On Nov. 22, 1963, I was doing a crossword puzzle in my high school study hall when the announcement came over the PA that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.
On April 4, 1968, the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, I was working at a Jewel Foods pickup station in Evergreen Park, loading groceries into people’s cars.
But on September 11, 2001, I was all alone, which you do not want to be when the world is being ripped apart.
My three children had gone back to school. My wife, Marianne, was teaching her 4th grade class.
I, however, wouldn’t go back to teaching my English classes at the College of DuPage for another two weeks, so I had driven to forested northwest Wisconsin to winterize our fishing cabin and catch some walleye before the cold set in.
The cabin TV had no signal, as often was the case in the woods, but a news bulletin came over the radio: Heavy smoke was pouring from one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Minutes later, the North Tower collapsed and I was filled with panic and fear.
Though our cabin had a landline phone, my wife was the only one in the family who had a cell phone back then, and I couldn’t reach her during the school day. I dialed my brother, but there was no answer.
I rushed outside.
It was cold and still that morning. A chickadee in one of the surrounding pine trees made the only sound, a plaintive whistle. I looked up into the empty sky and went back indoors.
Improbable visuals were being described over the radio: People leaping to their deaths from the upper floors; survivors running through the streets, bloody and disoriented; a hijacked jet crashing into the Pentagon; fire trucks blaring down 7th Avenue in New York; the second tower crumbling to earth.
I sat in a chair that faced a window that looked out onto the lake.
Our country was under attack. My family was scattered. There was no one with whom to grieve.
Suddenly, I heard a burst from a car horn. A van with “Northern Lakes Co-op” on its side had pulled in behind the house. The cabin furnace had refused to turn on the day before, and the dispatcher had promised to send someone when he could.
Scott wore blue coveralls and was over six feet tall, with a mop of shaggy brown hair. Not quite 30 years old, he had an easy smile and called me “sir.”
I led him to the utility room where he set his heavy tool belt on the floor. I described for him the symptoms of the temperamental furnace.
“Probably the igniter, sir,” he said.
He knelt, removed the front panel, and was peering inside with a pen light.
“Did you know...hear anything about New York?” I said.
He turned, looked up into my eyes. “Oh, yes. Surreal. We were all watching it at the shop.”
I visualized Scott and several other men I’d never met, all in blue coveralls, staring up at the TV on an upper corner shelf. And I felt less alone.
“My foreman says the FBI probably already knows who did it,” he said. “What with cameras all over the airport. Passenger manifests.”
Scott did not doubt his foreman. He said he just wondered why suicide attacks keep happening.
I wanted to ask if he was married. What his hopes were for himself and his children, and for the world in the four or five decades of life ahead of him.
He went outside, retrieved a new igniter from the van and replaced the old one. He asked me to turn up the thermostat. Everything worked fine, and I signed his clipboard.
He paused at the door as he folded and coiled his tool belt. President George W. Bush’s voice could be heard from the radio in the kitchen.
“We need to figure something out,” said Scott. “Gotta do something.” A parting smile, and he left.
Our country did do something.
In the first three weeks after 911, Americans donated $657 million for families of the 2,957 people killed, and $2 billion by the end of the year, according to a University of Indiana survey in June of 2002. Another 1,592,295 Americans gave blood for the 6,000 people who were injured. Sixty percent of us wrote checks, donated blood or volunteered our help in various ways.
Scott’s foreman was not wrong about the perpetrators being caught and punished, though the job was infinitely more costly and time-consuming than he ever could have imagined.
And Scott’s observation, 20 years ago, that terrorism keeps happening is just as true today.
But there is something inside us that wants to seek out others after a catastrophe — a hunger for human contact, and an inclination toward empathy — that inspires us to “figure something out” however long it may take.
David McGrath is a emeritus professor of English at College of DuPage and author of the story collection “South Siders.” firstname.lastname@example.org
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