By Lee J. Kahrs, Editor, The Reporter, Brandon
Anyone who can’t claim Native Vermonter status came here for a reason. I came here in October 2002 after living through the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City.
I wasn’t in the towers, and I wasn’t downtown, but I was in Manhattan that bluebird morning, stranded for hours trying to get back to my apartment in Brooklyn. After finding a working phone and letting my parents know I was O.K., I walked south from midtown. All subway service had stopped. The closest I got to the Twin Towers was 41st St.
I saw the ghost people for the first time on 7th Ave. I was walking downtown when I began to notice them slowly, methodically trudging northward. They were businessmen and women in expensive suits covered in light gray ash from head to toe. Some carried briefcases, most just carried themselves. Their eyes did not see anything but the path before them. Who knew how far they had to go to get home, as they were already 50+ blocks into their journeys.
I passed many, many ghost people on that stretch of 7th Ave. that morning. Soon, it was afternoon, and I heard that the F train was running from Rockefeller Center to Brooklyn. It was 2 p.m. when I started walking across town on 47th St. F-16 fighter jets were flying low over the city ahead of me, and it was both surreal and comforting all at the same time.
I got to the F station and the platforms for the Brooklyn-bound train were packed with hundreds of people. One train came, filled and left. Then another. Finally, I was able to squeeze into a car. In all of my years living in the city and riding the subway, I have never, before or since, been on a train as crowded as the one that whisked me away to Brooklyn that day.
But it was dead quiet.
Hundreds of people crammed into a subway car so tight they couldn’t move, and not a sound. The F train is an underground train, so we were all spared having to look at the smoldering skyline on the trip home. I got off at Fourth Ave. and starting walking north toward President Street. It was now 4 p.m. The sun that had shone so brilliantly all day was lower in the west, and a steady, light rain of the same gray ash that had covered the ghost people was falling from the sky. It was the ash from the towers falling on Brooklyn, seven hours after they had fallen, and I thought, “I could be breathing people.”
The nightmares stopped around 2005, but for roughly a decade it was very hard to talk about 9/11. Like clockwork, the anniversaries would come each fall and I avoided the television outright. I didn’t need to see that footage played for the hundredth time. I owned that footage. It was permanently stored in my brain. Then, I spent three or four years feeling almost like a normal person who hadn’t been through it because I could actually put it out of my mind for weeks at a time.
My memories are my dysfunctional souvenir. I have never visited Ground Zero and I have not been to the new 9/11 Memorial and Museum. I probably never will. Just the thought of doing so is overwhelming. But there are so many police, fire and rescue units across the country that weren’t there and wanted to be, wanted to help, wanted to search and recover. Once the mangled and twisted metal from the towers was slowly removed from the World Trade Center site, tons of the steel was sold oversees to China and other countries, until someone realized that the wreckage was sacred. So, they filled an airplane hanger in JFK International Airport with twisted steel beams and pieces of cement. Police stations and Fire Companies across the country began requesting pieces from the towers as memorial tokens, so many that a wait list had to be created.
In 2010, the Brandon Police Department in Brandon, Vt. received its piece of the World Trade Center, a three-foot-long chunk of rusted steel beam.
On Friday morning, it will be dedicated in a small ceremony after being mounted on a post and placed in front of the police station.
When Chief Chris Brickell mentioned in passing last week that they were erecting their piece of the World Trade Center, my throat tightened. My personal search and recovery operation brought me 300 miles north of Ground Zero in order to heal, and here was the police chief telling me that there was a piece of the World Trade Center on Forest Dale Road in Brandon. It was like a slap in the face. But over the next few days, I realized it like a “Moonstruck” slap, a ‘Snap out of it!’ slap, the kind of slap you give someone when you want their attention.
September 11 wants my attention. The universe is telling me something and it wants me to listen.
I went down to the police station the other night. Tears welled as I made myself touch the rusty beam, cold and rough. I looked into the summer night sky and whispered, “I’m sorry.”
I was fooling myself. It’s not ever going to get easier. It’s always going to ebb and flow. At this point, 14 years after that nightmare day, I didn’t think I needed a piece of those beautiful towers in my backyard to remind me of what I and the rest of the country went through.
But I do, because if it wasn’t for 9/11, I never would have moved to Vermont, and for that I am eternally grateful. And I’ll be at that dedication at the Brandon Police Station on Friday, Sept. 11.