Posted by: trevormeers | September 11, 2011

Empty Sky

Maybe you don’t need to read another 9/11 retrospective, but I hope you’ll allow that I need to write one, mainly because I didn’t get the chance when it really happened. When the towers fell, the Pentagon burned and the Pennsylvania plane crashed, I was editing a home remodeling magazine. All of us editing the various DIY publications in our office felt obliged to somehow comment on 9/11 in our next editor’s note because if you have a platform before hundreds of thousands of people, how do you not say something about the most significant historical event in all of your lives? But our copy editor talked us all down, pointing out that magazines coming out months later (and, ahem, focusing on buying new countertops) would seem a little tone-deaf bringing in 9/11.

A decade later, though, I still want to work it in. I don’t have a jaw-dropping 9/11 story to tell because I wasn’t at Ground Zero and don’t know anyone who was (although my dad was on a flight bound for Washington that day). I’ve never visited the site despite many trips to New York, and I never bought an NYFD cap. But 9/11 keeps on mattering, even to those of us far out in the middle of the continent.

That widespread impact was a surprise to some people, even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I took a business trip to Long Island that October, and when my New York colleague was driving us away from the airport, she asked, “Do people out where you live care that this happened to us?” I asked her exactly whom she considered the “us” it happened to, and assured her that those of us west of the Hudson do, indeed, see New York as part of the same America we occupy, even if it often acts like another planet. I told her that for that week in the middle of September, I kept looking up, visualizing the handful of tall buildings in Des Moines erupting in fireballs. And because I was still buzzing with the post-9/11 spirit that had us all thinking we’d forever stop being sarcastic and cutting people off in traffic, I ignored her apparent implication that if someone blew up a building in the Heartland, she might have felt only slightly blue before getting back to the crossword.

I also gave her a pass because the needle on everyone’s emotional compass was spinning wildly in the immediate follow-up. My mom practically begged me to call off the trip to New York, considering it suicidal. I told her she was worrying way too much, but when I passed through Grand Central Station, it was with a constant sense that an explosion was about to rip the place apart. On another trip that month, I wound up at a dinner atop Seattle’s Space Needle, which really convinced my mom I had a death wish. But her paranoia become more believable as I started noticing every creak and bump of the turning Space Needle, wondering whether the whole thing was about to go boom and roll off its pedestal into Puget Sound.

Even while we are all still reeling from the attacks, newspaper cartoons like this started reflecting our growing resolve to strike back.

The next spring, I was having a swanky dinner in Vegas with a publishing executive, who dropped his hard-sell front long enough to talk about how he’d struggled to make sense of why anyone would blow up thousands of civilians. Finally, he said, he found clarity when a CEO buddy told him, “There are just evil people in the world.” I didn’t mention that, even before kindergarten, I’d learned this, along with the facts that he and I are among the naturally evil people walking around and that understanding this really helps answer a lot of tough questions about human existence.

We took a weekend vacation to Minnesota the week after 9/11 (just as we would later find ourselves visiting Minnesota the week after Hurricane Katrina), and on the drive home, with my wife reading beside me and my 6-month-old daughter sleeping in back, I debated whether I should go enlist. The papers were full of political cartoons of eagles sharpening their talons, and I wondered whether this was the duty I’d been born for. Finally, I decided that this war would be fought with surgical strikes by special ops teams, not masses of troops. And that meant my country didn’t need me this time. Even seeing how much my family has needed my presence in the last few years, my rationalization on that drive home still sits uneasily.

As the months went by after 9/11, stories started to surface about people like a man who lost his wife in the towers and was struggling to carry on as a single parent. The story talked about him trying to learn to braid a little girl’s hair for the first time with no one to teach him. He came to mind every night at bed time as I stared down at my own daughter’s head.

This image by Jonathan Torgovnik caught my eye for the way it perfectly captured the surreal overlay of everyday American life with unimaginable violence. See a whole slideshow of the most memorable 9/11 pix at

Then the years added up until it was 2009, and someone told me to check out Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” an album that is largely a reflection on 9/11’s human toll and one that caught my interest far more than I anticipated. I stumbled over the CD at the library right around the time I rolled my SUV on an icy highway, got picked up by a passing motorist and showed up on our doorstep 20 minutes after I left the driveway, staring like a ghost through my own front door. I spent a lot of time running that winter, mainly because it seemed like the right thing to do with a new extension on life. Out on the snowy roads, I listened to “The Rising,” including a song called “Empty Sky,” and realized that, no matter what you think of his politics, you can’t deny that Springsteen put the right words to the 9/11 emptiness:

I woke up this morning
I could barely breathe
Just an empty impression
In the bed where you used to be

Empty sky, empty sky
I woke up this morning to an empty sky
Empty sky, empty sky
I woke up this morning to an empty sky

New York’s a long way from an Iowa gravel road, and one guy’s car accident is even further from the horrors of 9/11. But I’d experienced my own typical workday morning that brought me jarringly close to leaving an empty impression in my bed, and that gave me at least a glimpse of what the 9/11 families felt. Even now, every time I happen to glance up at a blue sky on the way to another average day in the office, I can’t help thinking of the sky as empty, even where no skyscrapers ever stood.



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