On Nov. 22, 1963, I was doing a crossword puzzle in my high school study hall when the announcement came over the PA that President John Kennedy had been shot.
On April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was working at a Jewel Foods pickup station in a mall parking lot, loading groceries into people’s cars.
But on Sept. 11, 2001, I was all alone — which you do not want to be when the world is being ripped apart.
My three children had gone back to school. My wife Marianne was teaching her 4th-grade class.
I, however, wouldn’t go back to my college English classes for another two weeks, so I had driven up to Hayward to winterize our fishing cabin and catch some walleye before the cold set in.
The cabin TV had no signal, as was often the case in the woods, but a news bulletin came over the radio: Heavy smoke was pouring from one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Minutes later, the North Tower collapsed, and I was filled with panic and fear.
Though our cabin had a landline, only my wife had a cell phone back then, and I could not reach her during the school day. I dialed my brother, but there was no answer. I rushed outside.
It was cold and still that morning. A chickadee in one of the surrounding pine trees made the only sound, a plaintive whistle. I looked up into the empty sky and went back in.
Improbable visuals were being described over the radio: people leaping to their deaths from upper floors; survivors running through the streets, bloodied and disoriented; a hijacked jet crashing into the Pentagon; fire trucks blaring down Seventh Avenue; the second tower crumbling to earth.
I sat in the chair facing the window that looks out onto the lake.
Our country was under attack. My family was scattered. There was no one with whom to grieve.
Suddenly, I heard a burst from a car horn outside. A van from Northern Lakes Co-op had pulled in behind the house. The cabin furnace had refused to turn on the day before, and the dispatcher had promised to send someone when he could.
“Scott” wore blue coveralls and was over six feet, with a mop of shaggy brown hair. Not quite 30 years old, he had an easy smile and called me “sir." I led him to the utility room where he set his heavy toolbelt on the floor. I described for him the symptoms of the temperamental furnace.
“Probably the igniter, sir,” he said. He knelt, removed the front panel, and was peering inside with a pen light.
“Did you know … hear anything about New York?” I asked.
He turned, looked up into my eyes. “Oh, yes. Surreal. We were all watching it at the shop.”
I visualized Scott and several other men, all in blue coveralls, staring up at a TV on an upper-corner shelf. And I felt less alone.
“My foreman says the FBI probably already knows who did it,” he said. “What with cameras all over the airport. Passenger manifests.”
Scott did not doubt his foreman. He said he just wondered why suicide attacks keep happening. I wanted to ask if he was married and what his hopes were for himself and his children, and for the world, in the four or five decades of life ahead of him.
He went outside and retrieved a new igniter from the van and replaced the old one. He asked me to turn up the thermostat. Everything worked fine, and I signed his clipboard.
He paused at the door as he folded and coiled his tool belt. President George W. Bush’s voice was audible from the radio in the kitchen.
“We need to figure something out,” said Scott. “Gotta do something." A parting smile, and he left.
The country did do something.
In the first three weeks after 9/11, Americans donated $657 million for families of the 2,957 people killed. The donations climbed to $2 billion by the end of the year, according to a University of Indiana survey in June of 2002. Another 1.6 million Americans gave blood for the 6,000 who were injured. And 60% of the nation's population either wrote checks, donated blood, or volunteered for various services.
Scott’s foreman was not wrong about the perpetrators being caught and punished, though it was infinitely more costly and time consuming than he could have imagined.
And Scott’s acknowledgment that terrorism keeps happening is just as true today.
But there is something inside us that wants to seek out others after a catastrophe: a hunger for human contact and an inclination toward empathy that inspire us to "figure something out," however long it may take.
David McGrath is a former Hayward resident, an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage in Illinois, the author of "South Siders," and a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at email@example.com.