There is a snapshot on my desk. My then-14-year-old son is standing on the Staten Island Ferry, smiling at the camera, while the twin towers of the World Trade Center loom over his shoulder in the background.
The twin towers had no meaning then, except as a backdrop, part of that great view of Wall Street as the ferry sails up to the dock.
Today the snapshot takes on the patina of an artifact from a more innocent time. It looks almost like a snapshot taken in pre-Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor. The familiar background, the posed photo, the smile. The feeling that everything after that moment is history. The feeling that there was a time when we were more innocent.
It is an illusion, of course, because every era has such moments. That does not make the images of Sept. 11, 2001 any less indelible. In our digital age it seemed like we were all right down the street, close enough to hear the rumble and taste the acrid smoke in our lungs.
We all have our stories of where we were when we heard. I was painting a house and had brought some tea to my wife during coffee break. The television was on at the newspaper, but there is often one on in the background of newspapers. Then the second plane hit the towers, a sight so out of place it appeared to be a movie. Nobody could say a word for a long moment.
At the Downyflake people were three deep around the counter staring at the television. In my e-mail box were messages from Tom Scott, images shot from a window in his downtown NYC apartment.
I found my date book and began searching for the numbers of my friend Chris Worth. Chris ran The Hub, when that place was not only a classic newspaper, magazine, and cigarette store, but a small oasis of community. Now he worked on the 62nd floor of the second tower. I dialed the numbers over and over, all morning, to no answer. Finally, he called his mother, who directed him to me.
He had left his cellphone on his desk, never to be answered again. His office had received training in how to correctly and efficiently get out of the building in case of an emergency. They did. He walked five blocks without looking back.
In those days, I often worked out of a production office in Manhattan. Chris would meet me for drinks, always at the same bar. He told me he was standing in front of that place when he heard the sound of the building collapsing. He turned and watched. Then he went inside and had several drinks.
Back on Nantucket there was an eerie silence to the day. It was not until later I realized it was due in part to the federal ban on flying. As the afternoon wore on the television was filled with stories about the attack on the Pentagon, and the struggle and crash in the Pennsylvania countryside.
In the years that have followed 9-11 there have been almost too many stories to comprehend. The firemen who responded that day rightly became the national symbol of sacrifice, and courage, and loss. There was legitimate leadership, pandering, infighting, and flag-waving. There were debates about the balance of security and liberty. There was the 9-11 Report, and no end of conspiracy theories. There was also no end of real heroes – a word that is most often overused, except when it is the only word that will do.
In America, and probably everywhere else, there is no escaping the fact that when history and symbolism collide they become politics. And when things become political they take on a certain stink. Somehow 9-11 became a political football.
The influx of talking heads and yammering politicians of every stripe brings on a kind of dull buzzing in our brains that can obscure the awful nature of that day. It became another news story, to be analyzed and argued about on Fox and CNN. And all of this is without even mentioning the war that followed.
Then one night I found my seat at Bennett Hall to watch John Shea and Amy Stiller in a play called “The Guys.” It was about a fire captain and a writer who was trying to help him write eulogies for the men he lost on Sept. 11. The entire play was just the two actors on the stage, sitting at a table, beneath a bare light bulb. It was also the first time I cried in a theater since Bambi’s mother took a bullet when I was 7 years old.
The lesson for me is to strip away the noise of politics and try to remember the moment. Most of us can close our eyes and see the now iconic photograph of the twin towers, spewing plumes of smoke, the Statue of Liberty in the distant background.
As for me, there is a photograph on my desk of a boy who is standing on the Staten Island Ferry. He is smiling. The twin towers fill the background. The sun is shining. It seems long ago.
– John Stanton is a documentary filmmaker and writer on Nantucket.