Katharine Hepburn, Hurricane of 1938

Between Mother Nature and another 9/11 Anniversary, it’s been a rough few weeks. I am fortunate to have observed hurricane fury from the safety of a New England September. (It’s the month we pay in advance for the coming February.) I’m not much of TV watcher, but the images were impossible to escape. I certainly shouldn’t have escaped them because my zip code said I get a pass.

Hurricanes are not unfamiliar to me. I grew up on Long Island, and while New England isn’t New Jersey, we got a good smack from Hurricane Sandy. They are unpredictable spouts of energy, a whirling dervish of scary.

I was nine when Agnes arrived at our house, situated a block from the Great South Bay. Aside from the flashlights my father had readied and the crackle of a transistor radio, blackness and snapping branches dominated, so did the oddity of being up in the middle of the night. Christmas Eve, nightmares, and lunar landings. Add hurricanes to the things that will rouse a kid out of bed at three in the morning. Fortunately, the bay never came down the street, as many had feared. Years later, Hurricane Gloria made a more decisive landfall, and the images of Florida’s splintered homes and trees look a lot like her aftermath.

The fate of family pets and farm animals caught my eye in the hurricanes of 2017. Horses in chest-deep water, cows wading through their grazing pasture. If animals started moving two-by-two, the media might have had a whole new angle. I am a cat lover, relieved to see Hemingway’s polydactyl cats come away unscathed. Truth be told, six-toed cats are on my bucket list. I’m the writer who would very much like to steal a Hemingway ancestor.

Amid the flood and fury, this past Monday’s 9/11 Anniversary concluded a sobering trifecta. Social media posts asked where you were when you heard the news. How could anyone forget? I was driving home after dropping my son at nursery school. A first report said a twin-engine plane had hit the World Trade Center. At home, I flipped on that rarely watched television and noted to no one, “A twin engine plane did that?” Like the mistaken news report, I too vastly underestimated what I was witnessing.

It’s natural to recall your whereabouts in moments like this, but also to reboot relatable anecdotes. I’d visited the World Trade Center a few times. The most memorable was with a college boyfriend from Georgia. He’d never been to New York City, or north of the Mason-Dixon line.

At the time, my father, who headed security for a defense contractor, had a retired NYC detective on staff. Johnny Kai was the first Asian NYPD detective. He was also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He took the boyfriend and me on a tour of Chinatown. John was a legend in the neighborhood, with shop owners and pedestrians approaching him like a celebrity. We watched with fascination, the fast banter in their native language, people so anxious to shake his hand. And every time we stopped, Johnny Kai stopped, introducing us like we were somebody. It’s only a social side note, but that’s class.

Windows on the World, circa 1985

We went on to have lunch at Windows on the World. What I can’t recall is the ice. The story went that one was so high in the tower you could see ice sway in a glass, like a buoy in the ocean. I don’t remember if we proved it to be truth or myth. It’s interesting, the irrelevant snippets that create a six-degrees of separation connection. I suppose it’s like having visited Pearl Harbor, enjoying a drink there, in August of 1938. You just remember it with renewed and reverent clarity.

This past summer, I visited the 9/11 Memorial. Years before, there’d been a dinner table squabble over its building—some thought it exploitive, others rallied the cry of “Never Forget.” I wasn’t sure what I thought, not until I got there.

If you haven’t been, and have the opportunity, go. Is it hard to look at, overwhelming, even depressing? Yes. But I think its most important testament belongs to future generations.

For instance, surely more than a few babies were born during and despite Texas and Florida hurricanes. No doubt these children will be raised on stories about their miraculous arrivals. With any luck, none will be named Harvey or Irma. Someday, they will repeat the stories as if the memories are their own. There’s obligation and gravitas in remembering—whether it’s a firsthand account, seemingly unrelated moment, or the story handed down. It’s important to reflect on the things that—hopefully—you’ll never experience.

3 Comments

  1. Linda Zagon on September 15, 2017 at 11:22 am

    I enjoyed reading your article! My mind takes me back to these times as well. On 9/11, I was teaching in the classroom, but several teachers and the custodial staff were able to witness the horror and tragedy from the roof of our building in East New York. Hurricane Sandy really hit us. We were without power for 8 days, and were luck to escape the total devastation that so many neighboring communities die. You tend to see the best of people at these times. It makes me reflect on why it takes such terrible times to bring people together.

  2. Susan Peterson on September 15, 2017 at 11:38 am

    Great article. Having just had a close call with Harvey, my heart aches for those who lost so much. I visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum a few years ago, a breathtaking, awe-inspiring experience. It was very sad, but I came away with positive thoughts about resilience and miracles. My two favorite objects were the window that survived unscathed and the squeegee that helped save several lives. Having just suffered a huge loss of my own, I’ve seen so much good…family and long-time friends who came together to love and support me. I also saw some ugly…but I’ll save that for another time.

  3. Rhonda Gilmour on September 15, 2017 at 12:09 pm

    Lovely reflection on catastrophes that bring us together–it seems odd to say that, but it’s true, eh? I was teaching in a high school on a U.S. Army base in Germany when the Twin Towers went down, so we watched the collapse live on TV after the students had left. I remember German friends phoning to make sure we were okay, and I’ve been doing the same, checking on friends who live in Florida. Modern media makes us so much more aware of happenings far away. It’s a double-edged sword, I suppose: the ability to watch far-away events unfurl, like the recent hurricanes and bombings, makes me feel more vulnerable, but I’m able to interact with far-flung friends in ways I never could have twenty years ago.

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