Welcome to… a different world.

11 09 2011

The second Tuesday in September started innocuous enough. I was in the British countryside, west of London, along with about 20 colleagues, attending a course on working in hostile environments and battlefield first aid. Too many newspeople had perished while covering wars past, and the company I worked for thought it a wise investment to train its journalists in basic survival so that in the future more would come home from those environments unscathed.

Just in case.

Because the next war was bound to break out, sometime, somewhere.

An excerpt from the list of topics to be covered.

We learned things like: What kind of damage automatic weapons can do to cars, oil drums and humans; How to spot a sniper, and a tripwire; How to make a water filter using only materials found in nature; What an armed ambush feels like, and how to survive a kidnapping; Why a camera lens can sometimes look like a shoulder-held rocket-propelled-grenade at distance.

The course was a week long and I had decided to tack on a vacation to New York City and points north immediately thereafter. So I booked my flight from Heathrow to JFK on United Airlines for the following Saturday.

On that week’s Tuesday afternoon we were out in the woods, standing in mud up to our ankles. The assigned task was to practice negotiation skills. Our teachers had dressed up as hostile natives hell-bent on hindering our work at least, or murdering us for our expensive equipment. The overcast sky broke to a fine English drizzle and during a pause in the action a few of us took shelter in one of the vehicles. That was when the first SMS came from New York.

It was so absurd that we thought it was some kind of joke.

“What a brilliant idea,” one of my colleagues said. “But impossible.”

Four filthy, cynical journalists sitting in a Land Rover in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere, 3,000 miles from New York City, could not believe the audacity of flying a plane into the World Trade Center.

While calmly picking clumps of mud out of the treads of my hiking boots with a twig, I scoffed that no aviation routes even go anywhere near Manhattan… so that must have been some dumb pilot. Or just a tragic accident.

We turned on the car’s radio to see if the BBC had the story, and heard that a second airliner had just slammed into the second building.

Ah. No accident. No dumb pilot.

And suddenly our hostile environment training did not seem so theoretical anymore.

Four days later, I sat in one of the first aircraft permitted to re-enter U.S. airspace from abroad. Upon landing at JFK, a flight attendant announced our arrival over the intercom. Ten years later, I still get a lump in throat and my eyes tear up when I think of it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to….. The United States of America.”

The entire cabin erupted in cheers and tears. We were on home soil, and we were safe.

As the plane taxied off the runway to its parking position, a white plume of smoke continued to rise from Ground Zero into the cobalt blue sky. Lower Manhattan was still burning.

It was September 15th, 2001 –  and the world as we knew it was history.


A cloud of smoke where the towers used to be.

A piece of a steel skeleton.

The destruction through the window of a city bus.

Guard duty at Ground Zero.

The impromptu memorial at Union Square.

NOTE: All photos are my own, taken on September 16th and 17th, 2001.

Kerosene Dreams

28 10 2010

There are sights and sounds and tastes that just make me sentimental. You know, it’s like when that 80’s song on the radio reminds you of the teenager you were, and the really embarrassing clothes you wore. Or the taste of cookies that as a young child you used to “help” your mother bake, and that she always yelled at you for eating too much of her yummy (raw) cookie dough.

Well, there is also a scent that reminds me of another life I had – of a time and place I felt like I was out changing the world (for the better, of course), or at least getting the world to listen up, pay attention and think. It was also a time when I still believed the values of democracy would easily and swiftly destroy the Taliban. (And boy, were we all wrong about that one, huh?)

One frosty autumn morning not long ago, on my way to work, when the sky was clear and the breeze was just so, this sharp, trenchant aroma out of my deep and distant past showed up and literally socked me between the eyes.

Sniff, sniff…Could it be?… Ahhhhhhhh…

Jet fuel.

In a split second, the biggest adventure of my journalistic life appeared before me like a vision. I was ten years younger and standing on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson in the middle of the Arabian Sea, the hellish noise of afterburners thundering into the core of my being. It was my introduction to – among other things – what it felt like to be shrouded in a cloud of jet fuel.

At the time, I was a freshly minted private pilot and couldn’t get enough of aviation in all its fascinating shapes and forms. The F/A-18 “Hornet” fighter jet was a far cry from my Cessna 152 single engine piston trainer, and not on the list of aircraft I ever thought I’d get to know up close and personal. But here I was, standing open-mouthed about five feet from a whole gaggle squadron of them.

I was on the ship for a reason, which my editor at the other end of a satellite phone never ceased to point out. But being the carrier-rookie-nerd that I was at the time, it was really tough to tear myself away from the delicate choreography of human and high-tech aircraft unfolding before me – with one of the biggest and most sophisticated naval vessels ever built as the stage, in a theater so very far from home.

That was the first of numerous trips to the region for me, a reporting adventure in several chapters, over the course of two years. Again and again I had the privilege of hanging around jet fuel, and it became a really good friend. In the spirit of true companionship, it even took the trouble to penetrate my clothes, cling to my hair, settle on my skin and comfortably infiltrate my consciousness.

Inhale deeply, savor the scent. Ahhhhhhhh...

It’s been almost a decade since then, and the Taliban has still not gone gentle into that good night. Like the irritating relative who just doesn’t know when enough is enough, it sits around and lingers on the sofa long after the party’s over, making crude jokes and finishing off your expensive whiskey.

Jet fuel, on the other hand, is an exceedingly agreeable guest, and welcome back any time.