cars or dorm rooms and getting as much coffee as their weary bodies could tolerate (20 oz styrofoam cups with ten sugars and whole milk, wow I hated my body..).  

It's not often that you can pinpoint the moment your world changes, nor is it often that you remember certain moments with HD-quality, 100,000 megapixel resolution.  The moment I said goodbye to my friend Brian Logan as I got into the car and headed up to Newark as our family followed my dad's job north, the moment I held my driver's license in my hand for the first time and realized what great freedom I had now, the moment I read my letter of acceptance to Seton Hall the day before my eighteenth birthday, the moment I looked into my wife's eyes for the first time, the moment we said "I do.", the moment the doctor told us we were going to have a baby, the moment I held Little Jimmy in my arms for the first time and realized how real fatherhood was... these are the moments I remember like that.  And walking into Bayley is, unfortunately, one of those moments.  

Bayley is the administrative hub of Seton Hall - any financial decisions, registration issues, et cetera get handled there.  It's also the starting point for the orientation tours and as such had been outfitted with several TVs, usually tuned to an orientation-only channel, but hooked into the campus' DirecTV system.  This morning, each and every one of the TVs had been changed to WNBC, channel 4, and local meteorologist Janice Huff was calling in from her home in New Jersey, relaying what she was seeing to Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, Ann Curry and Al Roker (having worked for so long at 30 Rock, I can tell you that unless you are on the 46, 47, or 51 floors, you really couldn't see anything going on downtown).   The cameras usually positioned at the Lincoln Tunnel were turned downtown, as were many other cameras I would imagine, and Chopper 4, in the middle of a report on the Turnpike and so in a perfect position to capture history, had been turned towards Lower Manhattan and was watching while the debate raged as to whether this was simply an accident, since people had been reporting seeing a plane, but most had misidentified it as a Cessna.  

It was watching, as were all the employees, students and administrators, when the second plane hit.  I watched it turn its wings slightly downward and level off as it slammed through the building.  And everything stopped.  For a moment, no one spoke.  No one said a word, made a move.  The raw impact of what had just occured smashed through our brains with the impact of an atomic bomb.  Everyone knew now that this wasn't an accident.  The debate ended, everyone blinked for a second and started to look around.  We awoke as though it had all been a dream, a terrible nightmare, but only a look at the television could shake us from that.  Steph and I headed back to the Cove and told Bridget what happened.  Others had gathered near our table and were finding out around the same time we had found out.  The Internet, despite hiccups, was continuing to provide information to the campus about the situation.  Not knowing what else to do, and being only the second week of the semester, I decided to go to class.  Bridget, having left her laptop at home, went with Steph to the nearest computer lab, in the Arts & Sciences building.  

My class was in the basement of what was then known as Kozlowski Hall but is currently called Jubilee Hall because Seton Hall is afraid of associations with people who are accused of things.  I got there with about five minutes to spare, and tried to focus on getting into the appropriate frame of mind for class.  Push it out, James.  Leave that gruesome image behind - there isn't anything you can do about it, so just try to focus on your work right now.  Ten minutes after class was to have started, the professor popped her head in and asked us, "Are you seriously unaware of what's happened?  Please, go home!  There's no reason for you to be here today."  I grabbed my bag, stood and went to find Bridget and Danielle.  

I managed to track them down in the computer lab and it was at that point that we all heard, at the same time, about the attacks in Washington.  Well, yes there was only one attack that day, but you must understand that the amount of confusion and speculation was unbelieveable.  People were saying that a bomb had hit the Capitol building, that a nuke had been set off in New York City, that we were at war with some other unnamed nation.  We knew very few pieces of information, considering cell phones weren't working and IM seemed to be the unshakable juggernaut of communication.  We also heard that the planes had been international flights, but there weren't many other reliable facts at that point - and we were more concerned immediately because Maryann, at the time living in the same neighborhood as the rest of the family, had managed to tell everyone that her husband Brendan was on an international flight and had been scheduled to arrive early in the morning on a trip back from Ireland.  We found out later that his flight had simply been redirected to Newfoundland when all flights were grounded and that he was perfectly fine, but it only added to our fear and sadness to know that he might be among those victims across the Hudson.  We wanted to go home but other reports indicated that roads were clogged with people trying to get away, as fast as they could, from New York.  

I remember wanting to help out with whatever I could, and not knowing what else to do, heading over to Corrigan Hall, center of Seton Hall's IT department and for a while my workplace.  At this point it was almost noon, so I asked if anyone needed help manning the phones or the computer labs, and I was told initially yes, but when I tried to leave my gear in the office, I was told that the campus was being shut down for the rest of the day, and classes, from initial reports were being cancelled for the remainder of the week.  

I wandered over towards the Cove again, and while I was out on the campus green I noticed what looked like a 747 being escorted by two small jets and I realized how quiet the sky was.  People outside the Newark/New York area might not realize this completely, but when you live near several of the busiest airports in the nation, you get used to hearing the sounds of planes overhead constantly.  It's such an ingrained part of living here that no one really ever stops to say "oh there goes a plane.." - but when you have two hours go by and only one plane flies overhead, that's when you realize how bad things are.  I wandered down to the freshman dormitory, Boland Hall, and walked into the basement lounge just as one of the towers collapsed on live television.  I couldn't sit there.  I got up and left.  I wandered across campus to the upperclassmen dorm, Xavier Hall, and took the elevator to the seventh and highest floor.  A crowd had gathered near the only public window facing Manhattan and had watched the first tower fall.  I must state now that I'm not sure how much time passed while I wandered - I know that it had to have been a lot, because when I got to the window, I watched with others gathered there as the second tower fell and sent a massive plume of dust, dirt, smoke and debris into the air.

The remaining community, those who had opted to stay behind or who had nowhere else to go, had gathered on the center of the campus green with the campus priest community and were expecting some form of support and news.  Msgr. Robert Sheeran, a man whom I believe doesn't belong leading a major Catholic university, at that point helped unify the Seton Hall community and led a prayer for solace and peace, not tempered by any political or other leanings, and advised the gathered crowd that yes, the campus was closed, effective immediately, and that classes were cancelled for the remainder of the week, and advised anyone who was able to do so to return home for the moment, as there was nothing else to be done.  We took up the offer and decided, traffic jams or no, we needed to get home.  

The roads were surprisingly empty, though we were not on major roads and took back roads home in the event that we were wrong.  Driving on roads paralleling the Garden State Parkway, we realized that this major artery, normally full of traffic, was empty.  There was no one on that road, in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon.  We got home and managed to get the facts sorted out, and let the pain of what had occured seep in.  

I don't remember much else from that day, thankfully it's mostly greyed out in my head, but I know that that's the day that the defense of this nation and all she stood for began to matter to me.  I took comfort in the fact that whomever these evil men had been that had committed murder on such a scale, they were dead and could do no more against us, and their compatriots were easy to identify and target.  And they had jumped into America's sights with both feet. 

God help them, and God bless America.

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