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It was September 20, 2001, nine days after the tragedies of September 11. Reeling in the aftermath, the airlines, not to mention the rest of the world, were still in shock from that fateful day. Chaos and confusion entangled travelers as we tried to reach our destinations. I was traveling to Colorado.
My itinerary had me flying from Rochester to Cincinnati to Denver. I boarded the first flight along with my fellow travelers, settling in with seat belts fastened for takeoff. Then came the announcement; we would all have to deplane the aircraft, keep our boarding passes, but leave any carry-on luggage on board. A half-hour later, they canceled the flight, no reason given. We reboarded the aircraft to retrieve our carry-ons, and another attendant directed us to retrieve our checked luggage from baggage claim and to see a ticket agent to redirect our itineraries.
So - off to baggage claim, collect my duffel, and settle into a long line of anxious people in the same situation. Fortunately, everyone bore up with the inconvenience. When I finally reached the ticket agent, he booked me on a flight with another carrier. Would I please take my bags to check in at their counter?
Another long line. The next agent spent a lot of time at her terminal putting together a complicated itinerary. She assured me that I could still reach Denver, but I would start by traveling in the opposite direction, from Rochester to Syracuse. Then I would again switch airlines, and proceed to Newark, then Atlanta, and finally on to Denver. I asked myself how smart I was to be traveling that day, but I continued with a blind faith that it would all work out. The agent assured me that they would transfer my luggage between airlines, so I would not have to retrieve it until I finally reached Denver.
A commuter flight made the short hop to Syracuse. I proceeded to the next ticket counter, where a very polite, nicely dressed young woman set up my remaining ticket arrangements and asked if I had my luggage with me. My voice must have quivered a little as I explained what the Rochester agent told me. She excused herself, conferred with several other people, and disappeared into the back reaches of the terminal with my tickets and baggage claim check.
I drummed my fingers at the counter for the next fifteen minutes until she reappeared. She was valiantly struggling and straining with my very heavy duffel bag (no wheels). She was very slender, average height, but probably weighed in not too much north of 100. Dressed in a uniform suit with straight skirt and heels, she struggled with both the 60-pound bag and her composure. I sympathized what she was going through. Handling that bag even had me huffing and puffing.
I expected that one of her male colleagues would help, but everyone else was busy. It was uncomfortable watching her wrestle with such a heavy load. I approached to give her a hand, only to have her inform me that the latest security procedures would not allow me to go behind the counter. I guiltily watched her entire struggle, unable to give any assistance at all.
She made it to the desk, hauled the bag onto the scale, checked it again, and set it on the conveyor. She apologized for the delay and inconvenience. All I could give was a heartfelt thank-you for the effort she had gone through.
The flight to Newark was on a 30-passenger, prop-driven, Shorts 330 aircraft, a.k.a. the “ruptured duck” commuter plane. The wing is atop the fuselage, with those big Pratt & Whitney engines hanging right at window level just outside the cabin. It was loud, and the vibration at takeoff was enough to rattle your dental work. Once airborne, it flew fine and things settled down to an acceptable level.
We flew into stormy weather. The plane handled it, but most of the trip was through smoky gray clouds that wrung out a steady rain. I was in an aisle seat. My neighbor in the window seat was a very attractive young woman, also dressed in a business suit. In conversation, I learned that she was a newly hired flight attendant reporting for duty in Newark. She was glumly anticipating that she would soon receive notice that she would lose her job. News reports of late had been covering layoffs of airline personnel.
Our approach to Newark airport broke through the cloud cover just north of New York City. I looked out the window and saw the buildings of Manhattan Island taking shape. A curtain of clouds, like a shredded shroud, hung over and around the buildings. I was surprised that we had as close a view. I grabbed my camera. As usual, it was my trusty, old, out-dated, then-obsolete Kodak DC290.
My neighbor agreed to let me take pictures from her adjacent window. I leaned across her space, pressed the camera lens to the window glass, tried to direct the camera through the stingy little viewfinder, and started clicking away. I managed to snap only a few frames before we lost the view. As I settled back into my own seat, I noted that she had to put up with me working across her lap. I apologized for any inconvenience. She graciously insisted it was no trouble.
The final legs of my journey went smooth. I would later review the pictures, and determined that I had captured an image worth further development. I titled the final picture “Manhattan Skyline; September 20, 2001”. It shows the lower tip of Manhattan Island without the profile of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. There was still perceptible smoke from the site mixing with the rain clouds and drifting back over the rest of the city.
In the aftermath of the tragedies of that September 11, we were all experiencing a wave of emotions that haunt us to this day. The country was in the most chaotic state I had ever seen. The transportation industry ground to a complete halt for days afterward as we tried to piece together what was happening and what do we do next.
On the long flight from Atlanta to Denver, I thought about the day’s events. I thought how the ticket agent in Syracuse made the extra effort to locate my heavy bag, and to struggle with it as gamely as she did. I thought about the flight attendant facing the loss of her job, but still being gracious at letting me crowd into her space. I recalled how the various agents worked through the complicated and chaotic situations to make sure I got to my final destination. I remembered the host of my fellow travelers who kept their cool even as the lines grew longer.
Yes, we Americans were appalled, stunned, fearful, and angry about the events of that September 11, but we did not let them overwhelm us. I felt how we all were doing the best we could to make sure things got back to normal. We remained courteous, helpful, and even courageous in the face of that great unknown. We went about our lives, remembering those fallen, and sent a message to our aggressors. Our spirit would not be dampened.
America’s foundation is its liberty to all, and we all are the sum of our many diverse parts working together. We stand ready to help one another through whatever challenge we face. I firmly believe that foundation will be standing long after any inhuman ideals have blown away with the sand.