It’s often been said that you’ll always remember where you were on 9/11. I certainly remember where I was that day, and this is my story.
This past Saturday marked my wife and I’s 23rd wedding anniversary. I know it’s hard to believe that she has been able to put up with me that long, but it’s true. All the way back on September 9, 2000, we tied the knot. We had a fun honeymoon made up of visiting various places and doing various things for a week. One of the places we visited was the resort town of Gatlinburg TN where we stayed in the honeymoon suite of one of the better hotels there. We thoroughly enjoyed everything the hotel had to offer including the private balcony on the river, the private access to the pool and hot tub area, the fireplace in the room, and the jacuzzi tub.
So as our first anniversary was approaching, we thought it would be great to go back there and stay in the same suite again to celebrate one year of marriage. Not only did we like that idea, but we also liked the idea of once again incorporating several stops and adventures during our week-long celebration just like we did the year before. Gatlinburg and its surrounding areas were going to be our first destination.
We arrived in town on the afternoon of Sunday the 9th of September, and took in a few of the local attractions before calling it a night. On Monday the 10th, we made the hour-long drive across the mountain to the town of Cherokee NC. Cherokee is a historic town that sits in the heart of the North Carolina Cherokee Reservation. After seeing all of the sights and doing some touristy stuff, we headed to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino to spend the evening playing various slot machines. We stayed out late and got back to our hotel in Gatlinburg even later and crashed hard. Without having anywhere in particular to be on Tuesday, no alarms were set to wake up at any certain time.
On Tuesday morning, I sleepily woke up sometime after 9 AM. I turned on the TV, and so I wouldn’t disturb my still-sleeping wife, I muted the volume and started flipping through the channels. I surfed past CNN quickly, but an image caught my eye before I could stop my thumb from pressing the button on the remote, so I had to flip it back. The image on the screen was disturbing. What appeared to be the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center was center screen with smoking coming from both. I didn’t have my glasses on so I couldn’t make out the scrawl at the bottom of the screen with the details of what I was seeing.
For some reason, it didn’t dawn on me to put my glasses on. Instead, I reached for my cell phone and dialed up my mother. Here is how the conversation went:
Me: “What’s going on in New York?”
Mom: “The World Trade Center was hit by a plane.”
Me: “A plane? But it looks like BOTH towers are on fire?!?”
Mom: “Yes. Both towers have been hit. Two planes…one hitting each tower.”
Mom: “Are you there? I said both towers have been hit…”
Me: interrupting “Yeah, I heard you. I’m just having trouble…it’s not an accident. Two planes is deliberate.”
Mom: “That’s what everyone is thinking.”
Me: “I’ve got to get off here and wake up Jeanni. I love you Mom.”
Mom: “Love you too sweetheart. Call me back later.”
It was a quick conversation but I needed to wake the wife up. I woke her up, put my glasses on, and turned the volume up on the television just in time for us to near the newest report and see the first images of yet another plane crashing into the Pentagon. Not long after that, we watched the south tower fall. Then heard unconfirmed reports of a plane crashing in Pennsylvania. Then we watched the north tower fall. It was all a blur of images and reports that were dizzying and unfathomable.
We stayed in the hotel room most of the day just watching in silence. Smartphones weren’t a thing yet, and I hadn’t packed my laptop on this trip, so there was no internet to consume and get more info from. No one yet knew what all of this meant, but we knew that our world had just changed that morning. The wife and I talked about it. Just yesterday our whole life was ahead of us, but now, who knew what that even entailed.
Late in the afternoon, we decided to leave the room and walk around town. Normally Gatlinburg is a very busy place with thousands of people walking all over town doing all of the things people enjoy doing when in resort towns. On this afternoon, however, the streets were bare. We saw other couples wandering aimlessly like we were, but nothing like we were used to seeing. We would duck into bars and restaurants to catch a glimpse of the latest news reports as we walked. As painful as it was, we just couldn’t pull ourselves away from it.
We walked over to the Ripley’s Aquarium…not planning to visit, just to walk over and see what the atmosphere there was like. We were greeted by an employee out front who told us they were closed. She said that all of the attractions were closed because who knew what the next target(s) would be. That hit home as we seemed to be very far away from the events, but it made us think just what could be next?
We walked to dinner. The Hard Rock Cafe was close by. We went in and got a table. Every time I had been to a Hard Rock Cafe previously, the place was filled with loud music and people having a good time. There was no music playing on this visit. All of the televisions in the place were tuned to CNN, and all of the guests were sitting and eating quietly as they watched the ongoing coverage. We joined in as well.
That night, we decided to end our travels and head back home. That car ride was somber and quiet, unlike our trip coming to town which was full of music and laughter. We listened to the news on the radio all the way home.
After a day at home filled with watching more news, we decided to go to the local county fair that was going on that week. That night’s main act was Charlie Daniels. Charlie Daniels had never been shy about sharing his opinions on politics, and this night would be no different. When he took the stage, he got a standing ovation before he ever said his first word. Normally, Charlie would open a show by immediately playing his biggest hit song, The Devil Went Down to Georgia. On this night, he came on stage without his signature fiddle in his hand. He quietened the crowd down so he could speak. I can’t remember what he said, but he spoke for 45 minutes, having to stop numerous times to wipe the tears from his eyes… much like everyone else in the crowd was doing. When he finally did play, he started with a slightly different version of his hit In America that he had changed to reflect the events from a few days before. He got the loudest and longest ovation I have ever seen at a concert before or since.
The next night being Friday, we decided to go to the local high school football game. Never before had I seen American flags waving at a local game, but on this night night there must have been at least 100 of them waving in the air. When you consider the stadium only holds about 400 people, that was a lot. In this area, things usually begin with the home team’s band playing the national anthem. On this night, the bands from both schools joined together and played it in unison and it finished with a roaring applause from both sides of the field. Before the kickoff, where the coin flip usually would take place at mid-field, every player and coach from both teams gathered, took a knee, and all held hands for a prayer. Fans on both sides of the stadium did the same. It was a sight and experience, unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of. I have tears in my eyes now as I write this just thinking back on it. The kids that night played with an energy usually reserved for a championship showdown. But at the same time, played with respect, with players helping each other up after every tackle and encouraging each other after every play.
Our first-anniversary vacation ended the next day. It certainly wasn’t what we were expecting from it. And while I wish that those events had never happened, they did. And they changed our lives…all of our lives going forward.
I still think about the day of the attacks frequently. And every time I do, I still tear up. Every year on 9/11 I gather my family and we go to our local fire station for a remembrance ceremony. One of the steel beams that was pulled from the rubble of the Twin Towers is on display there. The small crowd gathers around it for prayer, all laying hands on the beam while doing so. We do it as a tribute to the fallen. We do it as a tribute to the survivors. We do it to help us not forget the events of that day. We do it so we don’t lose sight of what’s important in life. We do it as a reminder that no day is a given. We do it so the rest of the world knows that we forgive, but we never forget.