Where We Were On 9/11
Do you remember where you were on the day we call “Nine-Eleven?”
Imagine the scene if your winter home were only a few blocks from what they were soon calling Ground Zero — the fear, the mess, the police, the structural uncertainty, the dust, the reporters, the worry. One of our neighbors had just that experience, spending part of her year in New York and the rest on Matinicus. Let’s not, this time, sneer at her summer-person-ness; Victoria was an actress, and needed the city like a tool of her trade. On Matinicus, she played the organ in church, she traveled by bicycle, she owned most of the airstrip and considered herself a steward of the same. She waxed romantic about how things used to be when this town was considerably larger and community gatherings were far more commonplace. (OK, sometimes we grind our teeth at that sort of thing, but somebody’s got to do it). Victoria had been a part of this community for as long as we can remember. Her city life was not hidden (others among us are more circumspect about our time outside of Maine) but at the same time her Matinicus identity was genuine and heartfelt, decades in the making, she having no more patience for the idiocy and intrusion of the boor and the summer-jerk than any fisherman. Her theatrical New York-ness was wild and eccentric and all part of the act, and we loved her courage.
Our friend Victoria died just a couple of days ago in the Rockland hospital. Very likely, we had no idea just how much courage she had. Living so close to the World Trade Center site must have taken quite some backbone. Let us remember people like her, and courage like hers, as we remember “Nine Eleven.”
My family and I were here on Matinicus that September day. Paul was working at Christina’s house, just down the road a bit; he called on the telephone and said “turn on the television.” When I did so, I saw not New York but Washington, D.C., the Pentagon apparently on fire. “Uh oh,” I mumbled, “I think Martin works there.” He’s another one who spends some time here but whose career requires a city (you just can’t work the Kazakhstan desk from Matinicus Island). I tried to call my friends in D.C. “All circuits are busy.” I still didn’t know about New York.
Watching my little thirteen-inch television, I joined so many Americans in viewing from a position of safety the gut-wrenching collapse. Only three months before, I had taken my children to New York as tourists, nervously stooping to that oddly embarrassing position. We went to the Museum of Natural History and to the Intrepid, which is very much like the aircraft carrier on which the children’s dad fixed radars in the Navy. We rode on ferries and subways, we went up into the Empire State Building, where they got little T-shirts with King Kong imprinted on them, and to the World Trade Center. The street level was architecturally interesting and filled with men in suits. We went straight to the top, up to the observation deck, where you could feel the building move.
The elevator operator in the Trade Center ribbed the kids about their Empire State Building shirts—skyscraper rivalry. “No King Kong here!” he grinned. He was a short, young Hispanic fellow with an infectious sense of humor. We bought Sbarro’s pizza and single-use cameras from vendors on the observation deck. There were other kids there on a school field trip, other out-of-staters visiting the Big Apple. My supposedly isolated island children saw that real people worked and visited, made their livings and joked around, in the World Trade Center. Let there be no mistake.
A few months later, we stood in our kitchens in Maine and watched the destruction. More of us than you might think worried specifically about our New York friends and relations.
Gone by then, if they ever existed at all, were the days when Matinicus families had nowhere to roam but Matinicus, had only Matinicus relatives unless Criehaven or Vinalhaven or some nearby mainland town provided a wife or a tradesman, and to be an islander meant to be here for life, to have no notion of anywhere else. Reading a bit of history, it is safe to say that the myth of isolation was never anything but. Island men served in the armed forces, went fishing all over the place, very likely worked the seasonal jobs of Maine just like the inland boys — logging, cutting ice, harvesting all manner of things. Without venturing too far into idle speculation about the Old Days, the reality in the earliest days of the twenty-first century is that we are a terribly transient people, born all over (without being “tourists,” thank you very much) or leaving Matinicus as teenagers for all sorts of reasons often to return later in life, or discovering Matinicus roots after one or two or five or six generations have passed, roots we maybe never knew we had until chance brought us to this cemetery. Natives are few, but people with deep attachment are many.
By coincidence, quite a few of those people happened to have at least one relative or old friend in New York City on September 11, 2001.
A few of us consciously gave up on television after a few hours on that beautiful early fall morning, deciding that an all-day re-hash would only do us harm. Christina and I walked the beach, under no airplanes, for civil aviation had been shut down. Somewhere up the Penobscot River, friend Dave Allen in his seaplane knew nothing about this, until overhearing a radio transmission something like “Who is that guy in the seaplane? He’d better light somewhere before he gets in big trouble!” No contrails in the deep blue sky, but also no mail, no UPS for us. “Why us?” we wondered, as we worried. Why are we spared this trouble? How did we end up living in perhaps the safest place in the United States right now, when we know people stuck in those cities, dealing with God-knows-what?
Maury, who is a Maine native through and through, let there be no mistake about that, Portland born and all, had been on his way to New York City that morning for an artist’s opening or for a construction job or for both. He is both of those things and as such, like Victoria and Martin, he requires a wider world than Matinicus to make his living. He was in a tollbooth when he heard what had happened. The toll-taker recommended turning around, heading back north. “You aren’t going to like trying to get into that city.” Maury came home.
Lobstermen came home, with stories of blockade-running, as the Coast Guard intended to secure all ports. We were home and grateful for it, but we couldn’t help but realize, from our safe vantage point, that for a lot of decent, harmless, neighborly people, New York City and Washington, D.C., were home. How lucky we were.