The plume of smoke rises from the tip of Manhattan, a gray cloud that billows high above the harbor and then flattens out and drifts south over the Statue of Liberty and slowly away. It doesn’t disappear, though, fed as it is by a continual smoldering from the wreckage of the World Trade Center, a genie escaping from a bottle. This genie is like all genies: once released, never to be confined again.I’d been trying for days to get home from the well-manicured paradise island of Bermuda, having spent those days in a state of stunned depression. Like the rest of the country and much of the world, I’d watched the television in horror as story was heaped upon story, report upon rumor, conjecture upon analysis, sorrow upon rage and weeping. Like most people I couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of this new reality, couldn’t engage the thought of what had happened, couldn’t believe that the New York skyline had been changed forever, and along with it so many thousands of lives and families and the tenor of the world as we knew it.
Trying to get a flight out was impossible with the entire U.S. airspace closed, and once it reopened it wasn’t much easier. The thought of flying on an airplane unnerved me, while the prospect of a slow return home to San Francisco was almost as bad, not knowing if the promised U.S. military response would occur before I got there, which would make the trip even more risky. Reports of possibly two more attempted hijackings in New York within hours of the resumption of flights caused me near panic as I plotted a route home that would skirt as much of the U.S. as possible. I booked Air Canada to Toronto, then on to Vancouver, where I planned to take a ferry to Seattle and then Amtrak south. It could be done. It would be expensive, time consuming, but presumably safe.
But those two reported hijack attempts proved to be false alarms, New York’s airports reopened, and planes began to fly out of Bermuda and get through to the mainland. I began to believe that I could make it back on my original itinerary.
At the Bermuda airport every carry-on bag was thoroughly hand-searched after going through the X-ray machine. Blades were pulled off razors; cans of shaving cream were confiscated; tweezers were consigned to the trash. Once aboard, the flight attendants were solicitous, offering to listen to any concerns we might have about flying. They were friendly but subdued, getting back to work for the first time since the disaster, convinced that the aircraft was secure but acknowledging with their body language that flying was different now. We all were taking deep breaths, eager to get to our destination, on edge about the journey.
Skies were stormy as the leading edge of Hurricane Felix began to sweep across Bermuda and we took off less than an hour behind schedule. Once we outran the storm we reached New York’s Kennedy Airport under a brilliant, cloudless sky. Our connection was efficient. We boarded on time, but the new security procedures kept us on the ground about an hour before the pilot taxied into position. Just before takeoff he spoke to reassure us of his confidence in the new security measures, in the safety of our flight, “or we wouldn’t be up here.” With genuine sincerity he thanked us for flying with them in this trying time. Then we lifted off into the perfect September day.
The aircraft peeled off to the south almost as soon as we were airborne, twisting, circling away from Manhattan airspace and giving us a clear view of the city in the distance, the Empire State Building now lonely above the skyline, the dark genie to the south rising huge and ominous into the blue where those buildings should have been.
In some ways I had to see it for myself, had to see the smoke and the empty space where those landmarks had stood since I’d first seen New York in the early 1970s. I had to see it to believe it even though I’d seen the horror so many times on television, saw those planes hit, saw the rescue workers at their impossible task, saw the city and the world changed forever.
As the plane circled around to the north the Hudson River flowed below in a straight run to the harbor, blue and rich as the sky above. A baby in the next row began to cry, sucking in great drafts of air and expelling them with the force of a child with a long future ahead. I looked at Manhattan as long as I could, craning my neck until the city slipped away behind the wing. I was saying goodbye, goodbye to a New York I’d once known, an era I thought would never end.
“We’ve circled around to the south and east and north of New York,” the pilot announced, “and now we’re flying northwest over northern New Jersey. We’ll be crossing the Mississippi River at Minneapolis-St. Paul and reaching the apogee of our flight at Aberdeen, South Dakota before heading over Wyoming and southwest to San Francisco.”
I was going home, flying over my past in ways I could never have imagined. The World Trade Center marked my college years, when I’d made road trips from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire to New York to see my older brother who’d set himself up in Greenwich Village around the same time I’d gone away to school. We went up to the observation platform on one of those visits and those buildings loomed over every trip I made. I was born and raised in Minneapolis, a city I love not just because it’s full of the memories of roots and family and lifelong friends, but because it’s always welcoming. Aberdeen, South Dakota is the “city” ten miles from the farming community of Andover where my parents met and lived in the early years of their marriage, a town of 300 where cousins still have a farm. Aberdeen was the place my parents lost their first child at age two, a sister I never met who died at a time when simple diseases could be deadly and a trip to the doctor over dark country roads in the middle of the night was intimidating.
I’m going home, to a changed world, one that’s been shaken to its foundations, but one that may resurrect itself with a new spirit of community, a sense of giving and joining together that has been eroded in our society as the blessings of technology and prosperity have pulled us away from the real riches we possess. It has been a hard lesson, and we will see difficult times, but the spirit of cooperation this disaster has sparked gives me hope. Maybe the genie won’t be all bad after all.
The baby in the next row is quiet now, sleeping on her mother’s lap. The future is down below, beneath the cumulus clouds tumbling their way east, glowing with the luminous golden light of the evening sun as we descend to them, dropping through that mystical vapor toward a safe landing.
About Larry Habegger:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.
Return to Flying Carpet index page.