The sound of an airplane overhead drew me outside – there were no airplanes in the sky over America that afternoon, not anywhere in the country. You could go out in your yard and hear the silence, a sound unto itself, like when an air conditioner kicks off in the middle of the night.
So I was standing there in the driveway watching the sky, hearing its hidden vacuum cleaner sounds, looking for vapor trails.
It was Air Force One, I found out when I went inside. The President of the United States, escorted by a squad of fighters, on his way to do whatever it was he needed to do that day.
No one knew if this was the beginning of the attacks or the end. It seemed like mushroom clouds could bloom on the horizon any second, and I found myself thinking about military targets in central Ohio – what was here that might be attacked?
DCSC, I thought – a defense contractor or military base or something, I didn’t know exactly what it was. But it was right there on the east side of Columbus, and we had a Federal Building downtown. And an international airport, too.
Ellen was three and a half years old. I picked her up at preschool and found a sign on the wall which asked us not to discuss the attacks with our children, since they’d only spend the next few days freaking each other out.
I remember not liking it, not liking the idea that anyone might instruct me on how to talk to my daughter about this – or how not to talk to her. And anyway, it wasn’t an option for me. Ellen is a little Deanna Troi from Star Trek, an empath, and she always has been. She can’t quite read your mind, but she can feel your emotions about as clearly as you can.
Try lying to her about being terrified – go ahead. You might as well try and convince her it’s winter on the Fourth of July.
Big Uncle Shawn had come over. His mother was in Cincinnati with her husband, and he was as convinced she was safe as one could be, and so he came to our house. If society collapsed and we had to make a break for western Canada, well let’s just say that was something we were prepared to do.
We had only recently brought a television back into the house – we hadn’t had one for years – and we moved it downstairs into the den so we could watch the news without filling the whole house with it. Ellen didn’t care if we wanted her to see it or not; she already knew something was horribly wrong, and a round of Polly Pockets was pretty much off the table.
She crept in quietly while we watched the cavalcade of non-Hollywood explosions, filthy and gray and quick, devouring New Yorkers like a freakish sandstorm. Human beings were jumping out of windows a half a mile in the sky, to escape the heat.
Ellen was simply standing there all of the sudden, next to us. She said, “Why are they jumping, Daddy?”
Shawn was accustomed to Ellen’s little girl ways, but by no means was he prepared to answer that one. I shrugged and told her the truth. “Some people crashed some airplanes into these really tall buildings in New York, and knocked them down. It’s a big deal. A lot of people died, Ellen.”
“Yes, on purpose.”
She chewed on it with her brain and then asked, “Did they die, too?”
That took me a second to figure out. She wanted to know if the guys who flew the planes into buildings on purpose had died. I hadn’t really thought of it that way – at least there was that.
“Yes, they died, too.”
Still too young to really get a grasp on death, it troubled her. With no religion to simplify it for her, we’d been forced to be as honest with her about death as I was being about the attacks – we don’t know what happens when you die, that’s all there is to it.
She said, “Why would they do that?”
More people on the television fleeing down the street as another rumbling cloud of debris overtook them, and then the camera itself. Shawn turned it off.
I said, “There are people in the world, Ellen, who are just monsters. I don’t know how else to put it. They were monsters and they did something terrible.”
She had climbed onto my lap as I answered, and now she looked up at me, her eyebrows furrowed in a level of concentration usually reserved for chess players. She said, “You told me there was no such thing as monsters, Daddy.”
That’s exactly what she said.
And I’ll never forget the look Shawn and I exchanged as that little piece of her innocence fell away, the chilling realization that these people, these monsters, these terrorists, whatever you wanted to call them – they’d done exactly what they’d meant to do.
I told her, “I’m sorry, Ellen.” And I was.
Because there wasn’t anything else to say.