We were down in Boynton Beach. It was a Tuesday morning book club meeting, and I was giving a talk to about 50 retirees, mostly from the Northeast. A few minutes into the program, a cell phone went off in the audience. Then another. Soon, cell phones were beeping and chirping everywhere. It was Sept. 11.
The local phone lines were jammed the rest of the day. Everyone in Florida concerned, calling up North, wanting to know what was going on. Then it began to reverse.
Before the dust had cleared in New York and Washington, it seemed all trails were leading back to Florida. No, that wasn’t an accurate picture. Only about two-thirds of the trails led to Florida. That was how many of the hijackers were reported to have lived and plotted in beach communities around the state, secretly sneering at the blasphemous lifestyle of their infidel American neighbors, then getting drunk and buying lap dances to maintain their cover.
In recent years, Florida has somewhat reveled in a kind of flashy seediness, a perverse glamour that spawned "Miami Vice," revitalized the historic Art Deco district and nurtured its own bizarro literary sub-genre. Within 24 hours of a Boeing 767 striking the first World Trade tower, this reputation went off the meter. Even by jaded Florida standards, there was nothing remotely chic, exciting or funny to be mined here. Federal agents searched apartments, combed flight school records, interviewed motel managers.
What the heck was going on? This was evil on a world-class scale, global in reach, from mountain bases near Kabul and Chechnya, down into Sudan and Yemen, over to alleys in Hamburg, Germany, and off to clandestine meetings with Iraqi intelligence agents in undisclosed locations in Europe. The next thing we saw on the nightly news was situation maps of the United States with a few lighted dots here and there, tracking suspects-Maryland, California, Massachusetts … and about 20 dots lighting up Florida.
I felt guilty, or maybe it was shame. Of course that was stupid. It didn’t make any sense to react that way but I did, and I know a lot of others did, too. I was embarrassed for my state before the rest of the country. No, that wasn’t really it. Then I figured it out. I was angry at these people for living here.
I know this state isn’t always a walk in the park, but I also know we’re mostly good. And these people lived on our streets, went to our schools. Some brought their own families and possibly even received waves and courtesies from the families next door-the kind of families they were planning to shatter all the while.
When the attacks came, I was in a heavy stretch of the book tour circuit. Like most Americans, I suddenly stopped and stared at a job and daily routine that had lost all meaning. There was initial indecision. What was appropriate? Do we still go to work? Should a business stay open or close? I kept moving from city to city. People didn’t seem as interested in books anymore, but they did want to gather and talk.
More agents were arriving in Hollywood and Deerfield Beach and Boynton when I left the east coast. It was Sept. 12, and I headed across the state for dinner with a Sarasota book club. I like to photograph the state when I’m on the road, and the drive along the south of Lake Okeechobee is especially picturesque. The vast vistas of sugar cane along the Loxahatchee, quaint pastel homes and lush yards in South Bay.the cute little yellow crop dusters in Belle Glade.
I was about to cross the Sarasota County line when the radio announced that two of the hijackers were traced to a flight school in Venice.
On Sept. 13, I was scheduled to address the student body at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. The day before, federal agents had arrived with search warrants. The terrorist who hit the second World Trade tower had graduated from the school. Reporters arrived. The school was stunned on two levels.
I phoned the English professor who arranged the visit, offering to cancel. He said he had discussed it with his department head and they decided they definitely wanted the event to go on; the school needed some reason to gather and talk. I expressed concern that my material is mostly humorous. He said that might be what was needed most. Obviously we needed to discuss what was going on, but then don’t be afraid to move on to a lighter side.
I’ve done about 300 events in the last three years. This would be the most memorable.
It was one of those huge academic auditoriums with a large bowl of banked seating rising steeply, all these young people looking down at me. I’ve never seen a crowd so still, quiet and attentive. Usually there’s some talking or rustling of books. Tonight, nothing. You could calibrate a sound meter.
I decided to open by reading one of the few serious passages in my books. It was about how divided we’ve become as a people, so quick to break off in our own little groups and quarrel and blame each other over the trivial. It was about how blessed we are because generations before us united and sacrificed in times of crisis. And it was about hope-the hope that we, too, could somehow unite again, and it wouldn’t take a crisis to do it.
I looked up. Total silence. In the humor business, that’s usually a very bad thing. But this was different. In the piece I was reading, a political candidate chucks his canned remarks, jumps off the stage and walks around the audience speaking extemporaneously. I stood up and began walking around the room, my legs feeling like they were made of concrete. I looked at individual faces, all these people barely into adulthood, the ones who have just inherited this New World. Then I read a line that was more ironic than funny. I was surprised when the crowd broke up laughing. I abandoned most of my regular presentation at that point and began taking questions, and we just talked for a while about all kinds of things, writing, Florida, history, books-but not much about recent events. A few of the kids in that audience might someday remember me and my talk, or maybe not. But I’ll never forget them. I had come there to entertain, maybe help them a little, but instead they were giving me a boost. I wished there were a camcorder on my shoulder so others could see the earnestness and resilience in those young faces.
I checked into a motel on the beach. The night manager asked if I’d heard that a couple of the hijackers had caused a disturbance at the Pink Pony up the street the night before the attacks. I said I hadn’t.
The alarm clock went off. Checkout time. I turned the TV on NBC while I made trips loading the car. They mentioned something about the Pink Pony.
Back on the road. It had been the same thing for four days now. Every other overpass and bridge had an American flag hanging from it, or a spray-painted bed sheet, "United We Stand." Fast-food signs on U.S. 1: "Pray For Our Country." More flags at half-staff outside Exxon and BP and Texaco stations. The separation of church and state fell; orange bulbs of portable traffic safety signs alternately flashed "Right Lane Closed," "God Bless America." All of us saw this everywhere we lived, but it made an extra impression if you were traveling. It absolutely never, ever stopped. From Palm Beach to Fort Myers, Sarasota, Tampa Bay, Orlando, Jacksonville and all the towns in between. The state was like one big parade route, homemade signs and red-white-and-blue ribbons everywhere. People in the convenience stores with flag T-shirts and flag caps. Drivers pulled the flag inserts out of newspapers and taped them up in their windows. And you realized it was happening everywhere in the country, in 49 other states. Maybe you wondered when there’s ever been anything like this before, and unless you were born before 1941, you couldn’t remember.
That Friday was the National Day of Prayer. We canceled an event in Jacksonville. I had been driving up A1A in heavy rain and pulled over at a motel in St. Augustine Beach. The local paper said agents were searching a residence in town. I settled into the room and glued myself to the TV. They broke into coverage of the rescue effort in New York with news of Tropical Storm Gabrielle, four mph short of being an official hurricane. The map showed the projected path. The outer bands would reach Jacksonville to the north and Daytona to the south. St. Augustine Beach in the middle. Only in a week like this could you lose track of a near hurricane. Water started coming under the door. Night fell. Then the power went out.
I got tired of lying in the damp room and went to the window. I saw a candle flickering in the motel office. I walked against the wind along the side of the building, and they came and opened up the side door, then closed it quickly before any more sideways rain could come in. It was unnaturally dark outside, faint outlines of bending palm trees and trash flying through the air. The emergency batteries had died a half hour ago; and the room was still and quiet, no air-conditioning or hum of electric anything, just the muted wind outside blowing against the glass. We talked about New York and Washington. There were two assistant managers in the office with me. One was from India, and he seemed extra vocal about the attacks. My impression was that he felt maybe he had to be, lest other Americans act on his appearance. Sad but probably true.
Then we were quiet for a while. The other manager said they usually have to keep an eye out for looters when a storm knocks out power because, after all, this was Florida. But he didn’t seem that concerned this night. Funny, but we just had the feeling that even the looters weren’t in the mood.