September 11 in Boston carries that odd guilt along with the sadness and anger virtually all Americans feel. Just this week, I’ve heard and read more from people ashamed a decade later that the terrorists left from Logan that morning.
That night, I became aware, frighteningly aware, of what we heard and did not hear…in our skies.
Many country folk as well as virtually all city dwellers have commercial aircraft as ambient noise. The hums, drones and occasional roars are literally in the air of modern life. For the vast majority of us who are not very close to airports, these sounds are only remarkable in odd conditions, like huge banks of heavy clouds that amplify the engines.
So around here on 9/11 and two weeks after, two sonic phenomena changed it all for us. First, no commercial or private aircraft were allowed anywhere in our local skies. We were inured to the jet noises, low, powerful and distant…and suddenly we were aware of what was not above us by its absence.
Then, far less frequently, we’d hear the fighter jets. Military planes patrolled far too frequently after 9/11. If the intent was partially to comfort Bostonians, it failed. Those were war machine, as unlike regular airplanes as PT boats are to yachts. These wailed above us, “People want to kill us. We are ready to kill them first.”
As a child, I recall hearing military jets at night. Those were rare, as I did not live near airbases, even though I was born on an Army base (artillery). Fighters on night training and maneuvers would occasionally pass over where I was living. That, in fact, was both comforting and exciting. To us boomers, particularly boys, we romanticized WWII as our parents had. Jets with machine guns and missiles under their wings were the stuff both of plastic models and puerile fantasies.
My childhood also brought the Soviet menace and yellow peril scares that remain with at least the early boomers in odd ways. To hear the TV reporters, pols, and our parents say it then, the Chinese maybe and the Russian commies for sure were likely to attack at any moment.
They of course remembered Pearl Harbor and the horrors of the war. We were unborn fruits of their relieved return and celebration, not living that except through movies and books. As the Korean Police Action (as it was originally euphemized) plodded its bloody way, we were subject to regular terror drills in anticipation of a Russian missile assault.
What now might seem comical to today’s youth sure wasn’t then. The dreadful duck-and-cover drills and films spoke to the hopeless of the nation within the reach of annihilation at any moment. Asininely, teachers would have my entire generation tucking ourselves under our desks in the even of a missile attack, as though that offered any meaningful protection.
Moreover, we were conditioned to a sound virtually unknown to modern youth — air-raid sirens. Cacophonous loudspeakers on poles are largely gone, but were ubiquitous after WWII, originally left over from the war, but put to scary good use to warn and/or terrify the children.
When we heard the sirens and the concomitant or alternating Civil Defense alerts on the radio, we never knew whether it was a drill or death. Hell of a way to grow up. To this day, boomers’ hearts thump and lungs heave hearing those siren bellows if we’re near a place that still tests them.
Then in high school and college, Latin and Greek professors would have us read commentary from ancient historians about such terror. They wrote of the very real possibilities of their city-state or such being totally destroyed by war, with those who survived enslaved by the conquerors. In fact, then the likelihood was great. A single battle could literally decimate an army, killing a tenth. A war could mean a people disappear.
As a boomer, I related to that, as we all do now in the new age of terrorism. People have feared destruction by those sworn enemies for a long time and usually for good reasons.
It is not a way we would choose to live, but it is how we do live.
I’d like to say the boomers as a group survived, with some implication that all is swell. Yet, we boomers were scared and scarred by the fears of death and war where we lived. We still feel it and the post-9/11 version heaps on more of the same. I am sad that my children also think and feel that there are bad people who would kill them, lots of them, any time. The best outcome would be if we and they and their children if necessary can work to restructure our world so that children can stop feeling those fears.