Everyone knows where they were when it happened. They remember what the weather was like, where they were going, even what their house or car smelled like.
“I was playing golf,” recalled Bruce Howard, the Carl R. Hendrickson professor of business at Wheaton College. On the 10th hole, the auditors he was playing with were interrupted by a phone call. The first plane crash brought confusion, but the second brought horror. “This fog came over us — what is happening?”
The way that world-shaping news spreads can become iconic. When remembering the Pearl Harbor attacks, most people think of the radio and President Roosevelt’s “Date which will live in infamy” speech. Newspapers delivered the surprise details of D-Day. Live television transmissions were broadcasting when unsuspecting Americans witnessed the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger from the comfort of their living rooms.
And on Sept. 11, 2001, TV news cycles helped to forever alter the lives and assumptions of people around the world.
Gathering the fragments
Sarah Borden, department chair and professor of philosophy at Wheaton, saw footage of the first tower being hit on a TV while in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. Her then-boyfriend — now her husband — had been in Manhattan late the previous night and “remembered looking at the towers right before” getting on the subway. Even for people whose families were not directly impacted, close calls like that changed “how one felt in one’s country.” Borden wondered, “What kind of nation would we be in response?”
Prior to that day, America had “been so freed from this type of thing,” said senior and co-captain of the men’s soccer team Reed Bartley. Even in desperate tragedies, our country has usually had hope and resources to limit the damage.
That’s why sophomore Thea Boatwright’s mom, who was practicing medicine in DC at the time, was called into the hospital expecting a “massive influx of people.” But 24 hours later, she was already home. “All the people were beyond medical help.”
Across the ocean, 2016 graduate Zachary LaPan Smiley was walking home from school with his siblings in Turkey when he saw his Turkish neighbors weeping on their balcony. “You haven’t seen?” they asked Smiley. “You haven’t heard? We are so sorry.” And then, “This is going to change everything.”
For people in New York City, there was no need to deliver the news. Everyone could see the smoke. Senior Amanda Browne, who lived right outside the city, didn’t see her mom for the first couple of days because the bridges and tunnels were all closed. Some people “took ferries to Connecticut,” trying to get out of the city. Others, like family friends of the Brownes’, traveled into the city hoping to find loved ones. For months afterwards, “candles” and “pictures of loved ones” would line the streets. It was hard to identify victims in the wreckage because “there was nothing left … no one had closure.” While most children at the time didn’t understand the gravity of the situation, Browne remembers a clear feeling of fear and uncertainty that didn’t go away easily.
Sketching an outline
Memory is full of surprises. Bartley doesn’t remember anything else from first grade at Cottonwood Creek Elementary in Texas, but he remembers “being on the opposite side of the room from the TV,” which his teacher had turned on after the first plane hit.
But memory is more than a cognitive function. We may be influenced by what we remember, but we are molded by how we remember it. For young adults in America today, there is a seismic generational shift shaping how we remember Sept. 11. It’s nobody’s fault, really. It’s just a matter of age: Most college freshmen today were too young to have any memory of that day. For them, it is a tragedy from the history books — a reality they were born into and have always known.
Even for older college students, it can be hard to retain the context of something that, as a child, was hard to truly comprehend. Junior Cameron Van Beek, chair of Wheaton College Young Americans for Freedom, wants to change that. As a kindergarten student, he didn’t understand the scope of the carnage or its political ramifications. As he grew older though, he learned that a friend’s dad was supposed to have been in New York that day. He learned that another friend’s dad lost his life on Flight 93. The context of a “personal connection” changed the contours of his memory and made them “more heart-wrenching.”
That’s why he’s leading Young Americans for Freedom as they plant 2,977 flags in the Quad this weekend — one for each life that was lost. Van Beek thinks the hard work will result in more than symbolism. He worries that “we are starting to forget” the magnitude of that day. As a “country bonded together by similar beliefs of democracy and freedom,” we suffered loss together. As communities and families, each intersecting in different ways and with different stories, we suffered loss together.
One of the communities that suffered was our own campus. Howard, who has been a Wheaton College faculty member since 1980, carries one memory of that day on a more daily basis. In his office, he keeps the capstone paper of a former student who was killed that day. Part of the student’s thesis said, “If we could realize daily the brevity of our lives, our definitions of success would take on a more eternal scope.”
“I wonder what he would have changed had he known,” Howard asked, his voice trailing off. “My sense is not much.”
For Howard, that paper and the person behind it serve as a reminder of what ultimately matters and what is fleeting.
Perhaps no one visibly encapsulates that message at Wheaton more than Todd Beamer.
Beamer, of course, looms large in the Wheaton community. An alumnus of the college and namesake of the student center many of us walk through each day, Beamer famously rallied the passengers of Flight 93 in an attempt to retake the cockpit. Some speculate that the plane, which was the fourth to be hijacked by terrorists, was headed towards the Capitol building or even the White House. Instead, it crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. In a phone call prior to the crash, Beamer could be heard praying the Lord’s Prayer before turning to the other passengers and saying “Are you ready? OK. Let’s roll.”
That phrase has seeped into Wheaton’s mythology. The men’s soccer team ends each practice and begins every game by saying “Let’s roll.” Bartley is quick to point out that no one is comparing the sacrifices on a soccer field to the sacrifices on Flight 93. Instead, Beamer’s words and deeds are an example of humility for the team to always keep in sight.
Jake DeClute, head coach of the men’s soccer team, agrees, calling it “a reminder that there are more important things than winning and losing — things like ‘honor’ and always doing what is right.”
Remembering Beamer’s sacrifice in the context of sports gives it new and practical dimensions. The same can be said about remembering it in the context of Beamer’s Christian faith.
“What’s his motivation for that?” Bartley wondered about Beamer’s choice. Then he pointed to the Lord’s Prayer that Beamer recited. “Right there … It’s in his call as a Christian.”
Retracing the contours
Memories serve different purposes. A day like Sept. 11 looks different to everyone. Each person has their own recollections, emotions and connections to the events of that day. Every story is different. Even interpretations may vary. Smiley, for example, never heard an emphasis on the terrorists’ identities as Muslim extremists until he moved back to the United States.
For all of the ways our memories differ, however, they eventually converge into a single shared sketch. Despite the difference in narratives, Smiley said people in Turkey still have “unanimous disdain” for and “an overall dismissal” of the terrorists’ version of Islam.
There is shared pain that draws communities together. “Grief is a tricky thing,” Browne reflected. “It comes in waves.” It draws from “something that happened such a long time ago, but your connection to it remains fresh.”
We cannot forget what happened. It would do no good to try. But perhaps, by returning annually to the crucible of grief, a community that memorializes together may emerge stronger. In that way, the sacrifices of loved ones “don’t die with with them. They continue on.”
Emily Fromke, Dannie Hommel and Alycia Vander Vegt also contributed to this piece.