Late Summer's Day Nightmare

Stephen M. Hanan

© Copyright 2005 by Stephen M. Hanan


 It was a bright, sunny morning that Tuesday in September, just over four years ago. I had just gotten off the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Red Line train at the Jackson Boulevard station in downtown Chicago before ascending up to street level via escalator. I began walking westward through the concourse that connects the State Street subway (the name for the underground portion of the Red Line) with the Dearborn Street subway. I had been walking the walk along this identical route for years. At the end of the concourse, instead of descending into the depths of the other catacomb – also known as the CTA Blue Line – I would climb the stairs up to Dearborn Street. The lobby of the concrete monolith I worked in (the Kluczynski Building), located at 230 S. Dearborn, was just a few steps from the portal of the cavern from which I would emerge. My employer was a federal law enforcement agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration, that occupied three floors of the 39-story structure.

This morning, though, something was different, very different. As I made my way through the brilliantly illuminated tunnel, lined with polished marble, other commuters were coming towards me. It was normal for people to be walking in opposite directions through here at this time of day (9 am). However, something was wrong. Not only was the volume of people coming towards me greater than usual, but they were walking at a pace atypical for people on their way to work. They appeared to me to be almost running. It was not until I went to mail some letters at the Loop Branch of the post office, adjacent to my office building, that I became aware of the impetus for the flight suggested by the other people in the concourse. In the lobby of the post office was a television that had been placed there several years before to amuse customers while they waited in line. What was on the TV this morning was not entertainment. Displayed in split-screen fashion were horrific scenes of smoke rising from the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. I asked another patron if he knew what was happening. He wasn’t sure, but replied that he heard that either a small plane or helicopter had struck the northern VA landmark.

I headed over to my office building and saw our Special Agent recruiter standing outside with her secretary. I asked her if I should go on up. She said I could if I wanted to, but I would probably be sent home by our administrative officer. I went in and passed through the existing security, established shortly after the Oklahoma City federal building bombing more than six years before. At this point in time, there had apparently been no general orders issued to evacuate. The guards were still allowing people to enter after identifying themselves. I decided to turn around and leave.

Before going home, I went to a nearby currency exchange to purchase a new 30-day pass (allowing me unlimited rides on the bus and elevated train combination I used to get to work, valid for 30 days from the first day it was used), as the one I had was about to expire. No sooner had I entered than the manager announced that he was closing for the day. Although he did not offer an explanation, it was becoming more and more apparent that the entire Loop was shutting down as a precaution. From there, I began heading for the subway. On the way over, I ran into a former Special Agent who had retired earlier that year. He had been called downtown to testify in one of his old cases. I asked him if he had heard what was going on. He said that he’d been listening on his car radio all the way in. After wishing him good luck in court, I left for home.

After getting back , I turned on the TV. I told our daughters, the two still living at home then, what had happened. The three of us stared at the screen in disbelief as the wanton acts were replayed over and over. My thoughts were colored by feelings of rage, sadness, and futility all rolled into one composite emotion. How could people do such things to other human beings and for what purpose ?

My feelings of incredulity and the non-stop TV coverage which began that day and continued uninterrupted for many days thereafter reminded me of another tragic event nearly 38 years earlier that had transformed a beautiful, late, fall afternoon into a national landscape of shock, disbelief, and mourning.

On that Friday, November 22, 1963, I was a senior at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia. As we were all milling around in the hallways following our last class, we began overhearing murmurings that our president, John F. Kennedy, had been shot. Once outside, I saw another student holding a transistor radio – a relic of yesterday – up to his-ear. “The president’s croaked !!” he exclaimed. Although the shocking news itself should have been uppermost in my mind, I couldn’t help thinking how crude and disrespectful of him to put it in those terms. As my friends and I piled into the family car (my father had retired several years before on a disability from his job as a painter and would sometimes pick us up after school), we listened to the radio in stunned silence to the broadcaster who was already announcing funeral plans for our fallen leader as well as the names of foreign dignitaries who would be attending. Once home, my mother offered her own reaction to what had happened. Having grown up during the Great Depression and lived through World War II, she tended to be somewhat cynical and jaded. Despite her prior life experiences, even she was moved enough to shake her head and remark at the “shame of a young man dying that way.”

Even though other presidents in our history had been assassinated – Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley – the other names were so far in the past, the textbook accounts of those events appeared sterile and unreal to me by comparison. I couldn’t help thinking regarding what had happened in Dallas, “Stuff like this doesn’t happen here. We’re supposed to be role models for the rest of the world. This is the sort of thing that happens in Third World countries.” I thought this even though our past suggested otherwise. Not long after I got home, my wife called from Taft High School on the city’s northwest side, where she was employed as a school nurse for the Chicago Public Schools. She was becoming quite concerned because she had been unable to reach me at work. She had no way of knowing that I had never gone to my office. We were still in the Stone Ages – we did not get our first cell phones until several months later. She told me that the principal had spoken over the school’s PA system to reassure the students that they were in a safe place and told them that they could go home if they felt that they needed to.

After two days, we were called back to work. Eventually, more stringent security than was already in place was instituted at our building as well as at all other federal buildings. The closest we or anyone we know had come to being personally touched by this disaster was a niece living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A flight attendant friend of hers based in Boston who was to have been on one of the ill-fated planes that lifted off from Logan International Airport – both of which were diverted into the World Trade Center – had unknowingly changed her work schedule before that day.

The thousands of people who died on 9/11 were no less real than that one man who died in November 1963. However, I had felt more of a connection with JFK as did others of my generation. Quotations attributed to him are scattered throughout our high school yearbook (Overbrook High School, Class of June 1964); e.g. “The torch has been passed to a new generation.” He had been a symbol and role model, a symbol of youth, and a promise – albeit unfulfilled – of what America could be. And now, he was gone. So much of an impact did his death have on me, that when our senior class took its trip to Washington, D.C., the following May, a friend and I opted to visit his grave in Arlington National Cemetery instead of joining our other classmates to watch student officers lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Because of our decision to visit JFK’s final resting place and the eternal flame marking it, we had to hurry to rejoin the rest of our classmates who were starting to go back to the boat for our return trip along the Potomac River.

With the passage of time, the cataclysmic events of September 11, 2001, have faded away like a bad dream that never happened – with all due respect to the victims, family members, and friends left behind – just as the other event which had occurred many years before.

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