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Published September 11 2011

Swift: Sept. 11 remembered in glimpses, sound bites

I think of 9/11 whenever I hear Nickelback.

No, my recollections of the 2001 terrorist attacks on our country aren’t triggered by some deep, meaningful anthem by a great American balladeer.

Instead, I am doomed to recall the most horrific event in modern American history whenever I hear the blandly catchy song “This is How You Remind Me” by a mediocre Canadian band.

Let me explain. I had just seen the very first news footage of the World Trade Center attack and was rushing in to work at The Forum. I flicked on the car radio, anxious for any shred of news, only to be greeted by grunty guitars and Chad Kroeger’s sandpapery tenor: “It’s not like you to say sorry; I was waiting on a different story. This time I’m mistaken, for handing you a heart worth breaking.”

In that instant, an indelible sound memory was stamped onto my brain.

And that’s kind of what the whole day was like. In my mind, 9/11 is not a long, logical narrative. Instead, it’s scraps of crystal-clear images and audio shrapnel. It’s the mental equivalent of flicking through hundreds of cable channels, with each broadcasting a scarier show than the previous one.

I remember waking up in the morning and noticing what an incredibly beautiful day it was. As I gazed out the window at a sky so blue that it almost seemed supernatural, I actually felt pangs of thankfulness.

I remember being roused out of bed by a phone call. It was Irwin, telling me the World Trade Center had been hit by an airplane.

I remember confusion as we tried to piece it all together. Was it an accident or deliberate? What would happen next?

I remember people clustering around TVs at work and passing along any slight shred of news. As another plane crashed, and then another, I thought this could conceivably be the end of the world.

I remember feeling grateful to be in a newsroom, where we could briefly push our fear and vulnerability aside and focus on the task of newsgathering.

I remember the strange, chaotic energy in the newsroom as we tried to hunt down New Yorkers with ties to the area.

People joke that news reporters are ambulance chasers, but no one was excited to cover this story. Even the usual black humor, which many journalists adopt to tolerate covering horrific things, was completely absent.

And then there was the aftermath.

I remember one of the few good byproducts was a sharpened perspective – a new clarity about what really matters in life. Another was the melting of boundaries. We were no longer city dwellers or rural residents, New Yorkers or Midwesterners. We were Americans.

But I remember much tragedy, too. People were terrified of everything and everyone. I remember child-development experts giving advice to parents on how to explain the inexplicable to their children. How could you convince a 4-year-old that most people were inherently good when we spent so much time hurting each other? How could we claim he was safe when we all felt so unsafe ourselves?

I remember my wedding day, just 11 days after the attack. Suddenly the business of artful wedding favors and perfect wedding programs seemed ridiculous. Several people canceled their flights, and a few drove instead of flying. But overall, the actual day held little drama beyond a wedding cake with a few structural problems.

Slowly and gradually, our lives shifted back to “normal.” Or, at least, a post-9/11 vision of normal.

Ever since then, I think of everything as “Before 9/11” and “After 9/11.” The date stands like an ugly stain on my mental calendar.

I’ll be watching old court footage of the O.J. Simpson trial, a popular ’90s sitcom or a pre-2001 blockbuster, and I’ll catch myself thinking: “These aren’t real problems. Nobody even had a clue of what was ahead. Everyone was so innocent then.”

And now a decade has passed. As I remarked to a co-worker last week, I was already sick of 9/11 coverage. At the same time, it’s all I think about.

A decade has passed since Sept. 11, and it is important to never forget, even if we sometimes get emotional and treacly and imperfectly human about it.

I guess this really is how you remind me.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525 or tswift@forumcomm.com