Yesterday, America solemnized, with moments of silence and other ceremonies, remembrances of the terrorist attacks on our nation which occurred September 11, 2001. Like most of us, I remember exactly where I was on that day and what I was doing when I heard the unfathomable news.
I had begun a second stint as a social studies teacher at Conyers Middle School, as the school on Sigman Road was only 30 miles from the parking lot at Hartsfield International Airport, where I worked a second job for a regional airline. My airline week was comprised of four 10-hour nights on, followed by three nights off. My off nights were Tuesday through Thursday, so the two jobs dovetailed fairly well. I taught Monday through Friday, with weekends off, by day, and worked the airline job Friday through Monday, by night.
Obviously, I'd had to give up full time coaching. In those years, I lost several high school football seasons, couldn't watch an entire college football game on any Saturday before having to leave for work and rarely saw a professional baseball game.
But there was a young man coaching football at Conyers Middle in 2001 who asked if I could come to practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and coordinate from the press box for him on Wednesday game days. I've always appreciated anybody who thinks my experience is of value, so I did what I could to accommodate the coach's request.
9/11 fell on a Tuesday. I had taught school the day before, then rushed to the airport and worked an evening shift, gone home for a short nap and returned to Conyers Middle. I was really looking forward to getting home after football practice that afternoon for some much-needed recuperation time.
Prior to 9/11, I'd found it remarkable that my parents and absolutely everyone I ever met who was of that generation could recall exactly where they were when they heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941.
I thought it had something to do with the eloquence of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who called it "a date which will live in infamy."
Or, I thought, perhaps it was because in 1941 folks would gather around the family radio on Sunday afternoons to listen to variety shows, and most Americans in the Eastern Time zone were doing that when the news of the Pearl Harbor attack broke.
But I was wrong.
I know now, from personal experience, that when you get that kind of news it's like the world just stops. Everything just absolutely stops. And then it starts moving slowly forward in some sort of surreal opaqueness.
My school schedule had me free for planning during first period when the attacks began. I was halfway down the hallway and heading toward the school cafeteria in search of some direly needed coffee. An eighth-grade teacher burst out of her room, sobbing, and gasped wildly that we were under attack. I paused until the lady gathered herself and returned to her classroom then made a beeline for my classroom and the television.
The rest of that day passed as if it were in slow motion. I constantly changed channels as my social studies classes came and went, searching for any tidbit of information as to what had happened, how it had been orchestrated and by whom.
My sixth graders exhibited emotions across the wide spectrum. Most were interested and hung on every syllable. A few were scared and wanted to go home. Still, others wanted to play around and talk like most sixth graders want to do on any other normal day.
I called my airline to see if there was anything I could do, although it was my "weekend." It was then that I learned the FAA was canceling all flights that had not taken off, and was getting every aircraft out of the skies over America, having them land at the nearest airport.
From that point, the day ground along in something like super-slow-motion. I handled the situation with the kids in the classroom, shared everything from a commercial aviation point of view with the students that my experience allowed and tried to explain how it was possible - given my limited knowledge at that moment of what had transpired - for someone to orchestrate such an attack.
At the same time, my mind raced to try and make sense of what I was seeing and hearing. And it just wouldn't work. Nothing made sense. I watched over and over as video footage showed a Boeing 767 flew into a skyscraper. And then, incredibly, on live television, I watched both of those towers fall straight down into the ground.
And it just didn't work. My eyes saw it, but my brain just wouldn't accept it. 100 floors of steel, glass and concrete don't just fall straight down to the ground.
I remember how Major League Baseball and professional football came to a screeching halt. Our nation reacted and the government knee-jerked and tried to reassure us that the sky was not falling, after we'd all seen it fall.
I also recall how we started searching for a way to get back to normal. And the way was not clear.
But finally, mercifully, on the 21st day of September, Major League Baseball resumed its season. Along with a lot of others, I watched as President Bush strode confidently out of the home dugout at Yankee Stadium in New York toward the pitcher's mound. He was to throw out the first pitch to let everyone know that America was getting back to normal, and he was doing it in the city hardest hit by the tragedies.
I was surprised to see the president toe the rubber, as most celebrities throw the first pitch from a spot closer to the plate to assure that the ball actually reaches the catcher.
But the president climbed the hill, went to the windup and fired a perfect strike right down the middle.
Oh, I know there are detractors who will say that I'm being sophomoric. But as an American and a baseball fan, the fact that the president fired a fastball right down the gut to symbolize that our nation would rebound from the debacle of the attacks was pretty much a perfect thing.
There was another game going on in the metropolitan New York area that night, one which I must admit I was unaware of until yesterday. My good friend, Bill Larsen, who teaches English at the University of Tennessee and whose only annoying trait is that he's a New York Mets fan, sent me an account of the game which took place that same evening in Shea Stadium.
I did not know that the Atlanta Braves were visiting the Mets that night. The Mets won on the strength of a Mike Piazza home run crushed into the night sky after being served up by John Smoltz.
Piazza treasures the memory of being able to give New Yorkers something to cheer about, and Smoltzy said that on that particular night there were no Mets or Braves in the stadium - only Americans.
I remember how comforting it was to have football and baseball back in full swing. Sports, we were all reminded, are games which should serve to distract us from the routine grind of everyday life and the pressures which come with it.
Nowadays, it's getting hard once more to think of sports as games. News headlines chronicle the transformations of one hero after another into idols of clay in the world of professional sports, as booster clubs at the collegiate level cry out for coaching changes only two games into the young football season.
It is my hope that the solemn reflection on the events of that 11th day of September in 2001 may also serve to not only unite us once more, but to cause us to remember why our nation has followed the courses of action we've undertaken.
And I also hope that sports fans everywhere will reflect on the fact that, no matter how fervently one follows a team, sports are just games. Games which help us escape from dreadful details at times, and which help us heal when we need to, also.
Truly, I remember where I was and what I was doing when I got the word of the 9/11 attacks.
But what I hope for 2007 is that, no matter what colors we wear or who we cheer for as the football and baseball seasons proceed apace, we remember what Smoltz said after serving up that Piazza homer:
Our stadiums are full of Americans.