Long before the planes hit the twin towers in NYC, September 11th had a special significance for me. It was the date my father died in Baltimore, Maryland in 1984. I didn’t know him very well. He was a ghostly figure that wandered through my life once or twice a year on his way to somewhere else. I didn’t know him as a man at all. He was a concept. “Father”. I tried to call him “Dad” and “Pops”, but neither ever felt right. For the most part, I just called him “Bob”. I don’t think he ever knew this.
I wrote letters to my father when I was a kid. Mostly at the behest of my paternal grandmother. I don’t recall those letters ever saying anything significant. Kids don’t have the emotional depth to write heartfelt letters to people they really don’t know. I recall that I would sometimes touch my finger to my tongue so that I could wet the paper I was writing on in spots so that he might think tears had dripped from my face while I was writing. But I don’t recall ever feeling emotions that strong. As I said, I didn’t know the man.
One summer when I was about 14, I flew to Glendale , California with my grandmother and some cousins, to visit with my father and his third wife, Pilar, and my younger brother and sister, Justin and Tanya (I’d never met Pilar or my siblings). True to form, during my entire visit, I saw my father only a handful of times. He took me with him once when he was making his rounds (ostensibly sales routes for his import/export business). I remember the conversation was stilted, because neither of us knew what to say to the other. At that time I still didn’t know what, if anything, I felt for the man. It wasn’t until we were at the airport, ready to leave for the flight back to North Carolina, that I knew differently. My father pulled me aside and said, simply, “I want you to remember something. No matter what anyone tells you, I love you. You’re my son.”
I was a wreck from that moment on. I walked to the plane with my head laying on a cousin’s shoulder, my heart breaking. It was the first time in my life I had seen Bob Lovelace as a person, and it had to happen just as we were leaving. I would only see him a handful of times in the following years. We would never again have a moment like that.
Years later, when, as a young man, I was traveling the SouthEast with a Rock band, we were in Johnson City, Tennessee during the Christmas holidays. The band had to play on Christmas day. Most of the others had families, and so it was decided to drive back to North Carolina so that they could visit with their families on Christmas Day. It was a long drive, which would see them visiting for only one hour before hitting the road back to Johnson City. That seemed foolish to me. Especially since I had no children. I decided to remain at the hotel with another bandmate.
My mother encouraged me to make the trip. My father had wandered through on one of his random visits. She told me I should come, that “Bob looks bad.” But I refused. In my youthful wisdom, I thought the trip, for one hour with our families, was foolish. I told my mother, “I’ll see him next Christmas.” Like most foolish kids, I thought we had all the time in the world. My father would grow to be an old man, and I would get to know him one day. But that would not happen.
Bob Lovelace died that following September 11th, 1984. He didn’t see another Christmas. And I would spend my remaining days knowing that I would give anything to have back that one hour that I so foolishly threw away. What I would give to be able to spend that one hour with my father.
Any doubts I had about what I felt for my father were resolved when I was told he had died. My mother knocked on my bedroom door to wake me up, and said simply, “Bob is dead.” I sat up on the side of the bed. Shook my head. Took a deep breath. And I felt… nothing. You might as well had told me some actor had wrecked his car. I got up, walked down the hallway to the kitchen, and stood there at the sink. I rested my knuckles upon the counter and thought to myself, “Wow. Bob’s dead.” In that moment a wave of pain and anguish washed over me, as it began to dawn upon me just what had been lost. Suddenly there was a hole in my heart where there had always been so much promise and possibility. Some primal part of who I was had simply vanished, and I didn’t know how to deal with that gaping emptiness. Any doubts about whether or not I loved my father evaporated. I’d never hurt that badly before, and I’ve never hurt the badly since. If you’ve ever lost a parent, I’m sure you know what I mean.
Many, many years later, in 2001, my wife and I were stuck in a tractor-trailer in morning traffic on I-95 in New Jersey, just across the Hudson from New York City. We’d been stuck in the area for a couple of days, and I was in a really bad mood. I’d gotten up that morning thinking about my father and wincing at old wounds. I was trying to find a way out of the traffic, was angry at my company because sitting for two days had cost us a lot of money, and I was in no mood to be sitting there in the parking lot that I-95 had become. I only peripherally noticed the jet liner that flew overhead toward the city (if you know anything about NYC, you know that’s odd, because passenger jets do not fly toward the city). I recall that a man got out of his car (this was log-jam traffic, remember), and walked toward the shoulder, staring at that plane. As people often do when encountering the unthinkable, I shrugged it off and went on about my business. We jumped out of traffic and went around the problem. After all, we weren’t trying to get into New York City, we were trying to get to I-80 so we could head to Ohio. I don’t recall exactly, but I think we hit I-280 and made our way over to I-80, and had just started heading west on I-80 when our satcom came to life with a company message talking about the attack in NYC. We had no idea what the hell they were talking about. We had literally missed the attack by minutes. It was only later that I realized that I had seen the first plane.
For the next year or so I no longer associated September 11th with my father’s death. In 2001 his memory seemed almost insignificant next to the horror of that day. By the time we reached Pennsylvania, where we had to fuel, they were showing footage of people dropping out of the two tours. I’ll never scrub from my memory the image of seeing those bodies falling. I stood beside the truck, pumping fuel into our tanks, and cried like a child. I struggled for the next year with a form of survivors’ guilt, because I felt like we’d been delayed in that area the few days prior to the 9/11 attacks to bear witness to the horror. Had we stayed in that traffic jam that morning, we would have been recruited to deliver supplies to the rescue workers at Ground Zero. For a long time I felt like I had side-stepped responsibilities that had been laid upon me by the Heavens.
I still felt this guilt a year later. I was in Delaware on September 11th, 2002. I still remember filling out my log, and watching those numbers being written out. 09 – 11 – 02. By then, though, I had begun to remember that there was another reason I had always remembered that date in September, and I gave Bob Lovelace the proper acknowledgement that he hadn’t received in 2001.
In the years since I’ve had to wince at the shallow patriotism that gets trotted out on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I had no family in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, but I lost my father on September 11th. I can sympathize with the loss felt by the families of the 9/11 victims on that date every year. In the weeks following those attacks, there was a reverent stillness in the area in and around Manhattan. No one engaged in gaudy displays. For the most part the remembrances were as simple as an American flag laid in the back window of cars. There was a sense that a great horror had been committed upon us all, and that it did not need to be amplified by false displays of empty patriotism. As we later wandered west on our way to California, the displays became more disconnected and more melodramatic, with people standing on bridges waving flags or holding up signs that read “We will never forget”. I thought such displays were vulgar and disrespectful. But I understood them. The farther west we got, the more disconnected people were from the reality of death.
I recall a moment on that horrible day, as we were making our way toward Ohio, when a car started to pass us on the highway. I noticed from my mirror that a woman on the passenger side was staring at our truck, looking it up and down, and I realized that we were driving a bright red truck with a red, white and blue trailer, and that we had somehow become a rolling symbol of America. We were a 75 foot, 80,000 pound rolling display of American determination and spirit. As that car pulled up beside us that woman looked up into my face with the saddest expression I had ever seen. She did not wave or make any sort of demonstration, but simply nodded. I nodded back to her. There was nothing else that needed to be said. To me, that summed up the feeling in and around New York City. No one there had to amplify the horror.
There have been two great tragedies in my life on September 11th. They both still haunt me in their own way. But I have to say that in the years following 9/11, I’ve begun to think of September 11th more in terms of the day that my father died. The 9/11 attacks have been appropriated by people who use it to disseminate hatred and intolerance, and I’ve found myself less and less able to identify with this evolving concept that has become “9/11”. I’ve never understood how meeting hatred with hatred solves any problems.
I can’t speak for Bob Lovelace or what he would have thought about 9/11. I would love to be able to call him up today and talk to him about it, and know what he thinks about the Tea Party nutjobs who claim our Christian president is a Muslim operative, and that Muslims should be forced to register with some dark, government agency that is tasked with tracking their movements. I’ve found myself less able to identify with other Americans as they’ve seized upon 9/11 to support their efforts to create an American Taliban.
I won’t be waving a flag today. Instead I’ll be remembering Bob Lovelace. I’ll be remembering that woman who nodded to me on the highway. I’ll remember that man who left his car and walked to the shoulder of the highway as we watched the first plane fly over us from Newark, headed toward Manhattan. I’ll remember the car I saw later with an American flag laid up in its rear window. More than anything I’ll remember standing in a truck stop with a dozen other people, with tears running down my cheeks as I watched bodies falling from the Twin Towers. My memories don’t need to be validated by waving American flags and hurling invectives at Muslims who had nothing to do with 9/11. I owe it to my father to be a better man than that. I can’t say if he would be proud of me, but I like to think he would be.