When I travel to Denmark, my favorite souvenir is amber. It’s a glossy gold or deep orange stone or, to be more accurate, fossilized resin. Sellers demand a higher price if an ancient bug is captured in the amber--a tiny life captured in time for centuries.
I spend a great deal of time digging through archives. To me, old newspapers and journals create a curious form of amber. They are historical events fossilized into dry facts and forgotten words. I want to pull this kind of amber from its storage, hold it to the light, find the life inside, and discover its stories. For in these stories, I connect to a moment years ago when someone felt her world change. Perhaps high over her head a zeppelin would erupt into flames, or on an idle Sunday her favorite radio show was interrupted by a report of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or early on a Wednesday morning, she was tossed from her bed as the ground below her San Francisco home began to quake.
These personal stories are the small bugs trapped in the amber.
Here are my stories.
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was idling scanning the radio stations as I battled Atlanta perimeter traffic on the way to my teaching job. A local progressive rock station had just received a report that some kind a plane, perhaps a small commuter one, had just flown into the World Trade Center. The radio personality knew someone working in a building beside the WTC and phoned her. As the guest and Deejays were trying to determine what had happened, their voices maintained that joking, peppery, get-people-to-work clip. Then the woman on the phone screamed. “Oh my God! There’s another plane! There’s another plane!” Deejays fell silent as the magnitude of what just happened sunk in. I arrived at work, late and shaken. The secretary greeted me with her usual cheerful smile, clearly unaware of the tragedy. “We’ve been attacked,” I said.
Almost twenty years before 9/11, my mother momentarily left her fifth grade classroom to walk to principal’s office when a lunch room worker stopped her in the halls. “John Kennedy has been shot!” the woman cried. She had heard the news on her radio. All lessons plans were forgotten that day. My mom walked her students to the classroom possessing the only television in the school. They sat on the floor and watched the news. No one talked. My mother said she didn’t need to explain what had happened to the children. They understood.
A few years after World War II, my grandfather was also battling Atlanta traffic as he commuted up from South Georgia to his mother-in-law’s home. He frequently traveled to Atlanta on business and stayed at the Winecoff Hotel. However, that particular evening he had given his reservation at the hotel to a friend and his wife. A fire broke out on the third floor of the hotel in the early hours of the morning. Without today’s safety requirements, guests on the third floor or higher were trapped. My grandfather’s friends made it out alive, fleeing in their night clothes. 119 other people were not so fortunate, many leaping to their deaths.