Looking back 10 years…

With this weekend being the 10th anniversary of the attacks on September 11th, much of the local and national media have been running stories on what happened that day and what’s happened since then.  It is a day, and a time in my life, that I remember vividly.

Before I can touch on the events of 9/11, I have to go back a few months, specifically March, 2001.  My father was out of town for one reason or another and mom’s birthday was on the weekend.  My wife, Ava, and I decided to take mom out for her birthday while dad was out.  It was a simple Saturday dinner out at the old Gordo’s next to Highland Park High School.  We had a wonderful evening filled with wine, pizza and laughter.  Unfortunately, my marriage was in trouble.

Things hadn’t been right for a while.  We met just prior to her going into law school.  We dated during her first year, got engaged during her second year, and got married going into her third year – August of 1999.  Things, at best, were strained during our relationship.  Law school came first and second.  I was third in her life…at best.  But I dealt with it.  I made the sacrifices necessary to support her so that she could succeed and prosper.  After she graduated, when she didn’t have to bury her nose in some law textbook and read 100+ pages of old law cases, I remember saying: so this is what it’s like to have a wife.  But it wasn’t.  I knew there were problems, and to a certain extent, we’d grown apart.  But I knew we could conquer these issues and all would be right.  But I was fooling myself.  Ahh…to be 29 and know it all.

Sometime, the week after mom’s birthday dinner, she and I were having some discussion, and almost out of the blue she says: I need a break.  And like that, my life came crumbling down around me.

I was shocked.  I was crestfallen.  I was utterly crushed.  For the first night or two, I slept downstairs on the couch.  One of us had to leave.  To try to make things right for the things I had done “wrong” , volunteered to leave.  I remember my old coworker Dan telling me about his roommate and his travel schedule for work.  They lived together, but Josh was out of town most of the time.  I called Dan and asked if I could crash on his couch.  It would only be a few weeks before we righted this ship and all would be back to normal.  Dan called Josh to see if he was cool with me crashing at their place.  Josh didn’t have a problem with it, so I moved in.  On a side note, it turned out Josh and I went to Arkansas at the same time and had several of the same friends, but we just never met.

At first, we had a pretty good time playing baseball and hockey on the PS2, but I was out of place.  Honestly, I don’t remember how long I stayed there before I had to tell my parents.  Maybe two months.  Eventually, I moved in back home into Emily’s old room that mom had converted into her “study”.  A study in the sense of the word that there was a cheap Wal-Mart desk and an old PC that she’d play solitaire on.

Over the next few months, I kept trying to “fix” things.  I went to counseling.  We went to counseling together.  I thought by giving her a break and giving her some space, she’d realize the mistake she’d made and take me back.  But I knew, deep down in my heart, it was over.  But I didn’t want to let go.  I’d given her everything.  Where’s my reward?  When am I going to get back all that I’d paid into?  I guess if nothing else, I didn’t have to pay for a divorce attorney.  She actually drew up the paperwork herself.  And like that…it was over.

That was sometime in June or July of 2001.  Around that same time, my grandmother had a stroke.  She had been the primary caregiver for my grandfather who’d had a couple of strokes back in the early ’90s.  With Connie in the hospital, someone needed to take care of Papa Tom.  It was almost as if the stars were aligning and things were happening for a reason.  My family asked me to move in and take care Papa Tom.  I did so without hesitation.

I’d get up in the morning, make sure Papa Tom was out of bed.  Make him breakfast if he wanted.  I’d get dressed and head out to work.  I was in sales and could go home at the drop of a hat, so I’d head over there for lunch most days.  On Wednesdays, we’d head down to the Dallas Museum of Art and take in a lecture.  Bill and Tom would bring Subway on Fridays and the four of us would enjoy a couple of six inch turkey subs and Cheetos.  At night, we’d hang out together, drink some really cheap scotch and chat.  When it was time, I’d help him into bed and tuck him in.

One uneventful night, Papa Tom and I sat down to watch Monday Night Football.  It was the beginning of the season and the Denver Broncos were playing the New York Giants.  The only thing I remember from that game was Denver wide receiver Ed McCaffery making a spectacular catch while the defender rolled up on his leg, breaking it in several places.  It was Joe Theisman-esque.  After the game, I helped the old boy into bed and headed upstairs to crash.

The next morning, my alarm goes off, but the slight headache from the cheap scotch the night before kept me in bed.  The next thing I know, my cell phone’s ringing.  Crap, I’m late for work.  I answer it, it’s my sister Emily.  “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!”  Huh?  Like a Cessna hit the World Trade Center down on Stemmons?  “No, like the World Trade Center in New York.”  Ok.

I gather my senses and head downstairs.  Papa Tom is watching the painter Bob Ross on PBS.  I ask him if we can change the channel.  Begrudgingly, he agrees.  I flip it over to ABC and I’m shocked to see the pillar of smoke rising out of Tower One.  Charlie Gibson is giving his best to describe the chaos and mayhem before him.  And suddenly, another plane streaks into view and plows into the building with a red-black fireball exploding out the other side.

Was that tape of the earlier accident?  What did I just see?  What is going on?  And then it dawns on me, as I’m sure it did for everyone else watching at that moment: we’re under attack.  That was Tower Two.

We sat there and watched in horror.  “Ro-bear”, my grandfather said in gravelly French, “can we change the channel?”  I’m sorry, but no.  New reports are coming in.  The Pentagon’s been hit.  Another plane is down in rural Pennsylvania.

I’m filled with rage.  I’m filled with sadness.  The image of paperwork floating through the streets of New York is burned into my memory.  Resumes, expense reports, spreadsheets, financial data…all things that were of extreme importance two hours ago are now fluttering down in some sick and twisted ticker tape parade though the financial district.

Now something else is happening, something totally unimaginable.  Tower Two is crumbling in an explosive cloud of dust.  And then Tower One…

What do we do?  What do I do?  At that moment, I recall two of my college fraternity brothers: Bill and Mike – Mike being my roommate.  They joined the Marines our junior year.  They wanted to do something with their lives.  They wanted to make a difference.  At that moment, I wanted to do something with my life.  I wanted to make a difference.  I went upstairs and gathered up my stuff.  I was heading down to my nearest recruiting office.  I was not going to sit idly by and let this happen.

As I head for the door, I call out: I’ll be right back.  “Ro-bear, can you make me a sandwich?  And can we watch something else?”

Call it fate.  Call it divine intervention.  But I make my way into the kitchen and make us lunch.  We try to find something else on TV besides the news of the attack.  Papa Tom finally realizes Lawrence Welk will not come on today.  I never made it to the recruiting office.

Over the next few days, we sat there and watched TV.  I never made it into work.  The following Monday, I had a meeting with my sales manager Steve.  I gathered up my active files and walked into his office.  He asked: “So, what’cha got going on?”  I slid my files across his desk and quit.  I needed a break.  He understood.  He knew everything that had been going on the past few months.  I spent the next few weeks just tending to me and my grandfather.

I soon got restless and decided to rejoin society and get a job.  Needless to say, no one was hiring.  One day, after a few frustrating job interviews, dad and I were having lunch.  He asked: “So, what are you going to do now?”  I don’t know.  Maybe I should just go back to school and finish my degree.  Dad gets up from the kitchen table, grabs the phone, tosses it my way and says: “Then do it.”

With a little bit of research, I found my old journalism teacher – Dr. Phyllis Miller.  I called her and reminded her of who I am and told her I might want to re-enroll and complete my degree.  Less than a week later it was done.  She’d pulled my old records, found out what I needed to take and had me all set up.  I don’t know what she had to do, but she’s responsible for getting me back.  If she hadn’t acted so quickly, I might have blown it off and would still not be done today.

I spent the next few weeks getting ready to move back to Arkansas.  Claire and I made a trip to find an apartment up there.  We found one built on a 9-hole, par 3 golf course.  Perfect.

I moved back to Fayetteville and went back to school.  I’d go to class in the morning, type my notes into the PC and then hit the course for 9 or 18 holes of golf.  I completed my core courses and finished the rest of my requirements at a local junior college here in Dallas.  Today, my name is engraved in the Senior Walk next to the music building, across from the Chi Omega Greek Theatre.

Shortly thereafter, I got my real estate license and got into commercial real estate sales.  I’ve moved into real estate title insurance where I bring in new business and I’m learning the escrow process.

This is, without a doubt, the most personal post I’ve made in the year I’ve had this blog.  I can’t think about the events of 9/11 without remembering what happened the months before and after the attacks.  To me, they’re tied together.  And, ultimately, they’re what make me the person I am today.


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