Friday, September 9, 2011

9/11

Excerpt from Draft Chapter 12.3
Vladivostok 2000-2002

Recalled to the Service.
I returned from LA to Washington on September 1 to begin processing out, and then back into the Department, in effect being formally retired and recalled on the same day. It was a happy time for me, and I decided to celebrate by flying first class on Delta. It was one of the last truly pleasant flights I ever had in the continental United States, with luxury service and no security hassles. I wound up sitting just behind former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and movie star Robert Duvall, who seemed to be enjoying the flight as much as I was.

I arrived in Washington without incident, and spent the next week finishing up my paperwork to complete my retirement and recall to the Service. I started off with the Retirement Office, where I was met with suspicion by the office staff, who were not used to dealing with someone who was retiring and then immediately coming back into the Service. They didn’t like being shaken out of their normal routine, which, as far as I could gather, was torpid. I remember one staffer in particular, who commented callously, while I was signing the documents willing my benefits to my Mother in the event of my death, that it was a good idea to designate a beneficiary since “most people don’t last long” after retirement. I restrained myself from a cutting remark (“We’ll see who dies first,” came immediately to mind), and got out of there as soon as I could.

9/11.
I signed the recall papers on the afternoon of September 10, and then began preparations to return to Vladivostok to serve as Consul General.  I was looking forward to working in Primorye, a place I had grown to love, and was busily figuring out what to take from my Capitol Hill house, and what to leave behind.  That evening, I went out to Mr. Henry's on the Hill and ordered my traditional meal: turkey on pumpernickel with lettuce and mayonnaise, two cokes, and cheesecake and coffee for dessert.  I was content, and thought to myself that nothing could spoil the good mood I was in.

The next morning, everything changed.  Around 9am, I turned on the TV, and found out that just a few minutes before there had been a tragic accident. A plane had apparently flown into the World Trade Center. I looked at the live pictures, and listened to the commentator, who thought that it might have been a small commuter plane.  I couldn't tell from the pictures just how big the plane was, but surely, I thought, the TV reporter must be right.  Like me, he was fooled by the vast size of the building. The fact that a fully-loaded 767 had flown into the World Trade Center was not yet known.  I was still watching  when, suddenly, on live TV, a second 767 flew into the other tower of the World Trade Center. After recovering from the shock, my thoughts immediately turned to terrorism, and the conclusion that it had to be Osama Bin Laden. As I sat there, it dawned on me that the attack might not be over. A few minutes later, I heard a tremendous explosion. It was so loud, at first I thought a plane might have flown into the Capitol Building, which was only five blocks from my townhouse. Then word came over the TV that the Pentagon had been hit. There were reports of a fire on the Mall, and some correspondents thought that the State Department or the White House might also have been hit.

It was too much to take in. As I watched on TV, first the South Tower, and then the North Tower collapsed. My mother called up from San Clemente, and in a panic-stricken voice asked: “Honey, what's happening?” I told her my best guess, and assured her that I was OK and she shouldn't worry. After that, I turned off the TV. I didn't turn it on again for a week. I didn't want to see those pictures, or anything like them, again.  Even after ten years, I still turn off the TV whenever those pictures are shown.  I saw the towers fall once, and that was already too much to bear.

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