By Gretchen Wehmhoff
It was the silence. You could feel it.
Around me, in a circle of desks, were a few dozen 17 and 18-year old high school students processing the morning’s events. Suddenly, the thunderous, and in some way, urgent, sound of F15s scrambling from Elmendorf Air Force Base cut the quiet air.
We knew this wasn’t practice. We didn’t know where they were headed, or what caused them to suddenly appear out the window, but a part of me found comfort in knowing they were on the job.
Two hours earlier I was making coffee in the kitchen. My husband had the television on. It was his birthday and I wanted to start with coffee. We always start with coffee.
He said something about something going on in New York.
“I can’t hear you, the water’s running.”
I put the carafe in it’s spot, flipped the switch and joined him in the living room.
“There’s something happening to the World Trade Center,” he repeated.
I looked towards the television. At first I was confused. I thought I was seeing the special effects of a movie, but this was on a cable news station. One of the World Trade Center towers was billowing smoke — the north tower. The entire top portion of the building was cut off from the lower portion by flames and smoke.
“All those people,” I said, dropping down on the ottoman.
The voice of the news anchor spoke over the images … someone had caught a sliver of footage of the impact — a jet had crashed into the tower.
How could a jet not see the massive tower? Fifteen years earlier I had taken a group of Kenai Central High School theater students to New York City. We visited the WTC. I still have the picture I took looking up at the massiveness. We went to the top.
The newscaster’s voice changed tempo as the cameras caught a second jet flying straight into the south tower. This wasn’t an accident. We were under attack.
I had to get to school. Joe needed to explain things to our 11-year-old daughter and get her to class.
Not everyone had the television on, but teachers came in from listening to the radio on their way to work. Bells rang, kids filed into classrooms and school started with the pledge of allegiance.
Not all students came to school that day.
The weight of responsibility was powerful. I, like colleagues across the country, were inherently charged with working through the events of the morning with our students. Elementary teachers handled it with their calming voices. Middle school teachers could be more realistic. At Chugiak High, I was looking at the faces of young people who I knew were about to see a changed world, and several who would be joining the military after graduation.
And it was homecoming week.
We talked through it, not worried about time, just sharing. Several students said their parents, stationed at Elmendorf and Ft. Richardson (now Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson) had left for work early. Most had questions. What next? Why? Who? We received occasional reports between classes. The office had set up a television near the entrance of the school. People crowded around during passing time.
The quiet was explained. All air travel had been halted. Planes across the country were instructed to land at the closest airfield, international flights were diverted to Canada. In a town where there were always commercial jets flying overhead and small airplanes buzzing out of Birchwood Airport, the quiet was ominous.
Rental car companies across the country ran out of vehicles as Americans shared cars with strangers to drive home after being stranded when the planes were ordered to land. It would take months to get people back to feeling safe flying on airliners.
Just about every home you saw had an American flag flying. Stores sold out, factories ramped up the production of flags and newspapers across the country printed an American flag on their centerfold. Our daughter took that flag and taped it to the back window of my car. It was something an 11-year-old could do that might help.
Policies changed, agencies like the TSA came into existence, the military mobilized and ethnicity was challenged.
Calls went out asking any citizens who could speak any of several Middle Eastern languages to assist with translation on the internet, the airwaves and in general. Those very patriotic people and their families would later endure the ugly wrath of a slice of narrow-minded Americans.
Life changed for those kids in my classroom. It changed for all of us, but for that generation whose only images of war had been through movies like Rambo, the next two decades of their life would include constant war.
But it was the silence I remember most. The loud, palpable sound of nothing being broken by the sonic reverberation of fighter jets passing the classroom window — and it wasn’t a drill.