How A Smoke Filled Sky Helped Me Understand My Father

Note: Because of Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim ban, I fear that this essay may be read as a sort of “Never Forget” narrative. It’s not. It’s not about terrorism or war. It’s about the impossibility of understanding someone else’s tragedy. It’s about the failures of images to communicate our experience.

In my AP U.S. History class, when Mr. Davis asked if anyone’s father had been to Vietnam, I was a little shocked that mine was the only hand raised. I had heard all my life about draft dodgers, but hadn’t realized that I was surrounded by them, had been to their homes, ridden in their minivans and eaten their afterschool snacks. My father taught us that when you break the law, or any rule for that matter, you are declaring yourself better than everyone else. You are saying you are above the law, and this sometimes is a matter of life and death, your life in exchange for someone else’s death. Breaking the rules, he taught us, is the highest form of egotism. I narrowed my eyes at my classmates and declared with pride that my father had been in the Tet Offensive and that, although I’d never seen them, he had tons of photos to prove it. Mr. Davis took me up on the offer to bring in a slide show. With surprisingly little reluctance my father obliged.

We took Aunt Paula’s painting, “Blue Still Life with White Petals,” off the kitchenette wall while dad scoured the attic for two boxes, yellow and black Kodak. Dad set up the dusty slide projector on the lazy susan and Mom used an extension cord to reach the counter’s plug. Someone turned off the lights, and we sat in our regular chairs, Dad, then Anne, then Mom, then me, pulling our seats slightly further from the table and angling toward the wall. Dad narrated, grinning at a photo of himself at 18 years old, standing, stance wide with his German shepherd heeling in front. We all marveled at how young he looked. He joked about how scrawny and awkward he was, how big his nose looked on his thin face. He told us the name of his dog and of his friend in the identical pose in the following slide. Next there were photos of the Matterhorn, gradually coming into focus behind the guardrail of a gondola at Disneyland. Next Dumbo in mid-flight. Next Dad standing alone in front of rows of yellow and pink flowers, an enchanted castle in the background.

If he was going to die, he said, he sure as hell was going to see Disneyland first. He claimed to have spent his lifesavings at the park and made it to the dock with a nickel in his pocket.

Next came a series of pictures of boys in uniform or in their t-shirts, drinking cans of beers and smoking cigarettes. They were barbequing and smiling. Some of them had names that could be remembered. My father drank a beer and smoked a cigarette seated on a folding stool in front of a large brownish gray building. There were many large brownish gray buildings in the pictures.

He tried to fill in for us what we could not see. He told us how you learn to sleep through the distant booming and how you wake instantly if the whiz, boom, rat-a-tat-tat is in close proximity. He told us how when guarding the perimeter you hum a tune or smoke a cigarette or get your dog to bark to let them know you’re there and pray to god they don’t try anything on your watch. He told us how when you hear a noise or see the leaves sway a certain way, you throw a hand grenade into the brush, or, if the noise is too close, shoot your rifle into the darkness. You never know, he said, whether or not you’ve hit your target, or whether or not your target ever existed in the first place.

My Dad tried to explain the geography of Vietnam and where he was during the Tet Offensive, how the news of the attack reached him and what they guarded and where they retreated, but I could see none of this in the pictures of barracks and boys drinking beer. There was no jungle to be found, no rice paddies or bamboo or bodies.

I suspected that he was withholding information. After all he worked so hard to keep death out of our house. He prohibited toy guns, water pistols, cowboys and Indians, GI Joes and PG 13 movies. When my Uncle died my sister and I were made to wait in the car during the open casket service, and at the burial my dad held his hands over our ears and pulled us in close during the twenty-one gun salute. He inherited a box of childhood mementos that he kept in the attic, including his and his brother’s bb guns, and this, my Mom tells me, kept him up nights. The weight of having a gun under his roof, even a toy stuffed in a box, was too great, so to guarantee they could never be fired, he drilled a hole in the hopper of each gun and poured melted candle wax inside. The only time death was mentioned was when he was alone with either me or my sister. I can remember sitting in his little pick up truck, driving down Idelwild, him looking straight ahead at the road, “dying is easy,” he said, “it’s living that’s hard.” Then he tried to assure me that everyone questions the meaning of life and that it’s normal to wonder if it’s all worthwhile and to even think of ending it. “That’s why you’ve got to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” he said, “just keep getting out of bed in the morning.”

He changed the carousel on the projector, and for a moment as he fiddled with the machine, the whole house went black. He sat back down and pressed the button for the first slide. The next set of pictures was of the large brownish gray buildings. Now up close. Now with smoke rising from one. Now from an elevation looking down. Now with more and more smoke. He raised his eyebrows and fixed his eyes at a point near the ceiling. He told us it was an armory that had been bombed by a missile. He said they retreated to the hills, to the mountain. My mom folded her hands on the table like Sister Rita taught us in Sunday school, but all of her attention was on my father’s face, not the slides. There was a large building, like a warehouse with corrugated metal walls. There was more smoke. It was a whole carousel of slides of smoke. Dad tried to impart the gravity of the situation, turning to me and then my sister. We nodded along. That was an armory, filled with explosive weapons. That was a bomb, a missile dropped from above. That is smoke from the armory on fire. I tried to grasp what I was watching, but all of the photos looked the same: dull, grey, empty. “Where was the explosion?” I asked. He fell back in his chair and nodded at the kitchen wall, “There. Can’t you see the smoke?” But smoke was all I could see. There weren’t even any people in the pictures, much less any war. “Did anyone die in the bombing?” I asked, but I can’t even remember if he answered.

I have no children of my own, but as a teacher I spend my time surrounded by them. My youngest students were born just after 9/11. It is amazing to me that I can actually have a conversation with a person that did not exist in the year 2000. Every year on the anniversary of 9/11, I find our conversation shifts a little. When I started teaching in 2004 they wanted to know my personal story: where were you when the planes hit? Did you see the buildings collapse? Did you know anyone who died? How did you get home?

On 9/12 and every day for weeks afterwards I stood on my Brooklyn rooftop, trying to capture the gaping hole in the city, taking dozens of pictures, one hardly distinguishable from the next, of smoke billowing across the river. The date in the corner stamped out the time in orange digits, hour after hour, day after day.

A couple of times I brought in these photos and some of the sidewalk memorials, and the melted frame of building seven. I’d try to fill in for them what they could not see. I’d explain the distance to my apartment and how far the smoke and ash had to travel to coat my window sill, and desk, and bed. I’d tell them about the smell, the heavy smell of burning flesh and metal, about the scraps of tennis shoes and clipboards we’d find by Prospect Park. I’d tell them how scared I was and how in the days that followed everyone was outside on the street, swapping stories of where they had been during the attack.

The morning of 9/11 I was in a classroom at NYU at 8th and Broadway. Each student that arrived carried with them a new detail of the plane crash that was soon upgraded to an attack. Shortly after we received news that the second building had been hit, the island was shut down. That the trains weren’t running, that the bridges were closed that no phones worked, this is what scared me more that the footage of rogue planes that played on the reception room TV. In a city of eight million people, I could find no one, contact no one. I fell in with a group of NYU students who, like me, wanted to get as close as I could to the catastrophe. I told myself it was because my boyfriend worked on Wall Street and I was worried about him, but as I walked down Broadway jotting observations in my journal, I knew that wasn’t the truth. I knew I just wanted to be a part of it, whatever it was that was happening. There was a crazy man on the street screaming about the diamonds in the attic of the World Trade Center that the mysterious caravan of black SUV’s that sped past us to the site were going to retrieve before he could get there himself. People, strangers to each other, huddled around radios on the stoop hearing and yelling out conflicting reports, “there are ten more planes on the way.” “There are three more planes on the way.” “There are planes attacking the White House.” I was caught running in a mob after someone yelled, “car bomb.” I watched with utter confusion as at the far end of Broadway a building disappeared in front of my eyes. A Romanian woman, a classmate, stood silent, who moments before the first collapse was scolding us Americans for taking everything so seriously.

There is only smoke, a sky full of smoke and ash covering the remaining city with remains. There is a stench made worse by the knowledge of all the deaths that accompany it. A month ago we were the bubble and bust generation, now we huddled in living rooms predicting wars and bracing ourselves for the next attack. We took stock of our resources — who had a car, who worked closest to the LIRR, who had family within driving distance — and planned our escape routes.

Every year is an exercise in subtraction. 9/11 is part of our history now, to be catalogued in Wikipedia for reference. In 2013, when I try to speak to my students about that day nearly twelve years ago, I feel the chasm between us grow. With the younger children I mention “terrorism” sparingly. “Jihad,” never. The students, even those who have heard it before, cannot correctly pronounce the name “Osama bin Laden.” These children did not watch the news that day. They have never seen a 9/11 missing poster or memorial wall. They cannot grasp the feeling of gathering around a radio on Broadway while ash falls into your hair and beneath your collar. Sure, the high schoolers want to have more sophisticated conversations about economics and oil and pre-emptive strikes, but what I want to tell them is, what I want to tell them is about that day and weeks and months that followed the attacks. I want to tell them of the mundane horrors of getting off at the Atlantic Street stop to a row of six men with M-16’s guarding the subway stairs, or how my boyfriend and I broke up after he moved, claiming that “the city was trying to kill him,” or about the memorials with thousands of candles crowding Union Square, about Muslims waving American flags, the anti-war marches and the drunken nights spent swapping conspiracy theories.

I understand now what my father was trying to tell us through his smoke-filled slides. Maybe the horror of his war was not wading through “the shit;” maybe it was squandering your lifesavings on one day in Disneyland, or blindly throwing hand grenades into the night, never knowing if you were responsible for someone else’s death. Maybe it was standing by, waiting, knowing that if the missile hit its target no one would be able to get out fast enough. Maybe it was preparing yourself for death at eighteen.

I worry about what I will tell the children next year. There are fewer and fewer words that can fill the gap in our experiences. Will they know what the World Trade Center looked like? Will they have seen footage of the plane that hit the 81st floor? Should we show it to them? Should I bring out the photo album and bore them with photo after photo of a smoke-filled sky snapped from a Brooklyn rooftop? Photos of smoke reaching across the river, smoke reaching into the heavens, smoke filling the picture frame, obscuring what we could never see, standing in for an experience that once seemed universal, smoke that fills the gap between us with nothing but ambiguity and ash.