My daughter's favorite word these days is "airplane." She hasn't ever seen a real airplane, not up close, just had them pointed out to her from our grounded vantage point. She's not yet known a day when there are no planes in the sky. They are a part of life, for her. It was that way for us, too, back in 2001. Never had known a day without a plane in the sky, though just a century earlier such things were science fiction.
After 9/11, planes were grounded. There was a legitimate fear that more would be used as weapons of mass destruction, that they would be taken over by flight school students here on expired visas and used to make a political and religious statement through bloodshed.
My 9/11 memories are stark. I can close my eyes and smell the lounge where I was studying, taste the orange juice I had for breakfast, hear Peter Jennings' gasps and sighs and sheer frustration and fear. I feel the adrenaline that didn't subside for weeks after, the cramps in my calves from running up and down stairs in the campus language building to get confirmation about classes cancelling. The sweat running down the back of my neck while I ran around looking for my friend Michael, with whom I'd ridden to school that morning. We got Chick-Fil-A for lunch on our way back to my house when classes were cancelled. It tasted like sawdust.
In 2002, on the anniversary, I wrote about my impressions, a year out. "And there has been a vague sense of this same silence ever since. Helicopters, military planes - nothing is the same. An interrupted television show strikes a chord of fear - what now? What next?"
Nothing has really changed.
What now. What next.
Will the planes be flying tomorrow?
I have always loved flying. In tiny Cessnas, in huge commercial jets. I love the take-off and looking out over open land. It doesn't come close to my love of a cross-country road trip, but flying is a special experience. You feel the future, in the sky. You sense all the ways you are breaking the rules.
It is horrifying to know, even that beauty was twisted and used for evil.
I first noticed the silent skies on the ride home from the university, some four hours after the first plane hit the World Trade Center.
The empty skies.
I remember thinking how eerie it was, how unnatural. We lived right in a major flight path for DFW Airport, planes flew over our house every fifteen minutes or so.
Unnatural. Except there is nothing natural about human flight. It's a manipulation of physics, an application of human knowledge, but it is not natural.
My daughter spread her arms out in the car this morning as we drove down the highway. "Wheee!" she said. "Airplane!"
May she never know the horror of a silent, empty sky.