FLYING ON 9/11
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 23 September 2011
"Time is passing. Yet, for the United States of America, there will be no forgetting September the 11th. We will remember every rescuer who died in honor. We will remember every family that lives in grief. We will remember the fire and ash, the last phone calls, the funerals of the children." President George W. Bush
Before moving to today's Comment, mention of an amusing encounter that happened Wednesday morning outside one of our local merchants.
About mid-morning, clad in shorts, T-shirt, and a pair of Crocs (aka: standard desert attire), I took a break from writing to make a market run for a few items. No time to waste, I was hustling in when a guy (mid to late 50s) holding a clipboard tried to ambush me--he asked if I was a registered voter. Without breaking stride, I stepped left, said "Yes," and moved on not giving him opportunity to say another word. Ten minutes later, exiting with goods for the fridge, the same guy approached and asked if I'd sign a petition. "I'm busy, for what?" He said something about an insurance industry effort to reduce rates for law-abiding, safe drivers. I guess that was the hook. "Really? Interesting. Who or what outfit do you represent?" He avoided the question and said, "We're trying to get this in a bill." "Okay, but who do you represent--who's we?" "A group of big insurance companies." "No, no, you did not answer my question. For whom are you compiling names on this petition--who's sponsoring the bill?" No answer. Then he admitted not having read what he was asking people to sign. Hilarious but typical. As I started to walk away he, apparently feeling foolish, resorted to sarcasm, "Ah, a smart guy with questions." Turning, "No sir, not a smart guy. Merely average. And not a clown pestering people to sign something of which I am not familiar. Have a nice day." There weren't many names on his paper. Go figure. Good grief. And the thought of him being a registered voter concerning. Yet it explains a lot. Fun times in SoCal. Scary.
Now for today...
We, my wife and I, made it a point to fly on Sunday, 11 September 2011.
That deliberate decision was our way of exercising freedom to come and go as we please, expressing continued 'two-barrel' defiance to enemies struggling to disrupt our way of life, and to honor a friend, Lieutenant Commander Patrick J. Murphy, U. S. Navy, killed in the attack on the Pentagon ten years ago.
American Airlines--of course. And coast to coast--east to west--with stop and plane change in Dallas/Fort Worth.
We arrived a bit earlier than normal at the airport thinking there'd likely be delays checking in and passing through security. That proved a good decision though we, without delay, were at our gate within 20 minutes after being dropped curbside. And that included a stop at Starbucks after checking bags, grabbing boarding passes, and negotiating security.
No one at the airport made mention of the date. Not a peep. Yet there were obvious signs of increased security--more TSA personnel; conveyor belts passing bags through the scanner doing more to'ing and fro'ing--the screening agent attentive; K-9 units; and a plainclothes folk or two moving from gate to gate looking at travelers and bags, and taking interest in bags that appeared a little too far away from an owner.
We didn't have any concerns about flying on the anniversary. None. But I did mull over how someone determined to bring down an airplane might go about it. Breaching the cockpit not likely. Some sort of homemade explosive not likely. About the only act that came to mind, that could definitely escape security screening, was opening one or more emergency exit row doors once at altitude. The old 'keep it simple but effective' approach. So, I made mental note to take a good look at passengers seated in exit rows.
My wife and I assigned exit row--seats 20A and B.
Eight other passengers, three to starboard and five behind, gave verbal responses, in English (thank you very much), to the flight attendant that they were able and willing to assist in the event of an emergency. All appeared to be solid citizens. The flight attendant had no idea what was going through my mind, and had I even felt the hint of an issue with any of those seated adjacent to a door I'd have discreetly brought it to her attention. For all I know others were thinking the same--and about me and my wife. After all, failing to act on instinct, to mention things that did not appear quite right, contributed to the 9/11 attack.
The flight to Dallas/Fort Worth was uneventful.
The terminals the usual zoo. Busy. Gates packed. Passageways hectic with pedistrians and cart drivers bellowing "Watch the cart, please." Waiting lines at restuarants. You get the picture. We passed on Skylink--opting for exercise from Terminal A to C. We heard not a single mention of 9/11 or the anniversary. But, as at our point of origin, along the way there was a noticeable presence of TSA agents. And there were K-9 units.
As luck would have it, a plane had just departed from our gate and there was ample seating. I assumed gear guard duty and my wife wandered to find eats. And make another stop or two.
I noticed an older gentleman, not in a uniform, holding a small comm radio and an index card size notebook. He was walking about gates. He was discreet. He was taking note of passengers and bags. I watched as he approached a couple of passengers. Conversations were short. It appeared he was asking questions and satisfied with the answers.
From my front, a clean-cut looking, neatly dressed young man with a shaved head approached. He made eye contact then his eyes shifted slightly down and right (taking note of the small Marine Corps emblem embroidered on the left breast of my shirt). No doubt he was a Marine. He looked the part. And his eyes betrayed him.
I asked if he was en route to the Combat Center in Twentynine Palms. He was. And offered he was a new second lieutenant just out of logistics school and reporting to his first command.
We spoke for a few minutes. Typical pleasantries. And then there was a few moments of silence. Then he asked about my service. I mentioned the Combat Center was my last duty station, I'd retired a handful of years ago, and now was a practitioner of the gentlemanly arts. That brought a laugh. A few minutes later he asked about rank, and seemed surprised. In the big scheme of things, you just don't run into many Marine colonels.
Then my wife returned. And conversation continued. It came up she is Navy, and a Captain. Interesting--for him. His new bride, at that moment (and still), is tackling Navy Officer Candidates School. He had many a question about making a dual military household work. His concerns about it not being possible now had a new angle for consideration.
And then the gate agent, unexpectedly, called my wife's name and requested she approach the desk. Odd. Not within earshot, I occasionally glanced at the gate desk while talking to the lieutenant. The two women were solving something. Minutes later my wife returned with boarding passes moving us from exit row to First Class. Then she looked at me and said, "You two need to sit together," and took the lieutenant up to the desk, explained the situation, and in short order had arranged for the two Marines to sit at the front of the plane--seats 2A and B.
On one of the 9/11 flights that struck the World Trade Center Twin Towers, two hijackers occupied those seats--an irony not lost on me at the time.
Before boarding, I reminded my wife to do a quick visual of the exit rows passengers.
The two and half hour flight was uneventful. First Class a little more comfortable than exit row.
We Marines talked. About the Corps. And about the Navy. And he had some questions. And asked for advice. I didn't offer all that much--set the example and eat last was the gist of it--and he probably didn't hear anything not already heard time and again at OCS, The Basic School, and logistics school. But reinforcement from a stranger, who's been there, is always of value if nothing more than reassuring.
About thirty minutes from landing we glanced out the window. He took note of the brown, the mountains, the desert--first sights for him--and commented it was far different than back home. It sure is. I asked if he needed a ride to the Combat Center (we always poke our heads in at the USO to see if anyone needs a ride). He said he was all set--his platoon sergeant was picking him up. They'd not yet shook hands but had met over the Internet.
He'd expressed excitement and nervousness about meeting his platoon the next morning. He was anxious--within and ready to get started. He asked if I remembered that first moment standing before my platoon. Of course. More than 30 years ago hardly seems possible. He listened. Marines have not changed. It'll be a memorable moment for him. And them. My Marine's names readily come to me--Sergeants Battle, Chastain, and White led their squads. Platoon Guide, Sergeant French. And Platoon Sergeant Staff Sergeant Cauly. And if I spent a few minutes I could cite most if not all the Marines in 1st Platoon, Golf Company, 2/6 (2nd Battalion/6th Marines). You don't forget your first platoon.
We waited at baggage claim and chatted a while longer. His cell phone rang. The call short and to the point. His platoon sergeant was in the area and would pick him up just out the doors. The lieutenant had stepped away a few paces to take the call so I did not hear the exchange but guess it went something like this: "Lieutenant, sir, I'm just outside in the van. You can't miss it." "Thanks, Staff Sergeant. Bags are on the carousel--mine should be out any moment. Be right there. Look forward to meeting you." About that time his bag came around. He claimed it, shook our hands, and we bid farewell--with our offer to contact us should he need anything at all. Anytime.
No doubt, during that hour+ ride to the Combat Center, his platoon sergeant put his mind at ease.
Soon, before his wife completes OCS and is commissioned an ensign, that lieutenant will lead his Marines in combat. A responsibility to which I could not say anything, for that was not the case 30 years ago. It was a different day.
Not one to glamorize war, at all, and wish it weren't necessary, I envy what awaits that young man. His chosen path honorable and noble. He'll never be the same--however long he decides to serve. I wish it were possible to start again.
What a way to mark 9/11--flying friendly but guarded skies while visiting with a new generation of Marine. Some things are just meant to be. They just are. Simple as that.
Huh, seats 2A and B. Better than a script.
The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, founded in 1958 and recognized by the United States Congress in 1985, has a motto: "Remember Pearl Harbor--Keep America Alert-- Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty."
And with that dictum, we know how 9/11/01 happened. But if remembering, keeping alert, and eternally vigilant, then the question is why?
I don't know if the airlines are paying close attention to passengers assigned exit row seats or not. I'd like to think so, but on a flight not too long ago my wife had to point out to a flight attendant that a woman seated at the door, exit row, was holding an infant. That was not a good sign. Alert? Vigilant? It's why I make it a point to put eyes on folks seated in exit rows. Everyone on an airplane needs to be paying attention. Always. You just never know.
Remember 07 December 1941? Remember 11 September 2001?! Now America has two dates that live in infamy. A third? Inexcusable!