It’s a day after the 18th anniversary of 9/11 as The Observer writes this, the magic of a monthly publication schedule allowing Yours Truly to speak to all you future dwellers who already know how many mass shootings we’re going to have and all the stupid shit Donald Trump is going to do between now and the first of October, when this issue of the mighty Arkansas Times hits the stands, both physical and digital.
Like a lot of you, the anniversary of 9/11 — which The Observer can’t quite bring himself to refer to by its manufactured, sanitized, Hallmark card-approved handle of “Patriots Day” — always gets us thinking about that morning in September. And so, we will share:
On Sept. 11, 2001, Spouse and Her Loving Man had recently moved back to Little Rock from Lafayette, La., where I’d weathered my father’s long illness and eventual death like a sailor clinging to a windswept rock, miles from home. Junior, who will turn 20 in a few short months, was three months shy of 2 years old. I was teaching adjunct at UALR, looking for something full time. The following spring, I saw an ad in the Arkansas Times, looking for a reporter. I started the job that summer, after the last of day classes had wrapped. But that, as they say, is another Observer.
We were living in a little apartment up in Hillcrest, in the horseshoe of red brick buildings right where Cedar Hill Road plunges toward Riverdale. That morning, Spouse had gone off to work while Junior — always a late sleeper — had just gotten out of bed. I was in the kitchen getting breakfast ready for him.
Junior went into the living room and turned on the TV, and once he saw that his regularly scheduled programming had been interrupted, he started whine-griping in that way that annoyed the shit out of me then but which I’d give just about anything to hear again now. I was fixing him toast, putting butter on it. I walked out of the kitchen to see what the issue was, and just as I stepped into the room and saw the burning building on the TV, the second plane roared out of the edge of the screen and hit the other tower, sending that rolling fireball into the impossibly blue sky over New York that day, the burning jet fuel blossoming like a hateful orange rose.
I can’t remember if it was live or video the station was playing on a loop just to convince themselves it actually happened, as they would all continue to do for the rest of that week. But I do remember that it startled me so bad that I dropped the toast, which proceeded to land on the carpet butter side down. Which is, come to think of it, a pretty damn good metaphor for how things have gone since then. Kinda makes you wonder who this country would be if that toast had never been dropped, don’t it?
And so, the country was wounded, and went to war, and then another. As of this writing, both wars are still going on, if you can believe it, with children born on Sept. 11, 2001, now old enough to legally join the military and fight in the wars that day spawned. For the past 18 years, we have watched the seed planted on that day bloom like flaming jet fuel against a clear sky, The Observer feeling more times than I can count like a character whose mind won’t stop telling him that he’s in a divergent, misshapen timeline arising from some terrible event that should have been averted, but wasn’t. Lashed hand and foot to this reality like Odysseus to the mast, The Observer marvels at times over all the ways a single hour 18 years ago pushed this country in directions I never could have imagined back then, up to and including the election of a hateful orange bigot who has hastened the decline of this nation’s standing in the world in ways that Osama Bin Laden could have only dreamed.
And now, because The Observer’s mind is like a puzzle box these days, thinking of that name brings on another old memory: In early May 2011, the night President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan, I was teaching a night class on film at UALR, the adjunct bucks — meager as they were — still helping support a crippling journalism habit all those years later.
That evening, we happened to be discussing the Cinema of Revenge, which is almost uniformly about how the line between justice and vengeance can be paper thin, and how it is up to us to know the difference. That night, every cable news network was showing the crowds in front of the White House, jubilant Americans waving flags and celebrating like their team had just won the Super Bowl. And me? I had to go into a classroom and explain to a bunch of college kids who were in elementary school on Sept. 11, 2001, the meaning of that old proverb: Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.