The morning when we all sought comfort in the familiar

By Jayson Jacoby September 09, 2011 05:12 pm

It was a beautiful day.

Everybody seems to agree on that.

The clear skies mattered, too.

And not just because the sunshine that brightened Sept. 11, 2001, both in New York City and in Baker City, created an illusion of tranquility so dramatically different from the reality of that day.

Black smoke shows up really well against a backdrop of pure blue.

We didn’t have much high-definition TV then.

We didn’t need it.

My recollections from that Tuesday morning are rather more hazy than the atmosphere was.

This annoys me slightly.

I feel as though my memories, from the most significant day in America in my lifetime (I was born Sept. 22, 1970) ought to be crystalline.

The best — indeed, the only — explanation I can offer is that I reacted to the terrible scenes from New York City and Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania not as a consumer of news, but as a provider.

I was at home, getting ready to leave for work, when the initial video footage from Manhattan came on the TV, showing the first jet crashing into the North Tower.

At that time the situation was murky.

The government had not yet confirmed, for instance, whether the disaster was an accident — certainly my first assumption — or a terrorist act.

When I got to work I switched on the TV in the conference room. I turned the set so I could see the screen from my desk if I leaned forward in my chair.

From there I watched — live, this time — as the second airliner slammed into the South Tower.

I was of course stunned.

But at that moment — and this is perhaps my most distinct memory of that morning — I didn’t so much as consider the possibility that both towers would come down.

In retrospect this seems to me naive and a trifle silly, even allowing for my utter ignorance of architecture.

Why should I have accepted that two airliners, within 17 minutes, could hit two of the more famous buildings in the U.S., yet I was unable to consider it plausible that either tower might collapse?

I still can’t answer that question.

The natural inclination in this kind of situation, for a small newspaper such as the Herald, is to, in media parlance, “localize” the story.

Obviously we haven’t the luxury of a employing a full-time correspondent to report from New York City. We relied that day, as with any big story that happens thousands of miles away, on The Associated Press and other wire services to supply us with on-the-scene coverage.

But what we can do — and the wire services, as a rule, can’t — is report on how local residents are reacting to this unprecedented event.

I drove to the Baker Truck Corral.

I figured that was an ideal place to sample people’s opinions — locals as well as long-haul truck drivers — about the terrorist attack that, so far as we knew that morning, could be in its initial stages.

In any event I knew I could find people at the Truck Corral to whom I could put the predictable, but salient, question — “Where were you when you heard?”

It was one of those rare occasions — a singular one, in my professional experience — when there was only one subject to talk about, inquire about, write about.

As always in this business, the relatively simplicity of my task was complicated by a looming deadline.

And I was uncomfortably close to mine when I left the Truck Corral.

But as I was driving west on Campbell I noticed a truck parked at the curb in front of Pizza Hut. The truck’s hood was up and a man was tinkering with the engine.

What I noticed, though, was the portable radio on the sidewalk. A second man was standing there, beside the radio.

I pulled in behind the truck. As soon as I turned off my engine I could tell that the radio was tuned to news, not music.

A minor anecdote, to be sure.

And hardly the most compelling one we published in that day’s edition of the Herald.

Chris Collins’ visit to Baker Middle School, where social studies teacher Bill Mitchell told his students that they were witnessing a “one-of-a-kind event in American history,” was far more interesting.

So were Christina Wood’s interviews with local clergy.

Yet whenever I recall that morning, now almost a decade past, inevitably I see that pickup and hear the tinny sound coming from that radio.

The man standing on the sidewalk was Wade Hamilton. He and a friend were driving home to Boise, returning from a fishing trip on the Columbia, when their truck overheated.

Hamilton was listening to the radio while his friend replaced the truck’s thermostat.

It was a brief interview, lasting perhaps five minutes, and probably less.

What struck me about this conversation, though, and why it has come to symbolize that day for me, is that it combined the banal — a simple auto repair — with the extraordinary events that, at that moment, were still so raw and so overwhelming that nobody could truly comprehend them.

Hamilton’s goal, it seems to me, was America’s goal.

In a world which suddenly made no sense, he wanted only to go home, where everything was familiar.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald. He was working as a reporter for the Herald on Sept. 11, 2001.