A Story About Airplanes and Numbers

I woke up at 6AM. Classes at the high school didn’t really start until just after 7:30AM, but the buses ran early enough to get you there for the half hour study period before homeroom. After pulling myself out of bed I made it to the bathroom and to the old stereo my sister put into our shared bathroom years before. She had graduated the previous spring and moved out a month later, but I still had the stereo.

I turned on the local Top 40, as was my custom. I started to get ready through a song or two, and then I heard the familiar voices of the DJs.

“So the craziest thing happened this morning,” the male DJ said. “There was this plane crash in New York City. Like, some plane accidentally hit a skyscraper.”

Interesting, but not remarkable. Sometimes planes crash. Skyscrapers are tall.

“What’s really crazy is that not long after, a SECOND plane crashed into another building.”

“Really?” inquired the female DJ.

“Yeah,” he said, “And because they were already filming the first crash, they’ve actually got video of the second crash happening. It’s all over the news right now.”

This piqued my interest. I went over to the TV and turned it on. Just like in the movies, it was already playing the news broadcast the DJ just mentioned. No more than 2-3 seconds past before I saw the clip of the second plane hitting the building. I accepted it at face value. The DJ said accident. The news said accident. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but when I look back there was a sinking in my stomach the first time I saw that footage. Deep down I knew. They weren’t careening out of control. The plane was so straight, so sure. They didn’t even swerve. Accidents don’t look like that.

I turned the TV off and continued getting ready. The DJs mentioned it once or twice more. Before I left the house I tapped on my parents’ door to wake them.

“There was a plane crash in New York City,” I told them. “I don’t know where it happened or where Nikki lives, but you might want to call her to check-in.”

My mother gave me a sleepy nod. Yes. She would call my big sister to make sure she was okay.

At the corner I waited with the other kids for the bus. My neighborhood sat directly under the runway paths, and I watched a plane fly by. I smiled. Something about it was funny, watching a plane navigate the air so successfully after two had failed so horribly just an hour before. I told the kids at the bus stop what had happened. The story didn’t seem to interest them.

The radio was off on the bus. It was usually on, but not every day. I considered asking the driver to turn it on so I could hear about the planes, but I didn’t. I rode to school in silence.

Between the bus and the front door of the high school I saw my homeroom algebra teacher walking the opposite direction. “Mr. Andrews, did you hear?” I yelled over to him with a smile. “Some planes crashed in New York, right into the buildings.” He hadn’t heard. We kept walking our separate ways.

I went to the classroom and got out my algebra homework. I figured if the bus insisted on getting me to school a half hour early I’d make the most of it by not finishing my homework the night before. I wasn’t particularly interested in what we were studying, and I didn’t really want to do it. But it was due today.

Students and teachers were in and out of the classrooms as usual, and within minutes someone leaned into our room to let us know there was a TV on in the classroom down the hall. They were watching the news. I abandoned the homework I didn’t want to do and walked down the hall to watch the broadcast. By then it was known. By then it was clear. Another plane had hit the Pentagon. There hadn’t been any accidents.

I went back to my classroom and got out my phone. I called my mother, who didn’t pick up. I left a message asking if she’d gotten ahold of my sister. I didn’t even realize I was scared until I heard the crack in my own voice. I hung up the phone and looked over at Mr. Andrews. He had heard my message, the change in my voice. He heard me ask my mother if my sister was okay. He said nothing, I said nothing. I went back to the other room.

There were about 15 of us sitting in that little room when the South Tower fell. I could hear Roosevelt’s voice in my head on repeat: A Date That Will Live In Infamy. Another plane had crashed into the ground in Pennsylvania. They didn’t know where it had been headed. We were scared. We didn’t know how many planes were still in the air. We didn’t know if it would ever end. On live TV we watched as the second tower fell. Then the bell rang to start the school day.

Nothing happened in homeroom that day. Nothing in second or third period either. Every class started with the same plea to our teachers, “Can we turn on a TV?” By forth period it was clear that the present danger was over, and everything that was going to happen had happened. Still, nothing was getting done. We couldn’t focus, we couldn’t learn. My biology teacher gave us an assignment that didn’t much matter and agreed to leave the radio on. But we talked over it instead. We couldn’t do our work, but we couldn’t keep listening to the same confusion either. At some point I got the message from my mom. Nikki was fine. She didn’t live or work anywhere near the towers. She was still asleep in her apartment in Queens when it all happened.

When I got home from school I turned on the TV. The local ABC and NBC affiliates were playing coverage. So was CBS and FOX. I turned to CNN – a lot of people turned to CNN. It’s hard to remember that there was a time when “24 hour news” was synonymous with CNN and no one else. They were the source. If it was news you knew they’d be talking about it.

But today, everyone was talking about it. I flipped through the channels. Those that didn’t have their own coverage were showing a feed from another news source, usually CNN. I had a printed out piece of paper on the coffee table that I used to track which channel number corresponded to which network. I got out a pencil and started flipping down the line, marking off which channels were playing coverage. Nearly every working station was devoted to 9/11 coverage. I still have that piece of paper in storage at my parents’ house.

I watched the footage until I couldn’t anymore. It was the same facts over and over, the same wreckage and smoke. I needed to see something else. I flipped to Comedy Central, one of the few big channels that wasn’t playing coverage of the attacks. Instead it was some idiotic college movie staring Jeremy Pivens. Probably “PCU” but I can’t remember for sure. I laid on the couch and watched a series of stupid sex and fart jokes. It helped.

I’d been watching the movie for about 20 minutes when my mother came upstairs. She commented on the fact that the movie I was watching seemed stupid. She was right, though I didn’t say anything to agree. She asked if we could change the channel to watch the news. I told her yes and we flipped to CNN. I sat on the couch with her for a few minutes, and then felt the sudden and intense desire to not sit there anymore. I stood up and went into my room, which was directly behind the wall with the TV on it. I sat on my bed. I could still hear the news. I stood up and paced. I went back out into the TV room and into the bathroom. I opened the medicine cabinet. I closed it. I went back to my room. Then back to the bathroom. I’m not sure what happened next, but I think I must have slammed the door or thrown something on the floor, because my mother came over to me with sudden concern.

“Is everything okay?” she asked.

I’m not sure what I said. The moment is so fuzzy in my memory and when I think of it my throat gets sore and I feel heat in my head. Somehow I must have told her that I couldn’t watch it anymore. Somehow I told her that I just wanted to watch my stupid movie. I was crying.

My mother ran over to the remote to change the channel back. My mother, it should be noted, knew nothing about how our TV remotes worked. She hit the wrong button and the screen turned to static, then to static with something undetectable on behind it. She kept pushing buttons until I ran over to help. I started pushing other buttons to get it working again, and somehow we ended up on one of the only other channels that wasn’t playing coverage. It was playing bunnies.

It was educational public access, and on the screen was a pair of cartoon rabbits. The narrator explained that they were talking about the Fibonacci Sequence, which neither my mother nor I had heard of. The narrator went on to say that it was first developed to explain the mating habits of rabbits. A third bunny appeared on the screen, then two more. Bunnies making bunnies. My mother and I burst into laughter. We watched as a few more bunnies went by and my tears dried. Mom asked if we should keep watching the bunnies and I told her that was okay, I just wanted to watch my stupid movie.

Later that week I looked up the Fibonacci Sequence online. I wrote down the numbers on a piece of paper: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…

The Fibonacci Sequence is tied to the Golden Ratio, the mathematical quantifier for natural beauty. The spiral of a nautilus shell is mapped by Fibonacci. You find it in the leaves of plants and in the seeds of the sunflower. The sequence goes on forever, each number the sum of the two before. For years after September 11th the list of Fibonacci numbers was taped above my desk. When I was angry or despairing I would repeat the digits silently in my head as a sort of meditative chant. One. One. Two. Three. Five. Eight. Thirteen. I was never able to get past 55 before the mental math overtook the emotion and I found myself feeling better.

There’s a lot I could say about September 11th and the effect it had on our culture, our politics, our media, our lives. But today I just thought I should tell you the story. My story. I am the beginning of several other people’s September 11th stories. I am the beginning of my mother and father’s stories. I am the beginning to the story for the kids at the bus stop. I am the beginning of Mr. Andrews’ story. I heard it on the radio, and they heard it from me. Two planes crashed into buildings in New York City this morning. Isn’t that weird. You’d think they would have swerved.