Sunday, September 11, 2016

From the Archives: 'Nothing Is Funny Today'

[Note: This column was written on Sept. 15, 2001, four days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.]

It is Saturday morning, the only time during the week when I get a chance to write. After a few days of playing with ideas, jotting down notes, and reciting snippets of silly dialog to myself in the car, I sit down at the computer on most Saturdays and write my humor column, “A Matter of Laugh or Death.”

However, this is no ordinary Saturday. It is the fourth day after Tragic Tuesday, our generation’s day of infamy with the eerie emergency response numerical date: 9-11.
Nothing is funny right now. Even the name of my column, a smart-aleck play on words which seemed clever five days ago, makes me cringe. A matter of laugh or death? This week there are no laughs, only death.

I tried to write something funny. C’mon, I said to myself, the world needs laughter. It’s therapeutic. Life goes on. The American spirit is indomitable. We will recover. We will smile again. We will laugh again. We need to laugh again.

Well, OK, that’s probably true. But not today.

My grandparents had Pearl Harbor. My parents have the Kennedy assassination. And now I have the Twin Towers attack, my indelibly etched “Where were you when you heard…?” moment.

I was in a warehouse near the Tappan Zee Bridge, about 20 miles from Manhattan, preparing for the grand opening of a new distribution branch. A co-worker came out of the office and yelled, “Two planes just crashed into the World Trade Center! It’s on the radio!”

Six of us gathered around the radio in stunned disbelief while the reporters described the horrific sequence of events. Raging fires. Billowing smoke. It’s collapsing! Plumes of dust and debris. The Pentagon has been hit. The other tower is falling! Plane crash in rural Pennsylvania.

Our building is surrounded by trees, but when we drove a half-mile toward the Hudson we could gaze down the river and clearly see grayish white smoke rising from the majestic skyline and drifting eastward. It appeared as if an imposter cloud was trying to sneak into the air and join the ranks of the real cumulus puff balls floating in the bright blue sky.
We returned to the warehouse and resumed working, shocked, numb, repeatedly looking at each other and mumbling, “Unbelievable.” All the while the radio chattered in the background with a steady stream of updates and eyewitness reports.

I tried to pray. “Oh God, dear Jesus, please…” I whispered, unable to complete the thought or finish the sentence. Finally I gave up. “You know what I should be praying, Lord. I just can’t concentrate. Please help them. Please help us all.”

As a baby boomer, I’ve been staring at television since birth. I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with the tube. I love TV and can’t imagine living without it, but I also hate it because it can be such a time-waster and mind-musher. In recent years I’ve grown fond of radio, finding it more mentally stimulating, even to the point of listening to Red Sox games when I could be watching them on TV.

But on Tragic Tuesday I ached for a television. Hour after hour I listened as reporters did their best to describe with words a scene which could only be described with video images. It wasn’t until 6:00 p.m., nine long hours later, that I got my first glimpse of what the entire world had been watching all day long. Each time Tom Brokaw reappeared to talk, I felt guilty for wanting him to go away so I could watch the replay of the planes crashing, again and again and again.

For three days I did not cry. I was dazed and stunned and achingly sad. But I didn’t cry. At least until last night. During yet another evening session of flipping from Brokaw to Rather to Jennings and back again, I saw a report from London. At a Friday memorial service in a packed St. Paul’s Cathedral, with the Queen and other British officials in attendance, the entire congregation began singing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Tears began to stream down my cheeks as I watched Britons from all walks of life wave little American flags and sing my country’s national anthem. As I cried I broke into a quivering smile. “We Americans don’t even know the words to that song,” I said. “How do they know the words?” I took it as a small sign that even in the face of so much death, humor had not quite died. 

Nothing is very funny right now. We need to mourn and recover and face a disquieting future. But someday soon we will smile. And someday soon we will laugh again. 

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