The events I’m supposed to remember, the ones that are supposed to have changed my life, are 9/11 and the Challenger explosion. And I do remember them: I was in my fourth grade homeroom, getting ready for handwriting, when Mrs. Gale came to tell us about the explosion, and I was just out of teaching a rhetoric class when another grad student asked me where she could find a classroom with cable TV on 9/11. So I remember them, and I even had ties to them — one of the teachers at our school had been a finalist for teacher position on the challenger, and I had friends in New York, including one who saw the second tower fall outside her window the day after losing her job. But they aren’t the things that changed my world.
Those things were my father’s death, which I don’t remember the date and time of — I wasn’t there when it happened, and I was only five years old — but which I have a visceral reaction to every year on that date — and watching the vote on the “first” Gulf War come in on January 15, 1991. I was fifteen years old and sitting in a mess of sleeping bags and blankets on my best friend’s living room floor, and we were watching the vote on the tiny television we’d dragged in there to watch movies the night before. We had been organizing against the coming war, which we knew would happen but still believed, maybe, that somehow we could stop. But that January day, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, we sat there and watched senator after senator vote to authorize the use of force in the Gulf. The air war started a few days later; the ground war began on my best friend’s birthday. The only dissenting vote from a Republican in either house came from our own Senator Chuck Grassley. I’m fairly sure it’s the only vote of his I’ve ever agreed with. He spoke at my high school when I was a senior, and I asked him about it, and he said that he simply felt that not every other avenue had been tried, and I respect him for that still, although I wasted no time at that event lambasting him with the rest of my classmates over gays in the military.
The war started for me that day, and it never really ended. We were bombing Iraq with some regularity all through the 1990s. Economic sanctions imposed on Iraq resulted in the deaths of thousands there during that decade. The Iraq war that started in 2003 seemed to me just a continuation, not a new event, and the war in Afghanistan that started a month after 9/11 seemed all just another part of what George Bush the first called the “new world order.” That’s what changed things for me.
My mother graduated from college in the spring of 1968. At one point in grad school round one, I was immersed in reading about that period as part of the research for a book I was then trying to write. I asked her one day what that was like. I couldn’t imagine the experience of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy being shot within weeks of each other. I thought it must have felt as though the whole world was falling apart. What did she remember about it, I wanted to know.
She thought about it awhile. “I was very absorbed with your father, and with worrying about getting into graduate school,” she said. (This was around the time she was also applying to secretarial school programs in case her PhD plans didn’t work out.) Finally she came up with something. After Dr. King’s assassination, Cornell University sent a letter to my godmother, my mother’s best friend, who had applied to graduate school there, saying they were establishing a scholarship for minorities, and did she belong to any minority group? Elizabeth, who is smart alecky as well as smart, wrote back and said yes, she was Phi Beta Kappa and a church-going Christian.
You can’t predict what will change your life. I’ve spent twenty years getting told I’m unamerican, that I should move to Canada or Russia or China. I’ve seen institutions I thought well of disappointment me again and again. It doesn’t particularly faze me anymore. The first cut is the deepest, and that’s as true of political betrayal as it is of romantic loss.
A lot of people will spend today in remembrance, and an equal number will spend the day trying not to remember. I think surviving is always a balancing act between the two. I’ll never forget my father; I’ll never stop trying to change the world, but I can’t spend my whole life on either one. Among other things, I’m going to have this kid to raise and take care of, and he will someday have to encounter his own losses. I don’t know what one does about that, except to keep on living.
Somewhere out there, perhaps, are still the three installments of The New Rambler I wrote in the weeks after 9/11. That was back in the days before blogs, when The New Rambler went out as an email, and I got around to putting it up on the website when I had the time. I never got around to it with those issues, and they were lost when the computer I wrote them on died. If anyone reading this happens still to have copies, I’d be grateful if you could send them to me, for the sake of the historical record.