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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

The traditional gift for a tenth anniversary is made of tin.

Perhaps that is why the tenth anniversary of the terrible, momentous events of September 11 are bringing out the conspiracy theories again. Apparently nothing got the doubters going quite like the structural damage of the Pentagon, which seemed to them impossible to square with a commercial jetliner going into the side of this building. They don't see airplane debris (or if they do, it was what was surreptitiously brought there later, no matter that it would be hard to hide such maneuvers in the hours following one of the most well-publicized and photographed events of the century). Every picture of this site has been scrutinized, stared at until it's a miracle the photos themselves didn't burn, and reposted online overlaid with impressive-looking lines, arrows, and angles supposedly pointing out the fact that there is something being hidden from us.

Of course there is something hidden: the answer why. Not the complex, distant historical answer; political theorists have plenty of explanations, most of which make sense and most of which none of us have any use for. But the answer why destruction and death rained suddenly one beautiful blue-sky day, and made us wonder: God, why?

According to the experts who have considered the proliferation of conspiracy theories in the wake of large and effectively incomprehensible events, it is more comforting to believe not that we are random targets but rather are worthy of elaborate, careful constructions of huge scope intended to dupe us. We are prized. And the long unraveling--the deceptions never fully unreeled, they are that big--keeps the thing from ever having an end. We can study it forever. It is never over; "over" is the point at which you bury the dead.

It is as impossible to describe what was truly felt that day as to catch the tail of a kite, line cut, that becomes smaller and smaller against the white of a large sun. Everyone has their story, every detail etched with acid on the memory's plate. You remember exactly where you were when you heard. Or, for so many of my friends, where they watched the black smoke billowing into the sky, which building roof or avenue they stood on as they watched a tall tower sink to the ground like a poleaxed animal. That sight was impossible to fully grasp either with eye or emotion. The gray ash fell everywhere over the city, and then our world.

I know exactly where I was, and why. My child's second birthday. The parents visiting. The phone call, bizarrely from across the ocean, the voice asking in French: Are you all right?

As we sat eating breakfast outdoors on the patio, the planes must have gone directly overhead; they followed the line of the Hudson River south to reach their objectives.

Later, the first time I revisited the city that had been like my second parents, the city that raised me to adulthood, the bus came around the spiral of roadway pouring us into the Lincoln Tunnel. I saw that great cityscape, but now with something missing that had seemed it would always be there (the Twin Towers were how I, directionally challenged, oriented myself when emerging from the subway: ah, there--that's south, then). The gasp undid me.

When people hear that September 11 is my son's birth date, they for a moment look stunned, as if they don't know how to respond. Is it a tragedy? No, not for me. It allows the happiness of hopeful new life to pull on the other end of the line that is pulling back with eternal sadness. I don't know why, either.

This week, as if on cue, the leaves started falling from the trees.