Dali had the right idea about memory:
For most Americans, as the nation’s thoughts turn to the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, memories of that day readily come flooding back. People can remember with great clarity what they were doing or to whom they were speaking when they learned of the crisis—whether via a sister’s phone call or a first-hand glimpse of the World Trade Center on fire.
Decades ago, psychologists theorized that the brain imprints such details into its memory, like a photograph, when we learn of sudden, tragic national events. These highly emotional recollections were dubbed “flashbulb memories”—but the notion of photographic accuracy didn’t bear out in later research.
Curious about how persistent my memory was, I tracked down earlier accounts I wrote, two years after the event. I’m pleased to report that a lot of my details were consistent (I was going to say they were “right,” but of course, who knows how accurate my memory was two years later?). But I missed a bunch of other details–added some, subtracted others. For example, my family and I were at the towers a couple of days before, but it was by chance, not because we went there explicitly to hear ethnic music. I had forgotten that we went to the Liberty Science Center across the river in New Jersey that afternoon, and it was only when we returned to Manhattan that we wandered around the base of the towers and caught some performances.
Here’s one summary of the time period I wrote in a post at Democratic Underground on July 17, 2003:
I was in midtown Manhattan at Columbus Circle, trying to get a train to Rockefeller Center. It was primary election day–a beautiful, crystal clear late summer day. Underground, there were announcements every minute that there was no E train service or service on any other line below Chambers Street because of an incident at the World Train Center. And of course, my mind raced back to 1993. But there was no news underground. So I proceeded on to do a chore for work on 6th Avenue, searching people’s faces for a clue of something big going on and finding people very difficult to read. After finishing my chore, I made my way back up 6th Avenue to the subway and found myself in a throng across the street from the Fox News building, where a zipper running around the outside said something about a “second plane” hitting the second WTC. “Terrorism suspected,” it said. No one was saying anything. We all just stood there reading the zipper and looking wordlessly at each other.
I crossed over to Fifth Avenue. It was lined with people all looking south, so I looked too. And there were the towers, billowing out smoke. I should have known then not to continue on to Queens, where I work, but I did. On the train into Queens–which, little did I know was the last train in or out of the borough that day–a man who worked near the towers and who looked utterly shellshocked, told the story of watching the second plane slam into the tower and feeling the whole building shake under him. I asked where it hit–near the top? And he mimicked the event with his arm and hand. “I can’t stop thinking about all those people,” he said. Everyone in the car was listening to his story. A slightly deranged man tried to start a rumor that the Empire State Buidling and St. Patrick’s cathedral had also been hit. I had just walked past the latter, so I knew he was making it up.
In my cab ride to work from the station, the driver, who was listening to the news, said the Pentagon and maybe the capital had also just been hit. I said, “This is war. We’re at war.”
Most of the rest of my morning and the first part of the afternoon were spent at work with the few people who’d managed to make it in alternately crowded around a TV and trying to figure out–those of us who lived in Manhattan anyway–how we were going to get home. I took note, with some annoyance while watching the news, that Bush was scooting around the country on a plane, the hell away from Washington.
(Note: My nom de plume ou guerre, as the case may be, is Burt Worm.)
The discrepancy that strikes me most between the “fresh” memory of 2003 and my current one is the addition of the “first viewing” of the Fox News zipper. It makes the story more interesting, but it didn’t happen. While I was writing the blog post, I was trying to remember why I hadn’t said anything about the plane at the World Trade Center to the vendor I visited. I was fairly sure that we had only talked business. Now I know why. I didn’t know about either of the planes until I went back up Sixth Avenue.
I’ll continue the story of my 9/11 in the next few posts.