Day 11 in a Month of Writing: Thirteen Years Ago Today

Thomas Burnett

There are two things I recall about the weekend preceding September 11th, 2001. The first thing I remember was attending my niece Lauren’s second birthday party. Lauren is the youngest of the six grandchildren, having been born barely more than a week after my eldest brother Bob’s forty-third birthday. She looked as identical to her father as any girl possibly could; healthy cheeks, enormous blue eyes, dark curly hair and long lashes. She was adorable as she entertained her paternal aunts, uncles, cousins and grandma. The party was prior to her actual birthday which would be happening that Monday, the 10th. Her fifteenth birthday was yesterday and she is even more beautiful today than she was as a toddler. Her birthday was simply a family celebration as it took place, upon reflection it marks a sort of an end of innocence. The second thing I remember from that weekend was a conversation with Robyn Renfroe. She and her husband Rich had stopped over to our house in St. Paul and we got on the topic of defining moments. We talked about how people from our generation always remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. Since I was an infant on that historic day and have no such recollections I recalled Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s assassinations. I tend to think of man setting foot on the moon as the defining historical moment of my childhood. I mentioned that my mother remembered the end of World War II and how there was an overwhelming sense of goodwill and that the church bells of Minneapolis were all ringing in jubilation. Many of the college students I had been working with over the previous few years thought of the Space Shuttle explosion as being the monumental event of their youth.  A younger coworker had orchestrated a sick day that day to watch The Jett’s (a local family band) appearing on an afternoon program,Twin Cities Live, which was preempted due to the disaster. Then our discussion turned to whether there would be those sort of defining moments for the generation that included my own two children. The very real answer to this rather ethereal musing came less than  48-hours later.

The morning of September 11th started a little unusually for me by design. I dropped the kids at daycare, where after breakfast they would take the bus to school where my son and daughter were in first and third grade respectively. Rather than hop immediately on the freeway and head into Minneapolis for my job near the University of Minnesota campus, I returned home. Our house was on the market and at six o’clock that evening an inspection was taking place. I went home to make some final adjustments; straighten beds. put out clean towels, undo any minor damage the kids had unwittingly done simply by being kids. I got on the road about the time I normally would be arriving at work. My usual morning drive-time show must have ended because the vibe felt more serious. The person was talking about a plane hitting the World Trade Center and my initial reaction was that it was a War of the Worlds dramatization and that the radio station was being irresponsible to broadcast something like this, as people might actually believe it. I changed stations and realized what was being reported was in fact an actual live-time news event. I glanced at the drivers of the other vehicles commuting along the freeway, everyone looked somber, confused and ashen.

When I arrived at work I called my husband. I then got on my computer and eventually went into the Great Room on the main floor of the student apartment complex I worked at and turned on the television. The broadcasters were as horrified as the members of their audience and had little more information than the speculation we were all doing. The same sickening footage showed repeatedly and then more horrifying footage of dust covered survivors trying desperately to get somewhere where they could breath and make contact with loved ones. At first it was reported as a small plane, an accident and then a second plane hit and it was determined that these were commercial flights, then the Pentagon and yet another flight that we would later learn the brave passengers had attempted to regain control of went down in a field, creating much less damage than whatever the intended point of impact had been. Not much work got done that day, a few staff members wandered in to talk, to look for some reassurance. Classes were canceled, students were incredibly quiet. Everyone simply seemed numb because nobody knew who had done this, what it meant or what might happen next.

For the only time ever while having our children in childcare, my husband and I both arrived to pick them up. This had been planned because we were unable to go home due to the scheduled inspection. My husband and I speculated during the day whether our loan would go through or the loan of our buyer, would banks fail, fuel prices skyrocket and the job market collapse? A lot had gone on in the ten hours since we had last been together!

We went to dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant, not knowing what the children had actually been told during the day and wanting to remain age-appropriate and reassuring to them we began by simply asking about their day. Betsy explained that her class had been told that planes hit a building but nobody got hurt. This would almost have amused me, were it not so sad and inaccurate. We explained that it was not possible for planes to fall out of the sky like that without people being injured or dying. She said her teacher had a brother who worked at the Pentagon where one of the planes crashed and she had been crying. I forgave the inaccuracies and misinformation, as I am uncertain how one can appropriately process and share that sort of information with children while not grasping it as an adult. I remember that our president was in an elementary school, reading to children when he was notified of the ongoing tragedy. We drew on the back of our Chinese New Year place mat a map of the United States and explained where New York was and then where Minnesota was and the other locations where lives were lost. We talked about all the police, firefighters and doctors that were helping people and generous people giving food and water to strangers. We talked about our countries military, their bravery, equipment and training and their availability to help and protect. My children knew their father was an Army Ranger and many of our family friends (some that they affectionately refer to as “uncle”) were members of his Scout Platoon Unit during his years as an Army Reservist. During the ensuing years some of those men would serve in both Iraq and Afghanistan. With our fill of Chinese food came a fullness of information, we encouraged the kids to not be fearful and to ask questions if thoughts or ideas came up that they wanted to discuss.

When we arrived home that evening we discovered that in their backpacks was a letter from their principal with instructions regarding how to discuss the day’s events with children. It suggested that we not provide much detail or information to them and not to bring up the military. I wadded it up and tossed it in the trash. Six weeks later they began school in the Bloomington school district. As years passed and the children got into middle school they began learning about Thomas Burnett, who is recognized for having helped coordinate the attempt to regain control of the plane that went down in the field. His wife Deena, during phone conversations on that fated flight made him aware of the other planes that had crashed. Mr. Burnett was raised in Bloomington, Minnesota. A local post office here is named in his honor. His parents participated for years in an assembly for the middle school children that had volunteered at various local nonprofits on what was deemed the Thomas Burnett Day of Service.

This September 11th, with my youngest being a sophomore in college, marks the first one where none of the current kindergarten through high school students were in school on that tragic day. It truly is a piece of history that most students have no recollection of and they will have to be taught about it. These are kids who have grown up with our military being at war just being part of life and who don’t remember the joys of seeing people depart or arrive at airport gates. The aftermath of 911 is simply part of their lives with no real concept of how things have changed.

If I could encourage you to complete one gesture as a tribute to all those who were lost and all that our country lost on that day, I would ask that you to talk to a person age 5-18 about September 11th 2001. Choose a person who was lost that day; a firefighter, a priest, a waiter, a parent and share their story in age-appropriate terms with a child. Tell them what happened on that day and why it matters.



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