Hockey makes me cry. My eyes well up and I choke back my emotions because after all, who cries at the start (or finish) of a hockey game? It’s a hockey game, for Pete’s sake. Big guys on skates slamming around with sticks at 20 MPH , crashing into each other and trying to shove/slap/pound a frozen hard rubber disk past a guy wearing 40 pounds of padding. A tough
guy’s person’s game if ever there was one. But standing in the Verizon Center, Caps hat over my heart, every anthem throws me suddenly back to 2001. Oddly enough, looking back at those uncertain and horrible days after the throwbacks from the Dark Ages crashed those planes into us, I was happier.
I landed in Gothenburg about 10AM local time on September 11, 2001, there to prepare for a meeting I was organizing/hosting/chairing a month later. As usual, I checked into the hotel after the all night flight and went to sleep for a couple of hours. Woke up to Aaron Brown standing on a rooftop with smoke pouring out of a hole in one of the towers behind him. My jet lagged brain thought he said that a plane had crashed into the building. Then the second plane hit while he was talking. He didn’t see it because he was facing the camera. But the rest of us saw it. And felt it, even across oceans.
Our kids were both in school in the District and the rumors started to circulate. CNN, having airtime to fill, started airing them. “Fires on the Mall. Plane headed toward the Capitol. A helicopter has crashed into the Pentagon.” Great. The country’s under attack and everybody I love is in Washington, and I’m stuck thousands of miles away across an ocean. My jet lagged brain then tried to direct Gigi to the best routes to take, and the ones to avoid, to get downtown and pick up the kids. Trying to take charge from Sweden seemed like a good idea; it sounded ludicrous in Washington. She and a friend drove down, picked up everybody’s kids, and returned to what seemed like the relative safety of the suburbs. I mean, even my jet lagged brain figured that the 7-11 on MacArthur Boulevard was an unlikely target.
With all flights to home grounded there was no chance to get back. I did manage to make it to England where good friends took me in for as long as I needed; that turned out to be a week. We made lemonade by touring a different corner of East Anglia every day. Pubs, churches, ruins, villages, followed by more pubs, villages, and narrow, hilly, winding, rain slick lanes better suited to carts than sedans. John’s driving so terrified me that I almost forgot why I was there. Joan, having survived as John’s passenger for 40 years, took refuge in the back seat and had a quiet bit of fun noticing my white knuckles.
One day we didn’t go touring. The memorial service from St. Paul’s was on the BBC. The orchestra played our National Anthem, God Save The Queen, and an entire program of tear-inducing music. I stood in the doorway of their parlor, hoping that if I didn’t go in and sit down I’d somehow avoid the tears. That didn’t work; I cried my eyes out missing the family and being glad they’re safe and being sorry I can’t be there for them and for me. Later, after I calmed down, I made a joke about the size of the upcoming cellular bill.
I was flying so much that I was in United’s top tier of frequent flyers, which came in handy. We had a private number in most every country to call for customer service, and I called it twice each day for news of flights. They were amazingly patient and never once got cross, as the Brits say, and they managed to get me on a flight on the first day they were allowed to fly. Even better, it was the first flight from Heathrow to Dulles. Upper deck of a 747. Everybody was nervous and eying everybody else, especially the middle Eastern looking guy sitting across the aisle and one row back. Trying to be non-obvious about the obvious while begging the crew to do something, anything. Like get him the hell off the plane. Security finally came on board and so very politely asked him to join them back in the terminal. After an hour he was back, apparently absolved of Flying While Arab. The crew later confided that they’d had his bags pulled off and re-re-re-examined, too.
Got home to what passed for normalcy. At the Caps games that fall, images of waving flags and wheat fields filled the scoreboard and signs around arena during anthem. Everybody sang like they really meant it, something I hadn’t ever heard before. Frankly, I don’t know how the performers got through the song without choking up. The whole place was wrapped up with so much pride and anger and fear all rolled into 2 ½ minutes of song. Then huge cheers at the end, and much more than the ‘OK the song’s over, let’s play’ cheers. Every single night.
Now, I’ve been in the same arena for 40+ games, listening to the same song, watching similar images. And the memories come. Every night.