On September 10th, 2001 I was on an airplane from Calgary, Alberta, Canada heading home to Chicago. I’d attended a police training conference there with my husband, Dave “JD Buck Savage” Smith and we’d had a great time. Married not quite six months, we were trying to decide if he would move to the Chicago area or if I would relocate to Dallas, TX, where he was working for the Law Enforcement Television Network (LETN) and for Calibre Press. I was currently a police sergeant in a Chicago suburb, running the Community Education/Crime Prevention Unit, but I also worked for LETN, I was writing and consulting for Calibre Press and was lining up an academy job in the Dallas area. Dave and I owned our own successful training company, I was weary of the Chicago winters and had twenty years on the job; I was ready for the next phase of my personal and professional life to begin. The future looked extraordinarily bright.
On 9/11/01 I got my first grader off to school and was watching my usual morning show when the first plane hit. As a frequent traveler, I wondered how a commercial airliner could be that “off” the usual flight path. When the second plane hit, I immediately called my husband, who was getting ready to go live in the LETN studios in Dallas, where he had arrived home from Canada only hours before. America was under attack, and we knew it. We expressed our disbelief at what we were seeing, said quick “I love you’s” and we hung up, heading off to very different jobs. We both knew it was going to be a long damn day.
I drove by my kid’s grade school before heading to work; I stopped out front and stared hard at the front doors. I debated pulling her out of school and taking her with me to work. She had been virtually raised at the Naperville Police Department and was comfortable there; she knew everyone and would have no problem hanging out in the emergency operations center, coloring quietly and watching the dispatchers work. I wondered how many cops and firefighters had those same thoughts. Would I be bringing one more little kid into the chaos? Would I unnecessarily traumatize her? I agonized over the right decision and in the end, I bowed my head and said one of the 100 prayers I would say that day. I felt selfish asking God to keep my baby safe, when I knew that thousands of people were dead or dying in New York City. I said a prayer for them as well, one for our country, and I shed the first of thousands of tears to come. And then I went to work, just like so many of you.
When people ask about my memories of September 11th, I have so many random thoughts and feelings. At work, I remember being crowded around the television set with everyone else in my division, not quite believing what we were seeing. I marveled at the gritty nature of New Yorkers, and said so out loud; a comment that was misunderstood my one of my more thick-headed co-workers, who threw his usual unimaginative profanity my way. For once, I didn’t snap back. I didn’t care what he thought or said, and I never did again. Like everyone else, I started to take on the “life is too short” mentality. As we began to understand the magnitude of the attack and who was behind it, we began to plan. We were only 30 miles from the second largest city in America, would there be an attack here? There was so much to do, to anticipate, to prepare for. Again, I prayed, and got back to work. I was right, it was a long damn day.
At home that night, it was just my daughter and me. I explained to her as best I could what had happened in New York, in Washington DC, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
We talked about the police officers and firefighters who had died trying to save people, because that’s what we do. I had her watch the video footage with me of the towers being attacked and later collapsing. I talked about what must have happened on United Flight 93 and how the passengers sacrificed their own lives trying to stop the bad guys. As my frequent travel companion, she was curious about what happened on that flight from Newark, New Jersey. Didn’t the pilots have guns, she asked? Weren’t there any police officers on board? What’s a terrorist? Why do they hate us? And the question I knew was coming and dreaded: “Are they going to come here Mommy?” Oh boy. They didn’t cover that one in the parenting books.
Never one to hide reality from my kids, I told my daughter that the terrorists might come here, but that they probably had their eye on the city, that our small town was an unlikely target. I told her that she needed to be brave, and that she needed to never panic if something bad did happen. I reminded her, as always, that she was strong and smart and fast, and that God loved her just as much as I did, and then we prayed.
September 11th was the last time I ever watched network news; I was sickened by the almost immediate politicization of the attacks. I began to further educate myself about radical Islam and I did what I could to support my friends who were deployed to Afghanistan. And I decided that I couldn’t retire after all; I needed to be a cop in this post 9/11 world we were all trying to get used to. My husband decided to move to Illinois, get out of the corporate world and just be a trainer. Again, the “life is too short” mentality took precedent; life was certainly too short to be married and live 1000 miles apart! We decided to walk our own talk and live in the now.
I retired two years ago, we still live in Illinois. On the tenth anniversary of September 11th, Dave and I will be on an airplane, coming back from a wedding in Colorado. When we get home I’m going to sit down with my 11th grader and ask her what she remembers about that day. I don’t need to remind her about the threat of terrorism in our lives, she hears us talk about it almost every day. But I’m still going to remind her that she is strong, smart and fast, and that God and I love her even more than we did on that terrible day ten years ago. And then we’ll pray.