This is a story of perhaps one of the most tragic days in my generation: the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center and also crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C, killing nearly three thousand people, many of whom were first responders. There was also another plane crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania where passengers made the ultimate sacrifice and thwarted another attack that was rumored to be aimed at the White House. That day was the day that more or less changed America and the way people looked at America forever.
But this story is not really about the 9/11 attacks at all. This is the story of what I was doing on that tragic day.
I was still living in Tivoli, located near Red Hook, New York at the time. It was a Tuesday and at the time I was off from my job as a cashier at Stop and Shop, a grocery store that was located in Rhinebeck. The weather was nice that day as well. I started out the morning going up to the barn to feed my sister’s horses. It seemed like it was going to be just another normal day to me.
Sometime later, I got a phone call from my mother who was working at a pet shop in Red Hook that my family owned at the time. She was asking me if I heard anything about a plane crash in New York City and I obviously hadn’t. I turned on the radio but I couldn’t really hear much so I was still pretty much in the dark for a little while longer.
It wasn’t until I went into town to do my usual routine on my days off from work that I finally found out what was going on. When I went to the post office to get my mail, I found out that I couldn’t because the country had ordered all federal institutions to be closed down, including post offices, banks and schools. So I couldn’t get my mail that day. Nor could I go to the library to use the Internet. At that time I was not fully active on the whole Internet scene because social media did not really exist at that time. I mainly used the Internet to look up new movies that were coming out. However had Facebook, Twitter and YouTube existed at that time, you could guarantee that this would practically be the main topic everyone would be talking about.
After dropping off a load of laundry at the Laundromat, I stopped off at Broadway Pizza and also at Milagro’s, a health food deli that was located in Tivoli. They had the TV on and it was there where I finally got my first look at the chaos and devastation that occurred in New York City as the image of the burning towers appeared on the TV.
On one of the news segments they showed an image of a Boeing 747 jet plane smashing into the second tower of the World Trade Center. This all happened on national television and it was then that the reporters announced that it was an official terrorist attack on American soil at a magnitude not seen since Pearl Harbor during World War II, a day that came to be known as “the day of infamy.”
My initial reaction when I saw the plane smash into the South Tower was “Is this shit for real?” To some, people assumed that the footage of an airliner crashing into the Twin Towers looked like it could have been part of an action movie that was filming. However, the devastation proved to be all too real. People were shocked, devastated but at the same time they were cheering on the first responders (police, paramedics and the fire department officials that arrived on the scene in an attempt to rescue survivors when the towers collapsed and later when rescuers from all around the country converged on the remains of the World Trade Center.
In the days that followed, I watched the news because that’s what was on 24/7 during the remainder of that week and this was also at a time when I still had cable TV. I bought the newspapers that were out during the week. During that week, I along with the rest of the country learned all about the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden and so on and that the attacks were directed at us because Al Qaeda hated everything America stood for, namely freedom. I watched the speech where then-President George W. Bush declared a “war on terror” against Al Qaeda and all terrorist organizations throughout the world. The first target was the Taliban because Afghanistan was the country harboring Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Shortly after the attacks, Americans felt a wave of patriotism that had not been seen before or since.
However at the same time, America changed even more in the years after 9/11. More organizations were created for the purpose of security, including the Department of Homeland Security. Bin Laden was eventually tracked down and killed by Navy SEALs in 2011. We have been through a recession, two wars, another very controversial president (Barack Obama) and more social, political and economic problems than you can shake a fist at. Our international standing is not what it used to be and the country is more divided than it used to be. And we are on the verge of another election year where we will have to select a new president and one of the candidates is a woman (Hillary Rodham Clinton) who I definitely will not be voting for because I hate everything she stands for and I will just leave it at that.
As far as I go, 9/11 didn’t really affect me all that much. I didn’t have any relatives or anyone I know that died on that day, either as a bystander or as part of the rescue teams trying to save others. For me life went on as usual but it was a minor deciding factor for my family moving out of the Red Hook area a year later after all the city people started moving up to the area in the months afterward. However, 9/11 did have a positive significance for me because my youngest nephew was born on that day in 2007.
Unfortunately, this is going to be a short story about a national tragedy because it did not affect me at all. The reason why I decided to write this was because I felt obligated to get a 9/11 story out there and this probably would not be a memoir if I did not include a story about what I was doing on my generation’s “day of infamy.”
Summer has arrived at last. And with summer comes hot weather, trips to the beach, girls in bikinis and good times. Of course there was one year where summer sort of came early for me and it happened in the spring of 1996. I was in my junior year at Red Hook High School and for ten days in April I went with my Spanish class on a trip to Puerto Rico.
It was a Thursday when we left Red Hook High School to go down to JFK International Airport in New York City. And also of note the trip to and from Puerto Rico marked the only times that I was on an airline flight to date. The flight down took about six hours and when we landed at San Juan International Airport, it was pouring rain.
We checked into our hotel and got our room assignments. Since I was one of three guys (excluding my Spanish teacher’s husband) that were on the trip, we were assigned to one room while the girls were split up three to a room. As far as dinner goes, we were within walking distance of McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and other assorted fast food restaurants. Since Puerto Rico is still U.S. territory as opposed to being a foreign country, it was very likely that they would have the same things that we do.
Our first full day in Puerto Rico was a day of leisure. Most of the attractions in the area were closed that day due to it being Good Friday. We went out to breakfast at another hotel and took an afternoon trip to find the Hard Rock Café that was located in Old San Juan. After that, we went to the beach that was right across the street from our hotel and went for a dip in the Atlantic Ocean.
That night I got to roam the streets of San Juan by myself because there wasn’t really anything we could have done as a class, like go to a dance club because I would have been the only one that would have been able to get in. I was eighteen at the time, which to this day is still the legal drinking age in Puerto Rico and nearly all of my classmates were sixteen or seventeen.
Later that night, four of my classmates didn’t come back on time and my Spanish teacher started to worry. So I went out looking for them with my Spanish teacher’s husband to look for them and lo and behold my missing classmates were on their way back and from the looks of them they were drunk. And while drinking on the trip was a no-no (and not just because of the law), that didn’t stop anyone from doing so.
The previous night’s activities behind us, we went to the Yunque Rain Forest which was about an hour away from San Juan. It was really humid that day but the forest was beautiful. We walked around and went for a dip in a stream they had there. It was nice but kind of rocky so we had to be careful that we didn’t get banged up on the rocks.
After that we went to Luquillo Beach, one of the most famous beaches in Puerto Rico for a little while before we went back to San Juan. Apart from the fact that I had to hunt down a flower vendor to buy a flower for one classmate to give to a girl on the trip who obviously was not interested in him, that night passed by uneventfully.
The next day was Easter and while my Spanish teacher went to church with her family, we stayed in the hotel until we went to an old Spanish fort while on our way to Old San Juan. And here’s where one of my adventures on the trip truly began.
We were put into groups and we looked in the stores. We were planning to meet up at the Hard Rock Café afterwards. I went off to look at some stuff and next thing I knew everyone was gone. Since I was under the impression that they were planning to meet up at the Hard Rock Café, I decided to try and find my way there. I walked around for what seemed like hours and I kept asking for directions to the Hard Rock Café. I’m not sure if some of the people I came across understood me or not but the more I kept looking, the more I kept getting lost.
In the end, I went to a Ponderosa Steakhouse that just happened to be there at the time and I had lunch there being that I still had some time left before I had to meet the rest of my group assuming I could find them.
And as fate would have it, I eventually found our tour bus parked at the nearby park. I ended up waiting for everyone there and about twenty minutes later, the rest of my class came back and we went back to the hotel.
Our last night in San Juan was capped off with another trip to the beach and then going out to a fancy restaurant before going home to pack up.
The next morning we headed for our next stop: The city of Ponce, the other major city in Puerto Rico. We went sightseeing for a little while and went shopping as well. Shortly after that we went to our next hotel in nearby Parguera but not before we stopped off at a Spanish-American War memorial on the way. Parguera was pretty small compared from San Juan. It was a dock town and according to my Spanish teacher, Parguera was the Puerto Rican equivalent of Tivoli, a small town located within the township of Red Hook back in New York.
Our hotel in Parguera was located right on the waterfront and was a lot bigger than the hotel we stayed at in San Juan. It had its own dock complete with boat tours and a gift shop located in the courtyard along with the pool. The only thing really of note that happened our first night was that my Spanish teacher had a birthday for her youngest daughter and wanted everyone to be there.
The next morning, we went another beach which was on the Caribbean coast and we spent a few hours there swimming, walking around and having lunch there as well. Then when we got back to the hotel and were getting ready to charter a boat for a snorkeling trip we were going on that afternoon, I saw my Spanish teacher’s husband talking to this really beautiful girl. And at the time, I thought that she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She was from North Carolina and was on vacation in Puerto Rico with a friend’s family and as much as I wanted to spend some time with her getting to know her, I had to go with my class and get my snorkeling gear for the trip. I would definitely see her later on that day.
We made the boat and we headed out into the Caribbean. And I gotta tell you something. If I thought snorkeling was going to be easy, it actually isn’t. For one thing, whenever I went into the water I kept getting salt water in my mouth because my mouthpiece kept popping out on me. And then there was the fact that I almost didn’t get back in the boat. It took two people to pull me back on board. I guess I wasn’t in that good of shape back then. So I ended up spending the rest of the time on the boat.
When we returned to the dock, we ate dinner at the hotel restaurant and then we went on another boat ride, this time to Phosphorescent Bay. Phosphorescent Bay is so called because it seems like it glows in the dark. It looked pretty cool, especially when you stuck your hand in the water and pulled it out it looked like it glowed in the dark too. It was amazing.
Then sometime later after we got back from the Bay, we went to a pool hall in the center of town where everyone was playing pool. This was pretty much the only time I actually played pool. We were out until about midnight and pretty much everyone except for me was drinking and one of them was so under the influence that she went the wrong way to the hotel.
The next morning we were set to leave for our last stop on the trip where we were to spend the last two days of the trip. I ran into the girl from North Carolina and I spent a little time with her before the class checked out of the hotel. We exchanged addresses and I said goodbye to her. And I found out that she would be leaving Puerto Rico the same day that we would be and that she would also be leaving from San Juan, which was their next stop. So there would be a very good chance that I would see her again before I left.
Our next stop was the town of Aguadilla. This was more or less the only stop on the whole trip where not too much happened. The hotel we stayed at in Aguadilla was even bigger than the two previous hotels we stayed at.
That night while everyone else was doing god-knows-what, I hung out in the lobby writing a letter until I tried to go back to my hotel room only to find that my roommate locked me out! Apparently ever since he got turned down by the one girl on the trip, he had still not resolved his issues and was sleeping a lot and it got to the point where everyone was not too happy with him. With great reluctance and since I couldn’t get a spare key to my room, I ended up spending the night in a hotel room with some of my female classmates. And before you ask, nothing happened. I slept on the floor.
By the next morning everyone was pretty much beached-out and as it turned out, I was the only one who ended up going to Crashboat Beach with my Spanish teacher and her family. I remember Crashboat Beach for two reasons: 1) That there were a whole bunch of beach dogs there and 2) I ran into two beautiful girls on the beach that didn’t really understand English so that was kind of awkward especially since I was tripping over myself trying to practice my Spanish on them. And that was kind of ironic since Spanish was one of my best subjects in high school. Go figure. But I did manage to get their addresses so it wasn’t a total loss. Then there was also the fact that my Spanish teacher’s husband managed to talk me into buying a beer.
The rest of that day was spent going to shopping centers in Aguadilla and then with me taking a walk up a hill to Little Caesar’s to get a pizza. The distance from my hotel to there was about the same as the distance from my house to the Little Caesar’s in Mohawk. And that was the first time I ever had Little Caesar’s. Then later everyone gathered in the bar for a celebration of our last night in Puerto Rico before we went home.
The next morning was not good weather-wise. It was raining which kind of bookended the trip. We arrived in Puerto Rico when it was raining and now we were going to leave Puerto Rico and it was raining. We were supposed to go to a cavern on the way back to San Juan only to find that they cancelled the tour on account of the weather. So instead we stopped off at a shopping center and then we went to the Bacardi Rum Factory where once again the advantage of being the legal drinking age in Puerto Rico served me well because I was the only one who got to sample the rum. They mixed it with Coke so that was the only time that I had Rum and Coke. It wasn’t bad but I actually liked the factory tour.
Then half an hour later it was off to the airport to board the flight back to New York. And true to my word I did run into the girl I met in Parguera who was waiting for a flight to Atlanta. So I talked to her again briefly while I was waiting for my flight. At that point I didn’t really want to leave Puerto Rico but then again if I did stay, I wouldn’t be here writing this story now. Unfortunately, we didn’t really keep in touch over the years. Story of my life. But I will never forget that girl as long as I live.
And so the whole class got on the flight back to New York and life went on. So this is about as close to a coming-of-age story as you’re gonna get from me. My experience in Puerto Rico to this day is probably one of the best experiences of my life to date. I hope to go back someday when I can afford to but I can rest knowing that for those ten days in the spring of 1996, I had found paradise.