Monday, September 10, 2007

Where were you when ...

They say every generation has this moment. For my parents, it was where were you when you learned JFK was dead. Until six years ago, it was where were you when we landed on the moon. But Sept. 11, 2001, is a date of bifurcation that eclipses many other dates across generations.

I was pulling up to a steep embankment in Surry, where I was scheduled to move a group of 100 sheep that day. A bulletin came over NPR that a commercial airliner had crashed into one of the towers of the world trade center and burst into flame. When I got back into the truck, another bulletin said that a second plane had crashed. It was becoming apparent that this wasn't an accident.

Everyone on the East coast remembers what a beautiful clear day it was. It's almost maudlin to mention it now. But it was. It was one of those days -- even before people filled with hate flew planes into buildings -- that I took a moment to simply enjoy being alive.

Now this particular embankment that I was preparing to graze is part of a Federal flood control project. Before I finished preparing the site, the ranger's truck pulled up and informed me that all Federal facilities had been ordered into a lockdown because a plane had hit the pentagon. Another plane had crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania.

But when sheep are out of feed, you have to move them.

I stopped in at the house to see what was on TV, and watched the plane hit the second tower. Over and over again. And again. I still have nightmares sometimes with images of little specks falling from the flaming buildings, and realizing that those specks were human beings: somebody's lover, sister, father, somebody's baby. Then watching the tower fall.

But when sheep are out of feed, you have to move them.

I had an appointment with a friend who was going to help me move these sheep. Under most circumanstances, this is my favorite bit of work. The sheep go from one set of fields over a footbridge and along a snowmobile trail and power line right or way and over the top of the flood control dam. It's about five miles, and takes between 2.5 and 4 hours, depending on the fitness and cooperation of the sheep. The bridge is the hardest part.

Then I remembered that my friend had a son living in Manhattan. I expected I wouldn't see her, but she showed up.

When sheep are out of feed, you have to move them.

She was carrying her cell phone, just a little crazy about the fact that she hadn't heard from her son, but also aware that he wouldn't usually be anywhere near the World Trade Center and hoping that he hadn't made a special trip that day. And hoping that he'd be able to get a call through to her to let her know he and his were all right. Of course, the cell phone had no signal on the mountain.

We moved the sheep, and when she got home there was a message from her son that he was okay.

Over the next few days, the thing I remember the most was how quiet it was in the places where I was working -- mostly power lines two or three miles from the nearest roads and houses. No airplanes. I had a lot of time alone with my thoughts. I raged at the monsters that did this; I ached for the people who were lost and for the ones left behind. I thanked my lucky stars that none of my own ones had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I raged at the President for his inept and inarticulate response -- something I still do today -- and I wondered if there were other shoes fixing to drop.

What struck me was that in my job, which at that time was full time shepherding, I was one of the few people I knew whose job didn't more or less come to a standstill that week. Other farmers of course -- cows still need milking, and when sheep are out of feed, you have to move them. I was also one of the few that had very little access to the TV news. I usually left the house at first light and got home in the dark with just enough energy to shower and flop into bed. I probably only saw the tower fall 50 times, unlike most folks who probably saw the clip hundreds if not thousands of times during those first few days.

People have said that stupidity is the most powerful force in the universe, but I think it's hatred. If you think about the hate that started the attacks that we've come to call nine-eleven, and the changes it -- and the reciprocal, aimless hatred that it engendered, it's pretty hard to think of something more powerful.

I don't really have a point in all this. Just thoughts rattling around in my head.

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