Saturday, September 6, 2008

Thoughts On 9/11

(c) 2004 Robert Darling

When the Sky Fell Silent

September 11, 2001 was a quiet day for me. I was one of very few Americans whose attention wasn't riveted to a television set on that unforgettable, unforgiveable morning. I was on a fall moose hunt with my friend and business partner, Don, near Red Shirt Lake in the western Susitna River Valley, and the nearest TV was probably 120 miles east. Dale, another friend and a bush pilot, was supposed to land on the lake early that morning and fly us back to Talkeetna with our kills. He never showed. I remember waking that morning, and not noticing the silence at first. It wasn't until well after the frost was melting and the coffee boiling that I became aware of the silence. There was no hum of small aircraft in the distance.

I mentioned the silence to Don, and we both stood for a long while next to the fire, two scruffy men in long johns and socks, watching the sky, watching and listening. No deep-throated Beavers or Otters with floats, trailing their mooring ropes like kite tails, no buzzing little Cubs, no aircraft at all. We talked it over, and neither of us could remember a morning without seeing a few aircraft overhead, or at least hearing a plane's murmuring drone in the distance. And it wasn't just the absence of small aircraft that struck us -- there were no contrails up high, there was none of the normal cargo and passenger jet traffic that normally plied the cross polar route and made refueling stops in Anchorage.

Except for birds, and a light breeze whispering through the black swamp spruce, and a few bull moose dueling in the treeless uplands northeast of the lake, it was a day of uncanny silence. Several times Don and I caught ourselves whispering, and nervously laughed off our unease. Both of us jumped several times when a log on the fire popped.

Late that afternoon, several formations of F-15s passed over low and fast, not the normal two-aircraft training runs out of Elmendorf, but combat formations. After that, the silence returned.


Three mornings later, on the 14th, we awoke to a familiar sound -- several small aircraft flying west from Talkeetna or northwest from Anchorage, Wasilla and Birchwood. Just after Don and I finished breakfast, we heard a Beaver lumbering in from the west -- once you've heard one a few times, you never forget the sound. Dale came in low, made two scouting passes over the lake, and then landed, shut down the powerplant and drifted to our makeshift spruce log dock, standing on the portside float and using a canoe paddle to guide the plane the last few yards. I remember Dale's face that morning -- I'll never forget it. He had that ashen expression you'd expect to see on a good friend's face if he was about to tell you your entire family had just been killed in an automobile accident.

Not one of us said a word until after we were seated on logs around the fire. There was none of the usual laughing, joking and backslapping you'd expect when a friend shows up to take you home after a long and successful hunting trip in the bush.

"We were attacked," Dale finally said. "The Godd---ed Arabs flew commercial planes into buildings out East."

"What was hit?" I asked.

"The Pentagon," he answered. "The Pentagon, and both tall towers in New York, the Trade Center. The buildings are gone. They're gone. Just f---ing rubble."


On the flight back to Talkeetna, Dale explained to us through headsets the flight moratorium, how only in Alaska were small aircraft finally allowed to fly, but only to retrieve hunters and others who were stranded, some of them hundreds of miles from the nearest road or village. Medical flights, too, were now allowed, while the rest of the nation's airfleet remained grounded. Military aircraft patrolled the skies around Anchorage, Dale said, prepared to down any plane, large or small, that couldn't provide an approved reason for flying.

Back in civilization, we spent an hour or so at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, watching satellite TV footage and replays of the attack, footage almost every other American had been watching for days. Except for the television, the roadhouse, normally filled with a wild bunch of boisterous and drunken bush pilots, riverboat pilots, grubby locals and a few city folks from Anchorage, was silent as a tomb. Men who'd normally be taking bets on arm-wrestling challenges, and even the few rowdies who normally ended their visits to the roadhouse with a friendly drunken fistfight, sat nursing their drinks in stunned silence.

When I arrived home that afternoon, my daughters ran down the driveway when they heard my truck coming. I don't remember them ever before clinging to me as tightly as they did that day. I don't remember another time when I held them for so long, without any of us ever saying a word.

No, I will never forget that day. I will never forget the silence. I'll never forget, or forgive, those who struck my nation, who forever stole fathers and mothers from their children, sons and daughters from their parents, brothers and sisters from their siblings. I'll never forget how closely I held my loved ones. I'll never forget the silence in the skies.

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1 comment:

Woody said...

What a great account of that day from the perspective of someone who had no idea until much later.
Thanks, AK, for sharing that with us. As one who sat transfixed on the radio at first and TV second, it brings an entirely new thought process to the effect this had on people all across the country.
Powerful article.