By Alan Catlin
Ever since I had seen the photo exhibit Requiem: By Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina in May of 2001 at the Eastman House in Rochester, I had been a changed man. In that exhibit, the horrors of war they depicted, from the “Girl in the Photograph” to the “Young Girl with Two Kittens, A Chicken, and Her Father’s Rifle,” I was rendered speechless. The poems I wrote to these titles seemed inadequate to express the grief they contained. I had never seen and, to date, have not seen another exhibit quite like this one; one that could be described as life changing, vision altering, compelling, in ways that words cannot render.
I was also struck by an almost Zen quiet of a white painted wall, a simple table with a display of lilies and a stack of business cards with information for Viet Center Readjustment Counseling on them. That, and the silence of the Vietnamese viewers of the exhibit, as they soundlessly slipped among the viewers taking in the images that were their legacy more than ours. There was the extra dimension of an eerie quiet at the exhibit that made the experience so compelling; it was sort of like being at a funeral that had lasted thirty-five years and wasn’t over yet.
Over the next four and half months, I worked on a collection of poems inspired directly by these photos. This was a deeply felt, consuming project, unlike any other I had attempted previously. This project had to be a statement made through a linked series images with a suggested musical accompaniment; a sort of symphony, no, an actual Requiem, to somehow allay the silence that surrounded all these horrific pictures of war. It would be my definitive statement on the futility of these kinds of conflicts and a tribute to all those people, photographers, and subjects, who had died there. And by implication, it would be a statement against the inevitability of future wars, other senseless confrontations. What a naive fool I was.
The draft for that collection was finished the week of September 3rd, 2001, my birthday week, and I thought about taking a break before revising the collection and seeking publication; Requiem could wait awhile. “The war is over” as Jim Morrison sang. The war is never over. How could I have thought otherwise?
And, of course, we all know what happened after that, on a beautiful September Tuesday, the week of September 10th.
I had called a friend that day in Michigan before taking a bus to the bar I was working in but he wasn’t in. As I had time to kill, roughly a half hour, I turned on CNN. I was reading a novel and not really paying close attention to the news of the moment, something involving some kind of small plane crashing into the World Trade Center. Or so it was reported at the time.
I looked up from my book to see some black smoke coming from one of the upper floors and thought little about it as the damage appeared minimal. That is until this black shadow of death in the form of another, much larger plane crossed the screen and crashed into the second tower. “That was no accident,” I said out loud to no one. Called my wife at her work and told her to prepare for something truly momentous and, most likely, awful.
It seems somewhat pretentious to say that what happened downtown with those planes had a direct impact on where I would be that day for some nine hours, a hundred fifty miles or so from Manhattan, but it did. A fair portion of the staff were college students at the University of New York at Albany with direct ties to the Metropolitan area. Some even had people downtown in the center, or, on the ground, nearby. Like one of the night guys whose twin brother worked in the WTC and whose sister did as well. His father worked in a neighboring building and the night guy was frantic to reach home by phone for news. Needless to say, all the lines were jammed, inoperable, or unresponsive.
The night waitress’s first cousin was a New York fireman. Her father, as well. Though no one knew that at the time. When she got to work, around five, nearly hysterical surrounded by televisions, ten in all, showing the same horrific images, minute by minute, hour by hour until it became almost unbearable and I asked her,” Erica, what’s wrong, what is going on with you?”
“They’re in there.”
“Charlie. My father.”
“He’s my cousin. My first cousin. He’s like a brother to me. He’s a fireman. So is my father.”
And it’s busy in the bar. Very busy. The busiest Tuesday I ever worked, outside of a special holiday like St Patrick’s Day, and I’m surrounded by people, full tables, a near hysterical waitress, a drunk night bartender, who wants to drive home and the towers falling, falling, falling down.
But, somehow, I talk the bartender out of driving home. His brother, sister, and father are okay. I think, maybe I got through to him by saying, “And how do you think they’d feel if you got killed today driving home?”
And Erica’s Dad and Charlie would be okay too, miraculously, but Charlie’s would be killed when that passenger plane crashes on Far Rockaway a few weeks later. What are the odds of surviving 9-11 as a fireman and having a plane fall on your house? Enough for Erica to need a semester’s compassionate leave from college in her senior year. But she comes back and she works Tuesday nights again and graduates. I like this kind of ending to 9-11. Erica is a good kid; a beautiful, smart, funny young lady and you want her to be okay.
Unlike the kid who calls the bar around six-thirty at night wanting to know if the free beer and chicken wings, Albany Democratic party for the primary election, is still on. It’s been roughly eight hours plus since I started seeing those towers going down and hearing all the stories of the dead and the presumed dead, and the hopefully not dead, and I all I can say is, “They just blew up the World Trade Center, probably the most significant event that has happened in your, or anyone else’s, lifetime, and you’re worried about free beer and chicken wings?”
If he had an answer to that question, I didn’t hear it.
I didn’t sleep well that night or for a long time after. I never revised that manuscript either.
Alan Catlin has been publishing for five decades; from the mimeos to the Internet. He has published over sixty chapbooks and full-length books of prose and poetry. His most recent full-length book of poetry is American Odyssey from Future Cycle Press. Alan is also an editor and contributor at misfitmagazine.net.