Every generation has its Kennedy moment. Its "Where were you when...?" frozen for an instant in time. Briefly, I thought mine would be an Uzi-waving man in a sportscoat in front of a hotel, the class bully poking small kids in the chest on the middle school bus and demanding in an accusatorial tone "Why did you shoot Reagan?"
Then, for just over a decade and a half, it was an awful morning in front of a television during my senior year in high school, watching the vapor trails of disintegrating dreams fade in the impossibly clear blue of an oddly frozen Florida sky.
Seven years ago I parked my battered TransAm in front of Montague Gunsmithing. I was early. Only the owner was there before me, and I let myself in to see him sitting, staring at a small television set, looking out of place there on the sales floor, trailing its extension cord from the showcases back into the break room. I was all excited because of a phone call from my lawyer the previous afternoon. "Hey, Ken! My check should be here tomorrow!"
"Some idiot in a Learjet just flew into the World Trade Center. They shouldn't outta let those tourist pilots fly low over New York."
"Huh? Are you sure?"
"Look at the TV."
And so that morning's drama unfolded...
We sold out of our meager stock of AR-15s pretty quick that day. One regular customer, a lawyer who was mostly interested in antique double-barrel fowling pieces came in. "I want one of those assault rifle-y things. In .223."
"Jack, I don't think the Arabs are coming here on their camels."
"I know. I just want to do something."
We sold him a pre-ban Mini-14. It was the last semiauto rifle left in the store. Then he cleaned us out of our remaining stock of .223 ammunition.
My roommate, Marko, had blown out of work for the day. Most folks had, it seems, and were just milling about. Seeking friends. Seeking television screens. Seeking news. Seeking some damn sense to the whole thing.
Walk-in traffic petered out at the shop as the afternoon wore on. Marko and I stepped out for a late lunch. The food court was out, since West Town Mall was closed. "They're hitting the great symbols of American commerce and power," I joked to my roomie "The World Trade Center, the Pentagon... West Town Mall in Knoxville is obviously next."
We sat at the local sports bar, both on the same side of the table for a better view of the tube. The big screen that normally showed happy throngs at sporting events now showed a gaping canker in Manhattan, a smoking corpsefield where thriving businesses used to be. Both towers were flattened. WTC 7 smoldered fitfully. A camera briefly showed the gaping wound on its backside. "Oh, yeah," I remarked to Marko, "that's comin' down." I got back to the shop to find it had. We closed early.
My boss wanted to nuke Riyadh. His son joined the Army. Good friends marched to the sound of the drums. Ridiculous legislation got passed. The world changed, and yet life went on. And here I am, seven years later, seven years older. And all I remember every year on this day is how ashamed I felt that my first worry was "Dammit, my check's going to be late."
That, and an angry, confused-looking older man buying a gun he didn't like, explaining sheepishly that he wanted to do something...