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9/11 made America look at its foundations


It’s strange, sometimes, the details you remember.

For me, whenever I think of it, the first image that funnels into my brain is my right shoe. A black, Stacy Adams Madison cap toe oxford.

I was staring at that shoe, tying its laces while sitting in front of the television, when the first plane hit.

My oldest daughter, Jessica, then a sixth-grader, was getting ready for school. I was getting ready for my job as publisher of the Alamogordo Daily News.

When I arrived at work, our whole staff was kicking into high gear. We had a lot of work to do.

Though it was a bright clear morning on the East Coast, it was dark and rainy in Alamogordo.

In the Daily News office, we watched events unfold on an old, black-and-white television with – I kid you not – aluminum foil on the rabbit ears to improve reception.

When the first tower fell, someone shouted, and we looked, incredulous, “What do you mean, the tower fell?” Then, we gathered around the TV, watching the replays. When the second tower fell, we gasped, then stared. Most of us had tears in our eyes. We were all trying to sort out everything – our personal feelings, our work, our national shock.

Then, it got personal. We learned one of Alamogordo’s own, retired police officer Al Marchand, was on one of the planes that hit New York City’s World Trade Center. That information turned our coverage from a huge national and international news event into a local news story.

As an afternoon newspaper whose deadline was around 11 a.m., we had to do a great deal of work in a short time. As soon as we got the afternoon edition off to the press, we turned around and created a special morning “EXTRA” edition for the next day.

In old movies, you sometimes see newsboys out on the street, yelling “Extra, extra! Read all about it!”

Sept. 11 was the first and, so far, only time I’ve ever been involved in an extra edition as a journalist.

The events created rollercoaster emotions, by turns horror, anger, sadness, frustration, helplessness, curiosity, uncertainty, worry.

I had known Marchand in his capacity as an Alamogordo policeman, and respected him greatly. His loss was a big one to the Alamogordo community. At 44, he should have had a whole lot of life ahead of him.

As if the sky were mourning our local and national losses, the weather in Alamogordo stayed dark and rainy the whole week. The combination of emotions and images of the week were disturbing, confusing, frustrating and upsetting. 

That’s probably why my memory takes me back first to the mundane image of tying my shoe. The shoe is something normal, something routine, something my brain can readily process.

Even today, 20 years later, the events of 9/11, and all the subsequent events related directly or indirectly to that day, are difficult to process.

For several months after 9/11, we saw flags, patriotism and lots of togetherness. Americans, for a sustained period, put a premium on unity and people.

Unfortunately, when those feelings began to fade, our national discourse seems to have devolved and declined ever since.

These days, it feels as if there are five or six different Americas, and none of them can agree with any of the others about anything. Social media provide the gasoline and oxygen to fuel the flames of discord.

While we never want to re-live the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, it’s worth looking back to the weeks and months following that tragedy, when we, as Americans, showed we could unite.

Today, 20 years later, we need to remember those days. We need to look down, past today’s chaos, disillusion and politicized anger, to our common foundations.

Maybe we need, as a way to re-set, to look at something normal and familiar, the many things we Americans still have in common, basic things we can readily process.

Maybe we need to stare at our shoes.

Richard Coltharp