Try To Remember, That Time in September

(An archive post for today; originally posted on this day in 2004.)

Around the time of the first anniversary of 9/11, I saw a drawing commemorating, and making a bittersweet comment about anniversaries, memory and the passage of time. Quick pen sketches of the WTC towers, each with a sequential date underneath; 9/11/02, 9/11/03, 9/11/04, but with each repetition, the outline of the towers became mistier, more diffuse. The first anniversary to me was almost unbearable, as much of a psychic battering as the event itself. The second was a sad and thoughtful occasion, and now we are facing the third year, and the day falls on a Saturday; not a work day for most of us. Curiously, that seems to set the event a little aside, this year. I will not be walking into the glass and granite lobby of the office building where I work — a lobby that looks eerily like the lobby of the WTC buildings, owing to the fact they were built at about the same time, following many of the same architectural precepts, and which houses many of the same sort of businesses, although on a much smaller scale — on a glorious September day, not knowing that the towers had already been hit, they were burning, and thousands of people doing the same job they did every day would be dust and ashes in the next few moments.

On that day, a great crack ran across our universe, and everything before that day was on the other side of a great chasm. On the side of the chasm where we were now, we would be taking the fight to the hydra-headed monster that is Islamofascism, grimly lopping off the heads that we could get at; either heads that were directly responsible and defiantly proud of it, or heads that would at least discourage the others from striking again.

Time and events have overtaken the memory, and as the sketch artist pointed out, the edges will fade and blur, year by year, and on the whole, I do not think this is a bad thing; it is, in fact, they way we humans are. It is the way we have to be, if we are able to go on with living, and living anything like a normal life.

Curiously, this week marked another anniversary of catastrophe, but a natural one, rather than man-made. On September 8th, 1900, the city of Galveston, on the Texas Gulf coast was struck dead on by a tremendous hurricane. The city was built on a low sand barrier island, just a few feet above the water, separated from the mainland by a wide lagoon, a pleasant seacoast town of wood-frame buildings boasting all the amenities of new and bustling port — a thriving business district, railway terminal, schools, an orphanage, a theater, boarding houses, mansions and a newspaper. With almost no warning, the weather — the first cool days of fall, much longed for in South Texas— turned queer and ominous. The movie director King Vidor, who was a small boy at the time, always recalled how water of the lagoon and the sea seemed to mound up on either side of the town, as the hurricane drew towards the coast, as if Galveston were at the bottom of a bowl and the water about to spill over.

The barometers plummeted down, and down, and it began to rain, and the waves fell on the sand shore, heavier and heavier, gnawing away the margin of safety. The winds increased, hurling the rain— and soon all sorts of deadly debris sideways; some estimation put the wind speed at 150, possible up to 200 MPH. And the storm surge, when it swept ashore, was fifteen or twenty feet of water, which pounded the houses into so much scrap lumber, and drove a deadly moraine of debris against every structure still standing. The waves smashed the orphanage buildings, where the ten Urseline sisters had herded the children into the upstairs dormitory farthest from the seashore, and each had lashed seven or eight children to themselves with clothesline, all in a line like ducklings after their mother, in a vain attempt to keep them together and safe. The sea came down, and smashed the building, and the only ones to survive were three older boys who scrambled into a tree.

In the morning, the dazed survivors would find bodies everywhere, and a two-story tall line of storm wrack dividing the town into a sector in which buildings still stood, however damaged, and a sector swept nearly clean. It still stands, over the Johnston Flood and the San Francisco Earthquake as a municipal disaster, with at least 6,000 dead, possibly as many as 10,000.(This is a good account of it.) Not a family was unaffected; even if they had all survived, huddling in their houses, listening to the roar and crack, feeling the house shudder underneath and all around for all that deadly night. Recovering and burying the dead went on for months, the rebuilding for years, for the city fathers had decided on a great course of public work; a seawall, and to raise the level of the town.

This was eventually done, and Galveston rebuilt on a scale grander yet, but in the stories written about the centenary of the great hurricane, many of those who grew up In Galveston afterwards often remarked that their parents and older kin who had survived it, never much mentioned the storm. It was almost as if they had willed the whole traumatic time out of existence. I finally understood why this was so, nearly a week after 9/11, when I forced myself away from the television, and put the portable radio back onto the classical station, and took it out with me while I pruned the rosebushes, and spread out mulch in the garden.

This was what you had to do, to not forget such an event— something like that could never be put out of mind and memory, but compartmentalized, just so you can go on and build some kind of satisfactory life, rebuild a city, win a war, make your garden grow. But the music in my mind when I see the videos of the fires, of the clouds of dust, of people falling, is always and forever Mozart’s Requiem, a mourning for what we lost, and the world that used to be, a world that is fading like the outline of the towers.