We all have stories of what happened that day. Where we were. What we were doing. How it affected us. Some it touched personally and some sympathetically. For the older generations it would become the question that would replace the question of eras before – “Where were you when JFK was shot” now became “Where were you when 9/11 happened?”. A date that would forever be pressed into our brains as a verb that could sum up a nationwide catastrophe in 3 digits…or two numbers. 9/11.
The morning of September 11, 2001, I was a nanny and flight attendant to be. I had recently applied and was accepted by a major airline and, in a few weeks, would begin Barbie Boot-Camp as we affectionately called it. The job choice was odd for a non make-up wearing hippy chick but I didn’t care. I wanted to travel. I was fully resigned to become a red lipstick wearing, peanut slinging, paid to travel gal.
As I drove to work that day, my mind was full of a checklist of things I had to cross off before I left for training. I had already sublet my apartment and given notice at work, essentially making me jobless and homeless until training began. Thankfully, my mom took pity and suggested I move back to her home in the room I hadn’t occupied since high school. How in 5 years had it become so small? Time does funny things to us – it can speed up in the best of moments and slow down in the worst…
On 9/11, by the time I walked through the door of my employer’s house, the first plane had already hit the World Trade Center. I found my boss on the ground occupying her toddler while watching the news report. I wasn’t sure what to make of it but my heart hurt just the same. As I sunk onto the couch behind her I watched as the second plane hit. My stomach dropped. Time stood still as I joined millions of Americans and billions in the world as we stared in horror at the screens in front of us trying to make sense of this tragedy.
The outcome of that day changed the entire transportation industry – in particular, the airline industry. As I sat on the couch, my first thought was of my neighbor, who was an American Airlines flight attendant, based in New York. My second thought spread guilt through me like wildfire as I selfishly wondered what would come of my job-to-be.
I was 22, soon to be jobless and living in my moms townhouse…but that was NOTHING compared to the people in those buildings and on those planes as well as the loved ones of everyone involved. Fathers never getting to meet their new-born children, mothers not making it home for bedtime stories, and siblings, friends, and lovers not making it to dinner that night. I turned to my employer and excused myself for the day. I needed privacy to react. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. Most of all, I wanted to understand what happened.
Soon after, My Airline called. They explained they didn’t know what was going to happen. They didn’t know how this catastrophe would impact the industry. They didn’t know if they would be hiring anyone any time soon.
I immediately breathed a sigh of relief…in the past few days my thoughts had run the gamut. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be hired. The uncertainty of my future had crept into my brain and wouldn’t shake free. Before I could turn my uncertainty to a no, they called back and gave me a new start date in October. And, like any good employee, I accepted the new date as a fulfillment of my prior commitment. I was going to be a Flight Attendant.
My mom was the one to drive me to the airport. She walked me into the terminal and, similar to a father walking his daughter down the aisle, assured me we could walk right back out to the car if I wanted to change my mind. But I didn’t change my mind. I was up for the adventure. I had never gone to a traditional college with roommates or known the camaraderie of a sorority. I had never had a job that offered me the freedom I really desired in life. I was going…and I wasn’t looking back.
Training was harder than anything I had ever done up to that point. We stayed in a grasshopper infested hotel, each day taking a shuttle to 8 hour training sessions in freezing cold classrooms, returning home to the hotel to study in the hallways long into the night. It was hard, it was stressful. My roommate dropped out 3 days in…
I learned many things that month – airline codes, flight attendant lingo, and that panty lines are the devil and I had unknowingly been dancing the tango with him for years. On Clinique day we all bought matching red lipstick as our new “uniform” required. Something told me that in a few weeks time I would no longer be the hippy girl from Chi-town…I was growing up.
After 5 1/2 weeks the remaining students of our class were gathered together in a classroom. We were dressed in our new uniforms (man, were they hideous!) and our brains were filled to the brim with the knowledge of the past month of training. Medical equipment, emergency procedures, evacuation drills, announcements, verbal judo (it’s a thing), airport codes, and 7 ways to ignore the pilots should they want anything more than a cup of coffee. In all those weeks, we spent only 30 minutes training for the everyday job – how to properly take drink orders and pass peanuts. The rest of the month was spent in preparation for the day we hoped would never come.
In that classroom, on graduation day, the leaders of Class 192 congratulated us. They explained that out of the 226 people who were due to join us in our training class, only 3 had chosen not to. Only 3 had been swayed by what we now know was a terrorist attack. Only 3 had walked away from the career that I have spent 15 years enjoying. Only 3. I was proud of myself for sticking it out and going through with training. For not giving in to my fear and the terror of the unknown.
Now, I understand that travel isn’t easy. You have all the frustrations of getting to the airport on time just to wait in long TSA lines. You can’t bring your liquids. You have to take off your shoes and your belts. You wait in line at the gate only to hear there is a mechanical or a weather delay. Finally, you board the plane behind a family with 3 screaming children hoping desperately they aren’t in the row behind you. But they are. And the man who should have bought two seats but managed to squeeze himself into one is now rubbing elbows with you on the armrest. I get it. It sucks. By the time I get to you to take your drink order it is all too much for you to take your headphones off and look me in the eyes when ordering. I get it.
In all the years since my graduating day, I am never more happy to be at work than I am on 9/11. Today I will work in honor of the pilots, flight attendants, innocent victims, and first responders who lost their lives in that horrible tragedy. Today I will work for every person who has to board the plane with the reminder that this is the day that our country changed 15 years ago. I work for the people boarding the plane with the fear that day could be repeated. And let me tell you something, if anything does goes wrong, my eyes will be the ones you will search for in the chaos. And that is why I am happy to be here. Because every September 11th I have flown since the first year I was hired, when I ask you what you would like to drink, I am always pleased to see you look me in my eyes. I am even more pleased when you say thank you. Because I know what that thank you entails.
To those who lost their lives and those who risked their lives to save others – I remember.
And I will never forget.