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A Feeling Regained

by Steve Paul Johnson
September 16, 2001

Last Monday I had to board a plane headed for Austin, TX. I was scheduled to meet with a client on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I was flying from my home in Southern California.

Tuesday morning I met with the client, and we talked in a conference room in downtown Austin. We were at the top of the Bank One building, with a beautiful view of the city. And then the word came out about the tragedy in New York.

The news came in one by one, and each time my jaw dropped further and further. "What hell is going on in the country?" I asked. No one knew. Then came the news that both of the World Trade Center towers crumbled to the ground. I was in shock. I thought, "All those people, and everyone in the plane, all crumbled to the ground". "Yes" they said. "That's right".

I thought for sure that most of it was still standing. When Timothy McVeigh blew up up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, it didn't actually blow up entirely. Most of it was left standing.

Various employees in the building said that there were reports of hijacked planes headed for Austin, and that this was something "personal" against President Bush. I couldn't help keeping an eye out of the window. Then came news that all airports would be closed. I was supposed to fly back home that night!

Finishing up the with client, I walked a few blocks down town to a bar called "The Jazz Club", or something like that. I should have been driving my rental car back to the airport, but I knew there was no point in that. I was miles from home, unsure how to get back.

I met a guy at the bar, and we talked about what happened. We drank beers and shared a couple plates of oyster shooters. We watched the television, and sure enough, both World Trade Center towers crumbled. I mean, it could not have crumbled any worse. More shock.

I felt kinda numb about it. Have you ever been faced with tragedy, wanting to do something about it, but not knowing what to do? Even more, I was stranded, miles away from home. . We watched video of people jumping out of the window at the top of the towers. All I could do was watch in amazement, shaking my head in disbelief.

I didn't know this guy I was talking to. I came to learn that he too was from Southern California, and he wasn't sure how to get home either. I decided that I would drive home in the rental car. I was supposed to return the car that night. But I figured by now, there was high demand for rental cars. If I called the rental car agency, and asked them about extending the rental, would they let me? Maybe by now, they already rented my car out to someone else? I didn't call them.

The guy I was talking to said that I should not drive home. He said there were strange people living out in the wastelands between Austin and El Paso. He said these people drive those beat up pickup trucks, carry shotguns, and shoot up anything that moves. He warned that if I went out there into the night, especially now that America has vengeance on its mind, these kind of people would be looking for strangers like myself to tie up and drag from the back of their pickup. He felt it would be best that I just stay in Austin until the airports open up.

I decided to start driving home now.

I got gas, plenty of water, munchies, and a road map and was on my way. I took highway 290 west to the I-10. I thought there must have been some medium-sized towns between Austin and El Paso, but no. There was hardly anything, with maybe the exception of Fort Stockton. Somewhere through that vast expanse, I had to pull off the I-10 and went down road a ways and then stopped for a leak. I looked up at the night sky and saw the Milky Way. There wasn't a sound to be heard here. Probably nothing like Manhattan I thought.

Getting back on the road, all the radio stations kept talking about the tragedy. I listened to them all. People were calling in all wanting war. They all wanted to help, they wanted to give blood, give money. Some of them wanted to go Manhattan and help anyway they could.

I couldn't help thinking about a friend I had who worked in Manhattan. How close was he to the World Trade Centers? Was he on the ground getting smothered in ash? Was he able to get home ok? Was his wife and kids worried sick about him? I could call him, because I had my mobile phone with me. But I did not know if that was appropriate, being that it was in the wee hours morning there.

As the sun rose up over Las Cruces, New Mexico I felt a little more at ease. I made it out of Texas! I had breakfast in Lordsburg. What a small, rural town. It all seemed as if it was removed from the tragedy. Looking at the locals sipping coffee, and cutting their eggs, you'd think that they never knew.

By the time I got into Tucson, Arizona the temperature had risen to 108°. I discovered the air conditioning in the car did not work. Driving all night long, I had not needed the air conditioning. Now I did! I rolled down the windows, but I was still sweating.

On the radio, I heard reports that Red Cross centers were overloaded with blood donors. People making appointments were having to wait several hours in line to give blood. I heard reports of people driving from all areas of the country to Manhattan because they felt compelled to help in any way they could.

Then I heard the President describe the events as an "Act of War". This really struck me. It meant that our President acknowledged war. Just how fast was this happening? In less than 24 hours, we went from being peaceful nation to one that was waging war rallies. But at least we're united in this decision.

When I crossed over the Colorado River and into California, the temperature had risen to 112°. The wind was hot, as if someone opened up a hot stove, and stood a fan in front of it. Getting into Palm Springs, I called my wife and said I would be home in a couple hours.

As I write this today, I can't help feeling patriotic. I've always been a little patriotic. I enjoy reading about history, and reading it always reminds me how Americans endured such hardship to bring about the life we have now. But I feel more patriotic now after seeing so many people rally around their President as he shouted through a bull horn like a cheerleader at a pep rally. Millions of Americans sharing their blood with each other, all pledging loyalty to their country, and supporting their countrymen.

We Americans are indeed a race. We'd have to be in order to unite so quickly like this. It's like a hundred million parts suddenly connected back together again into a single entity. Only some of those parts are now missing. There must be an element common to us Americans that makes us American. It feels like a country again.

That feeling came with sacrifice. Let's not waste any bit of it.

- Steve Paul Johnson
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