On Sunday, October 21, 2001, I boarded a plane in Cincinnati for a non-stop flight to LaGuardia Airport and a week-long trip to New York City. At the time, I lived and worked in Lexington, Kentucky, in the thoroughbred industry (I still keep a thumb in the game). Along for the trip was my dear friend Billy Huntington. This was a first flight for both of us post the 9/11 attacks on the Word Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The mood in the cabin was one of nervous paranoia with a splash of “by-God” self-assuredness. Billy and I were seated in the back next to the galley. In the spirit of Todd “let’s roll” Beamer, we nodded in silent agreement to our fellow passengers that our heads were on a swivel and no one was going to be storming that cockpit.
We held hands as the plane taxied down the runway. And then, upon liftoff, an explosion of noise happened right next to us: crash, bang, pop, pop, pop, pop. “Oh, God, am I really going to have to pummel someone with my purse” went through my head as we looked at each other, prepared to unbuckle and kick some ass. Yelps and gasps came from the rows ahead of us. We looked to our left to see a mess of broken glass and bubbles.
“It’s okay, it’s okay” we yelled out, “it’s just champagne!” An unsecured cabinet door had dumped champagne splits all over the floor from the highest shelf. Nerves now shot to death, we settled in for the rest of our blessedly uneventful flight.
Rewind to September 7, 2001. It was the Friday before the annual Keeneland September sale, the largest sale of thoroughbred yearlings in the world. At the time, I was an equine lender for National City Bank, meaning I managed a portfolio of loans secured with horses and horse farms. While most of my clients were in and around Lexington, about a third were in other states and other countries. The sales were always a good time to meet up with my out-of-town folks, and the weekend prior to the sales was stacked with events: TOBA party on Friday, Shoemaker Foundation on Saturday, Keeneland Barbecue on Sunday before the sale started on Monday.
The TOBA party was not just an awards gala, it was also a fund-raiser. The emcee that year was Nick Clooney, father of George and brother of Rosemary. He and I were both ogling the silent auction for a halter once worn by 1995 Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch (I won). The other thing I won in the evening’s champagne fueled bidding was a package of tickets and event passes for the 2001 Breeders’ Cup coming up at Belmont Park at the end of October. I’d worry about planning my trip later.
And then that following Tuesday morning the world changed. We all know where we were, just as everyone who was alive for it remembers where they were when John Kennedy was assassinated. One of my clients in Lexington from NYC called my office. She was having trouble with her cell phone, and a plane had just crashed into the WTC. I pulled up a live news feed online. We were discussing what could have happened and watched as the second plane crashed. “This is no accident” I said. “I’ll find you at Keeneland.” The sale was postponed for the day, but I needed to find the considerable number of clients I had from in and around New York.
I did not know anyone who died in the attacks on 9/11. But on that day, I knew a lot of people wracked with worry about loved ones they could not reach for hours and with no way to get back to them. Air traffic was shut down, phones weren’t working, and there was no driving into Manhattan even if they wanted to rent a car and take the overland route. I spent that week playing armchair psychologist, holding hands, breaking bread, trying to go about business as usual. One client lost his dear friend and West Point roommate in the WTC.
It took till Saturday for me to sit back, fully absorb it and have my own little falling apart. And then remembered I had a trip to New York to plan, if the Breeders’ Cup was even still going to go on there. Billy and I decided, once the Cup confirmed it was staying, to go on.
As strange as it may sound, it was one of the best trips of my life. What stuck out the most was the open armed gratitude and welcome from the people of New York City. Most of the trip was absolute fun, and our slate was pretty full with events and plans with my NYC clients. One of those was the late Tony award winning Broadway producer Jerry Frankel, who left us center stage orchestra seats for a revival of “42nd Street.” It was the first Broadway show experience for both of us.
For all the good times, we were not leaving the city without making the pilgrimage to Ground Zero. So, on that Thursday we went to lower Manhattan to see for ourselves what was left. The air near the site was acrid, gray ash still covered everything six weeks later, the fence surrounding held flyers of missing loved ones, it was still smoking, smoldering and burning, and was the most horribly unbelievable thing I’d ever laid my eyes on. There is no video or photo that can capture the magnitude of it. It was overwhelming. Imagine standing in front of Immaculate Conception and looking down across the whole of the Market Square Historic District and seeing it reduced to rubble.
After we had seen as much as we could bear, we found a place to grab a bite to eat nearby and listened to the stories from the servers about what they’d been through that day, how they were dealing with things in the aftermath. I was humbled by all of them. The heroic stories of that day were not limited to the First Responders. Ordinary people went to extraordinary lengths to save their fellow human beings. And they didn’t check their voter registration first.
There was so much unity in this country in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, people doing what needed to be done to look out for their neighbors and provide for those most impacted by the tragedy. We’d get around to arguing about missed opportunities in Afghanistan and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq soon enough, but in that moment, spurred by one of the most horrible things to happen in our modern history, we stood together. Where has that gone? Where is that esprit de corps that sees the problem we all have to work together to solve? And why is it we can only find it when it involves bombing and killing people in other countries?
“Freedom isn’t free” isn’t just a catch phrase to shout in support of our military and the considerable sacrifices our armed forces make. It should be something that emboldens every American to consider what they should do to ALSO look out for their neighbors, not just themselves. With great freedom comes great responsibility.
The Covid-19 pandemic, in a mere 18 months, has killed 658,000 Americans. That’s more than the combined deaths (626,005) of all U.S. military in all conflicts for all reasons (combat, accident or illness) since 1900. Read that again. It has killed more Americans in 18 months than all our wars over 120 years.
We have a common enemy that doesn’t care about what you believe or for whom you voted. It is indiscriminate. We all have the same tools at our disposal to beat it back into submission.
Some of y’all ain’t doing your part to live up to the best that we can be.