Morning in southern Vermont. The sun rose shortly before 7 am. A heavy dew left by a cool night after a hot fall day covered the grass and the cars in the motel parking lot. I got dressed, grabbed a coffee on may way through the lobby, and headed over to the VA (veteran’s administration hospital) across the road and up the long drive to the entrance. I missed my father by five minutes. He was already on his way to the operating room.
I found my sister. We talked a bit before heading into the cafeteria where we’d planned to wait for word from Dad’s doctor. There was a crowd, much bigger than usual. Some were in wheelchairs, or leaning on crutches or canes. Others seemed whole. All were upset by the pictures on the television.
“There’s no way that’s an accident,” said one grey-haired vet of Vietnam vintage to no one in particular. His eyes were fixed on the images of smoke pouring out of a huge hole in one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Others added their own assessments. “Clear skies. No clouds. No wind. No way.”
My sister and I stood for awhile, then she left. She didn’t like crowds, and the cafeteria was now overflowing with people jostling to see the pictures. Someone changed the channel but no one would tell them what they already knew but couldn’t bring themselves to say out loud.
I watched their faces; worried, intent, angry. A couple were my Dad’s age, and were probably World War Two vets if not also Korea. Some wore head gear or jackets that showed they fought in Vietnam. A couple of much younger faces were clearly from the first Iraq war.
As we watched, we all saw a second passenger jet fly into view then slam into the other tower. The reaction inside the cafeteria was instant and physical. It was as though a grenade had exploded. Everyone slammed away from the TV. Some yelled. Others swore. What happened next surprised and amazed me.
A handful of men left the room. They began to assign themselves tasks. They reacted to training. Secure the perimeter. Boost security. The hospital needed to be guarded and defended if necessary against attack. It didn’t matter that we were at a small hospital in a small town in Vermont where there was no big airport or history of violent crime or terrorist activity. They were soldiers again. Someone captured the general mood: “They’ll be looking to get back at for us for Iraq.”
The TV was full of questions, few answers, lots of horror. By the time the first tower had collapsed, the vets had placed concrete barriers across part of the main driveway and around the entrance. Patients now guarded entrances and patrolled around the hospital grounds. Other patients stood guard inside the hospital, demanding ID and reasons for being there. It was all done quickly, quietly and efficiently.
It was also completely unnecessary. But I wasn’t going to be the one to tell them that there wasn’t a terrorist in the world who would attack this hospital in this town in this northern state.
Dad woke up. He was till groggy and in pain from his operation. He looked at the TV screen right in front of his bed. Every television in the building was on, showing the same pictures over and over. Dad stared, clearly trying to make sense of the images. After awhile, his first words were: “What the hell is going on? What the hell happened?”