Shock to the Nation

Big events like a massive earthquake, or say, a major upset in a sporting event like the Super Bowl or World Series can have people talking about it for days, even weeks or longer depending on how much anyone had been invested emotionally in the event.

These things can stay in the collective consciousness of people, so much so that, if you were to meet a total stranger, you could quickly establish a rapport just by asking them what they remember about the event. The impact of talking about something that frightened or hurt you the same as it frightened or hurt someone else is almost like an electric shock to realize that another person, a stranger to you, is more like you than you would have ever initially believed.

For years, people would talk about where they were on November 22, 1963. The assassination of President Kennedy wounded the entire nation. People grieved deeply over the brutal killing of a man who so many admired. If you look up the bio for President Kennedy, you will see information about when and where he was born along with information about his wife and children. Unlike other people’s biographies though, instead of stating the date he ‘died’, you will see the date he was ‘assassinated’. Just reading that sends another wave of grief through me for that man and what could have been.

To be sure, there have been other events that struck that mutual nerve in all of us. The joy and amazement seeing Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. Pretty much everyone remembers his poignant words when he came down the ladder and planted both feet on that dusty surface.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Those words were written for him, but, he actually forgot one. His speech was supposed to have been, “That’s one small step for [a] man…”

Personally, I liked Neil’s version better. After all, no one needs to be grammatically correct while standing on another planet...imho.

September 11, 2001, a massive hammer slammed down onto the collective consciousness of America, inflicting more pain and damage than anyone before that day would have believed could happen. A lot of people had experienced pain and suffering in WWI and WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, but this…this was here. This brutal insult was in our home.

I was in Los Angeles when the attack happened. At that time, I was working for Knowledge Adventure which was an educational videogame production company owned by Universal Studios. We were making ‘edutainment’ games for K-6 kids. I loved it, mostly because of the people I worked with.

I’d get to the office between 5:30 and 6:00 AM each day. In part, to commute on the LA freeways before the tons of commuters poured onto the roads. The company had us in the Howard Hughes building near the Los Angeles airport. A few of us would get there that early in the morning, mostly the animators and myself, I was an art lead for the games.

Not long after I got there, one of the people I work with called me in my cubicle, and, told me to rush down to the cubicles further down the hallway. These guys were so silly sometimes, and, liked to prank each other, I was sure something was going to happen.

I headed down, trying to look around as much as possible, to see where a prank might be coming from, but there was nothing. I saw all of the guys over there, about 7 of them, jammed into one cubicle, staring intently at a tiny black and white TV. They shuffled around a little bit to make room for me, and one of them, pulled me into this tight little group so I could see the TV better.

When I walked down there, I was sure they were cooking up some kind of prank, but, it wasn’t. Something was happening. Something really bad.

“A plane flew into the World Trade Center,” my friend Richard told me.

I stared at him, not understanding, or, afraid to let that much horror into my head so early in the morning.

We were mesmerized, fixated, staring at this tiny TV, and trying to follow along with the frantic morning news show commentary. What the hell was this? An accident? But planes were not supposed to fly over the city because of a bad accident that had happened yes early.

Lost in the morning fog, a B-25 Mitchell bomber flew into the Empire State Building. Fuel blew out of the wings on impact and poured down the elevator shafts, igniting, then, sending sword like shafts of fire straight back up. The carnage was bad, but, what we were watching was sadly much worse.

Then the second plane hit.

War? Were we watching the beginning of WWIII?

Security was going through our building and telling everyone to leave, to get out of the building and go home. Because we were so close to the airport and were quite tall, for Los Angeles, the company did not want us there in case there were targets in LA.

No one had to tell me twice to go. I was in shock, but also, terrified. Was something like this going to happen here? By the time I had grabbed the things I brought with me I was running for the elevator.

David, one of the animators I worked with, was running after me. He finally caught up with me at the elevators and asked if he could ride back up to the valley with me. Because we were so close to the airport, he would park his car at a Fly-Away and ride one of those commuter buses, and, who the heck knew if they were going to be running later that day.


The elevator doors opened and I grabbed his sleeve then pulled him into the elevator with me.

All of the way north, on the 405, David and I barely spoke. We both muttered something about WWIII and kept looking around, expecting to see buildings in the downtown area, off to our right, go up in flames. We were aware of the other cars around us, looking as scared and confused as we were.

I left David at his car, and, the look we gave each other was so clear, so exact, that words would not completely state how we felt. We both wondered if we would see each other again. I knew that is what he was thinking.

He thanked me for the ride. I said goodbye to him. We exchanged that look again and, after I was sure his car started OK, took off. After I got home, I just sat in my living room, watching the TV all day, feeling horrified and confused. What was happening?

My phone rang later in the day, and, I jumped it startled me so much.

It was one of my sisters. She had called to say that she was calling everyone in the family to say she loved us and hoped we were OK. I think she believed we were at war and we would never see each other again. She went on to say that she was overwhelmed by all of this, more than most, and I could hear panic and grief creeping into her voice.

“Why? What do you mean more upset than most? Do you know someone there, where this is happening?”

Her answer was no. Her reasoning for being so upset, and more than most, was because…she had watched the second plane hit, live, on TV. As bizarre as her statement sounded, I understood what she was feeling. She was drowning in grief and fear by what she had seen, it was like she was the only one to bear witness. Even though literally millions of people had seen it at the same time she did, the anguish hit her so hard, that her inability to process what was truly happening seemed, perhaps odd by imagining she and she alone had witnessed it, but, I understood that.

I thanked her for the call and told her to ring back if she needed to. None of us knew the extent of the horror that might continue that day. Was this it? Were the towers the only target, or, were there other things yet to happen?

For hours I watched the video feeds coming out of New York, and, as darkness started to steal its way over the west coast I knew it was going to take a long time to sort this out, and that, the stories of pain and suffering would hopefully be squashed by the stories of heroism and surprise.

The surprise would be the joy of finding survivors, but, only a few were found. No bodies really were recovered, but, tales of heroism soared.

It is my humble opinion that this country is still recovering from that day. The recovery is mostly happening because, with the passage of time, there are more people on the planet who weren’t here when it happened. There are a lot of people who, like my sister, needed to experience this while it was happening to really get the sorrow and the shock this nation had to endure.

About three weeks after the 9/11 disaster, I got a very formal and official looking letter from the Air Force. I do fly with crews and spend time at some fascinating places with them all over the world, gathering ideas and reference material for paintings I do to donate to the Air Force National Archives.

I assumed the letter had something to do with the paintings I do, however, once I read the letter, I was just brought down to my knees. The horrors I witnessed were devastating, but the lens of the TV sets, with their thick glass or plastic fronts filtered much of that out for me. I grieved. I cried and woke up some nights shaking from fear and terror, but, I was able to quickly recover because everything I had been watching was far away and contained in that little TV box I could turn off, but not this letter.

One of the paintings I had done for the Air Force was a large airbrushed piece depicting events I had seen and experienced while at McMurdo Base in Antarctica. It is photorealistic, and, I labored hard on this one, making sure every pass of the airbrush was perfect. I used a Paasche AB brush powered by a compressor. The working end of the brush could widen out to create a spray 2-3 inches across or as tiny as the width of a human hair.

It was a popular painting and a general, who liked it, requested that it be hung in the Pentagon. It had been hanging there since 1995 except when it was loaned out for special exhibits about Antarctica with the National Geographic or over at The Smithsonian.

The Air Force wrote to tell me that my painting survived the attack on the Pentagon that day.

It never occurred to me that it was in harm’s way. I would gladly have sacrificed it to have fewer people killed, and, that was when the pain of grief slammed me in the stomach. In an odd way, I felt guilt that my painting survived when so many people were lost in such a brutal, senseless attack.

Over time, whenever I think about that painting, hanging back in the Pentagon, I did create it to show the respect I feel towards those people and hopefully, when others see my work, they will see that same message.

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The greatness of a nation and it's moral progress can be judged by the way it's animals are treated - Mahatma Ghandi

©  Briar Lee Mitchell, 2014