Michael Stoll: We remember where we were

Published 7:00 am Tuesday, September 11, 2018

My grandfather was listening to the radio on Dec. 7, 1941, when the regularly scheduled program was interrupted with breaking news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The next day he, like most Americans, was glued to the radio as President Franklin Roosevelt, in his “Day of Infamy” speech, urged a joint session of Congress to declare war on Japan, a war that he would be a part of when he turned 18 in 1944.

My mother was a second grade student in her classroom on Nov. 22, 1963, when all students were called to the gymnasium. It was there that the principal tearfully announced to the student body that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas. It was the first presidential assassination in 62 years, but unlike previous assassinations, an air of mystery still surrounds the circumstances of Kennedy’s death.

Ask anyone who was alive when these and similar events occurred where they were when they heard the news. Chances are they can pinpoint the exact time and place.

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And for those of us who were alive and old enough to understand on Sept. 11, 2001, we remember exactly where we were when we learned about the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

It was our “day of infamy.”

I was a freshman at North Georgia College and State University (now the University of North Georgia) on that fateful Tuesday morning in 2001. North Georgia is a military college and I was in my military science class, which was required of all ROTC cadets who were there playing Army. While in class, someone commented about a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, but did not elaborate. This was before the days of smartphones (or any cell phone that could access the internet), so my assumption was he was referring to a bombing similar to the attack in 1993.

After a lesson on navigation using a grid map and compass, I returned to the Second Battalion barracks (really, they were just dorms laid out in barracks style and separated by walls, but we were playing Army, so for all intents and purposes they were barracks). When I returned to my room, my roommate had the door open and several other guys in my company were gathered around the TV watching CNN.

Then, as I walked into the room, one of them said words I will never forget: “Holy (expletive)! The tower just collapsed!”

On the screen, I caught my first glimpse of what was happening; a tower with a massive smoldering hole on its side and the crumbled remains of its twin next to it, sending a dense cloud of smoke and dust into the air. A second image of the Pentagon after a plane had struck it was then placed on the screen. The newscaster was reporting, as calmly as possible, that all three acts had been carried out with hijacked planes and that a fourth plane had also been reported hijacked.

We watched in complete shock as the events unfolded. We were 18 and 19-year-old kids, all considering a career in the military, wondering who this enemy was that could carry out such an attack. This was not some far away military base on foreign soil; this was the second most populous city in the country. It looked more like a war zone than it did New York City.

Shortly thereafter, we received word that all remaining classes had been cancelled for the day. All cadets who were in the National Guard and Reserves were ordered to call their units. The first phone call I made was to my mother to make sure my father, who frequently travels for work, was not travelling that day.

Over the next few days, things became clearer. Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda became household names, synonymous with an attack that claimed the lives of a staggering 3,000 people. Several of my Guard and Reserve friends were activated, mainly placed on security detail at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.

And for the briefest time, there were no Republicans or Democrats, no conservatives or liberals, no black people, white people, Hispanics, Asians, or any other separate ethnicity. We were all united, all Americans.

It’s a shame that that’s what it takes; that without a common enemy, we tend to turn on each other.

But, that’s a different column.