In September 2001, I was visiting a friend in Denton, Texas, a quaint college town located northwest of Dallas. I had a few nice days visiting with my friend before the twin towers fell on Sept. 11, 2011 (9/11), abruptly ending my stay. I remember my friend calling from work to wake me to tell me the news. In my dreamy haze, I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about. Having never been to New York City, I really didn’t even have a concept of what the World Trade Center was, or why it was important.
After waking, I turned on the television and throughout the day things became a lot clearer. That evening, my friend told me in no uncertain terms that I had to leave. The events of 9/11 had put the fear of God in him and his girlfriend, and they both wanted to be with family. My scheduled flight home to Phoenix was more than uncertain, so I took a Greyhound bus the next morning. The ride took nearly a full day; the bus traveling all the way down to El Paso and then west from there.
I saw a lot on that bus trip; mostly unexpected and random acts of patriotism. As the bus passed little towns of 200 people, the local church displayed messages of solidarity on their billboards and flew tattered American flags. Hardware stores, convenience stores, individual homes — everyone had dug their flags out and flew them proudly. There was no talk of hatred or of vengeance, just of concern for our fellow Americans. We were all New Yorkers during that week.
Mind you, this was before people even knew anything about the attack itself. For some days, it was unclear if the attack was from white supremacists or Russians, or any number of other theories. It was also before patriotism became mass-commercialized. If you wanted to own an American flag back then, you already had one. It was some months later that the 9/11 tribute albums and the “Made in China” flags made their way to Wal-Mart and every other savvy retailer.
As I passed through these remote towns along the highway, most of them nothing to speak of, just a gas station, I felt truly a sense of what it meant to be American. I felt a sense of identity that I may not have felt before.
I also felt raw fear from my fellow passengers, most of whom were in the same boat I was, trying to get home or to see loved ones. People on the bus and in stations were pulling together to help each other, gossiping about the latest news and trying to pass the time by making a human connection. People of all races and creeds coming together, just trying to understand what had happened and how it would affect our lives.
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