Clay Bland landed in Kandahar on his 25th birthday.
Clay Bland landed in Kandahar on his 25th birthday.
Troy Fields


As the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks arrives, there will be no shortage of words trying to make sense of the event. There also will likely be little success in the effort.

The mind can reel at t he thousands of moms, dads, sons, daughters, friends and family whose lives ended that day. It can accept the cruel fact that fanaticism abounds in the world, and will often bring tears to innocents. But wrapping everything up in a tidy package is quite another thing.

If the big picture cannot be made clear, the individual tiles that make up that mosaic can be seen more clearly. September 11 spawned millions of stories. Even Houston, half a country away from the tragedy, felt the ripples. Some lives changed forever, others only temporarily. Each offers a different perspective on what was let loose upon the world that day.

No collection of such stories will ever be comprehensive. But here is one such collection, a sampling of what 9/11 was to Houstonians. It's bookended by the memories of two Houston Press staffers.

Houston Press writer Wendy Grossman was overseas on September 11:

I was having a lovely day on Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich's Rodeo Drive. I shopped, sat in cafes drinking coffee and writing in my journal about what a bitch my friend Tonya was for leaving me homeless in a foreign country. (Long story.)

At dusk, I took the tram and the cable car up the mountain to my new friend Hans-Henrick's house. He asked if I'd seen the news.

No. Why would I watch the news when I was shopping?

Inside his living room, CNN showed the twin towers fall again and again. Next they showed the footage of the Pentagon. And I thought about how my brother takes the Tuesday-morning flight out of Dulles nearly every week. And how my uncle works at the Pentagon. And of all my college friends who work at the World Trade Center.

I wanted to go home. But the FAA had closed all the airports. Plus, I was far too afraid to get on a plane.

I met an American at the art museum Thursday. He had been returning to Chicago on a flight Tuesday. It had gotten halfway across the ocean when the terrorists attacked and the plane turned around. The airline had put those passengers up for a night, then told them they were on their own. The hotels and hostels were all booked with trapped travelers, so my new American friend was paying $100 a night to sleep on a cot.

We drank beer and talked about how if the world was at war, Switzerland wasn't a bad place to be.

Hans-Henrick's American roommate came home that night. He's a blond, blue-eyed frat boy who collects Maxim magazines. He works for UBS, the Swiss bank, and said he hadn't felt American until Tuesday. We bonded through our newfound patriotism until he started talking about how if it weren't for the Jews and Israel, the fucking ragheads wouldn't have blown up the buildings.

I'm Jewish.

I wanted to go home even more. On Friday, the U.S. was supposed to let flights back into the States. People boarded the planes. But then at the last minute, they canceled. My American friend took a flight to Canada and drove 14 hours in a rental car to return home.

Saturday morning I was on one of the first flights back. We had to tell a guard which items we carried had batteries, and we were asked which of our belongings could be used as a weapon.

My toothbrush? Maybe?

The girl behind me said her hairbrush was kind of sharp.

They let me bring a wrapped, ticking package onto the plane. A cuckoo clock for my mom.

Before the flight took off we had to fill out a form stating which of our loved ones should be called if the flight went down. That did not make me feel even remotely safe. I was too scared to sleep on the plane. I kept my dry eyes peeled awake through Dr. Dolittle 2 and old in-flight episodes of Andy Griffith. If the plane went down I wanted to be like that CNN reporter who made a bunch of phone calls.

When we neared New York, the plane silenced. The pilot made an arc far wider than usual. "This isn't how it's supposed to be," said the guy sitting next to me. He said they were flying off-route so we wouldn't see the skyline. It was nearly a week after the attack, but the smoke billowing from the twin towers was three times as high as the other buildings.

We had one of those horrible we're-gonna-die-now bumpy landings. But when we touched down and we weren't dead, everyone applauded.

Even though I had a boarding pass, the airport personnel in Newark wouldn't let me go to the gate. I have dark skin and dark eyes, and the bandanna I tied around my dark curly hair turned out to be a poor fashion choice. A gate agent told me she thought I looked too much like a terrorist.

Flight attendants stopped me. They said my passport picture didn't look like me; I've lost some weight since I stopped living off college snack machines. Plus, the Swiss airline clerks had misspelled my name by one letter and had written down the wrong seat. I pulled out my e-ticket itinerary and argued.

When they finally let me on the plane I was flanked by two rows of airline personnel who spent the flight talking about how they were all going to be laid off. When we landed at Bush Intercontinental, the airport was empty.

"It was spooky," says my friend Robert, who picked me up. Another friend, John, met me in baggage claim. He'd just talked to a guy who had been at the airport for three days waiting for a flight home.

Just how did 9/11 affect people from the Houston area? Here are some stories.

Off to Afghanistan

First Lieutenant Clay Bland, of Richmond, Texas, of Lamar Consolidated High School, of Texas A&M University, of the fighting 101st Airborne, was sitting in his office at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on September 11, checking his e-mail and envisioning a "normal, routine day."

He soon knew his life would take some interesting turns. "I was ready to go out and do what needed to be done, whether it was guarding an airport, or going overseas, or doing force protection here at the post," he says.

Four months later, he celebrated his 25th birthday by flying into Kandahar, Afghanistan.

For the next six months -- 185 days, to be exact, and Bland is indeed very exact when it comes to how long he was there -- the Texas native worked at the air base, a ramshackle collection of battered buildings and tents that did little to combat Afghanistan's extreme winter cold and summer heat.

"It just looked like a real small airport, with buildings that had all the features from being in 30 years of combat," he says. "It was real crowded, planes were coming in constantly, and there were all kinds of services -- army, air force, everything -- and nations. It was just really crowded and dusty, dirty."

Bland was part of Task Force Rakkasan, a deployment that included his 10th Mountain Division and part of a Canadian battalion. He helped coordinate the massive job of keeping the task force supplied at this central arrival point for supplies into Afghanistan.

Construction material, food, ammunition, spare parts, all had to be received and sent on to the proper place. It was a 24-hour job, with Bland and the 15 people reporting to him working in shifts.

There were some comforts -- relatively easy access to e-mail and calls home to his parents and friends -- but conditions were hardly ideal. "When we first got there it was really cold; when we left it was scorching hot, maybe 110 degrees," he says. "And there were windstorms. The biggest thing was the dust, like talcum powder. There was no escaping it -- if you left anything outside for 30 seconds, it would be covered. That'll be the thing I remember most about Afghanistan: the dust."

Like most of the soldiers deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom, Bland didn't come under direct enemy attack. And like most of his colleagues, his morale stayed high.

"There was a real sense of pride, of doing something important," he says of how soldiers felt in the wake of 9/11. "Before, you trained and thought that maybe you'd never get the chance to do something like that. We were glad for the positive feedback we got from the American people and the media -- it was a sense of pride knowing they were behind us."

Bland is now getting ready for a major training exercise in Louisiana, but like all members of the armed services, he's wondering if his future will find him in Iraq.

He says he's not worried. "I'm a soldier, that's what I do," he says. "If it happens, it happens, and we'll go over there."

An Instant Rush Hour

Jeffrey Arndt was at Metro's Kashmere bus facility, near the North Loop and the Eastex Freeway, when his beeper went off telling him a plane had hit the World Trade Center. "I thought, 'How tragic, it must have been pilot error or something,' " he says.

When his beeper told him of the second tower being hit, he knew it was something different. And, as Metro's chief operating officer, he knew his agency was about to be put to the test.

"I knew immediately that people working in high-rises in downtown Houston were going to be concerned," says Arndt, an energetic 22-year vet of the mass transit agency. "They had seen planes hit New York, then D.C., then Pennsylvania. As a human being, if you were in a high-rise in Houston at that point, you are not going to be comfortable. I just ran down the hall yelling to people in offices to say, 'A lot of people are going to want out of downtown Houston in a hurry.' "

Metro has plans for expanded commuter service out of downtown when bad weather threatens. It even has contingency plans for when financially troubled companies like Enron call to let them know that a whole lot of newly laid-off employees will be needing early rides home. But the agency had never had to move so many people so quickly with so little warning.

Buses were just pulling into their service garages after the morning commute; Arndt called and asked the drivers to stay on the job. Almost all of them did.

Calls had started pouring into Metro from large employers, asking if the park-and-ride buses would begin running soon. Local bus drivers reported that hundreds of people had already started lining up at the park-and-rides, somehow confident that the buses would be there to pick them up.

Arndt started sending buses downtown; he also called in two dozen or so private buses that Metro uses as shuttles for the rodeo and other special events. He and two other executives then jumped in a car and started cruising up and down the main downtown streets.

Buses were lined up at either end of downtown. Instead of being assigned to a specific park-and-ride destination, they were assigned corridors: One bus, for instance, would pick up every rider headed to any of the three park-and-ride lots along the Katy Freeway corridor.

Arndt and his colleagues -- one of whom got out and trudged the streets on foot when traffic became bad -- tried to get a handle on where to send buses.

"We'd pull up at the curbs and ask people, 'Where are you going?' " he says. "They'd tell us, and we'd be able to say, 'Oh, we just passed that bus; it's three blocks down and coming this way.' If a lot of people were in front of the Reliant building, for instance, saying they were waiting for the 262 bus that goes down the Southwest Freeway and we hadn't passed that bus on the street, we'd radio down to the supervisor."

That supervisor, stationed in the makeshift staging area south of the Pierce Elevated, would then send a bus designated for the 262 route down the street.

By a little after 11 a.m., the streets of downtown were eerily quiet. Anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 people had gotten out in 90 minutes. That represents about three-quarters of the people who leave downtown on Metro each day -- although that daily exodus stretches over a more leisurely three and a half hours.

Arndt saw firsthand how downtown workers reacted to the unsettling news. "I was amazed -- I didn't sense anything along the lines of 'My God, I've got to get out of here.' No one looked all frantic. They just lined up at the stops and waited calmly."

He says the day remains a source of pride for Metro, for both the job done by employees and the confidence shown by riders.

"People would tell us at the stops that they hadn't bothered calling to ask if we'd be running [extra park-and-ride service], they just knew we'd be here," Arndt says. "They just went to the stop. It was gratifying to see that they had such faith in us."

Metro would be further tested in the months after 9/11, when a series of fake anthrax scares began. "People would walk off the bus and tell the driver, 'I just left some anthrax back there,' and the driver would look and there'd be white powder," Arndt says. "Of course, the driver doesn't know if it's anthrax or if it's flour, so the bus has to be pulled out of service."

Eventually, with the help of Crimestoppers posters emphasizing the penalties of terroristic-threat convictions, the hoaxes subsided.

But for Arndt, thoughts of 9/11 are not likely to subside much. About the only thing he no longer remembers is what he was in the middle of when the second beeper went off and the agency's wild ride began.

Fighting the Backlash

Masrur Javed Khan, 52, was at home when his brother-in-law called and told him to turn on his TV. Like many Houstonians, he watched in shock as the second plane hit. Unlike most Houstonians, however, he knew that he would have to spend much of the following months defending his religion.

Khan, a civil engineer and real estate developer, is also the spokesman for the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, a nearly 40-year-old organization that is an umbrella group for many of the 250,000 Gulf Coast Muslims.

The Pakistan native came to the United States in 1976 and worked for three years at the World Trade Center before moving to Houston in 1980. He knew, even as the towers tumbled, that Muslims in Houston and everywhere would see some backlash.

"When the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, we saw how easy it was for people to blame Middle Eastern people or Muslims," he says. "As soon as I heard about the World Trade Center, I said, 'Oh, gosh, we are in for some tough times, especially if it was done by someone who calls themselves Muslims.' "

Khan and others are adamant that the terrorists are not Muslims -- Islam rejects attacking innocent people, they say, and the World Trade Center contained a mosque, which no Muslim would desecrate. The terrorists, he says, are "misguided individuals with crazy ideas about how things should be resolved."

Muslims rushed to the Islamic Society's headquarters near Greenway Plaza the day of the attacks, lining up to donate blood. "We were horrified at the terrible, terrible loss of life, the sufferings of the families involved and of America," Khan says.

And they braced for repercussions. "There were some threats, usually from individuals: harassment of children in school and on the streets for the sisters, who [with their burqas] are so easily picked out," Khan says.

But the negativity was outweighed, he says, by acts of sympathy or even courteous curiosity. Christian groups invited Muslims to speak to their congregations, school districts offered their counselors for meetings, elected officials made it a point to publicly be seen at mosques.

"It was a very pleasant surprise…One of our good [non-Muslim] friends called right after 9/11 and said, 'Are you uncomfortable? You can come live with us for a couple of days if you like,' " Khan says.

More distressing, he says, has been the reaction of the federal government. "The investigations don't bother us -- we encourage people to cooperate because we are as concerned with terrorism as anyone else," he says. "What is troublesome are things like mass deportations. The issue we have is specifically applying the law to a group of people just because of who they are…It has caused tremendous concern and fear in the community. Small businesses tell us they are having difficulty finding people to work, because people are afraid there will be raids on stores."

Khan says he's heartened that federal judges are beginning to question the methods used in the aftermath of the attacks. "It shows that the system should eventually work," he says.

Still, he says the extent of civil-liberties issues has been surprising. "We never expected it to be this much -- we thought, yes, we'd hear 'Blame all Muslims' or even 'Blame all Muslims outside of America,' but we didn't expect American Muslims to face what we did. Why you even have to make the point that American Muslims are as patriotic as anyone else is something, too. After Oklahoma City, no one was questioning the patriotism of all Christians."

Taking to the Skies

Three days after the attacks, when commercial planes were once again allowed in the skies, Continental Airlines pilot Mike Hynes was in the cockpit for one of the first flights out of Houston.

It was just a normal milk run to Albuquerque -- except that in the modern era of packed flights, fewer than a third of the MD-80's 150 seats were filled.

"We tried to do everything we could to reassure passengers, with inspections and extra checking, making sure there were no unknown individuals on board," says Hynes, 46, who's been with Continental 18 years. "There was a lot of apprehension for some people."

Hynes wasn't in the air September 11, but as a member of the pilot union's safety committee, he's heard from fellow pilots what it was like when the unprecedented order came for all planes to land immediately. "As the day went on, the [air-traffic control] guys were more open about telling pilots why they needed to get the planes down, but at the beginning it wasn't so clear. And then the pilots had to go to a lot of places where their airline might not normally fly to, like Canadian airports out in the boonies," he says. "The crews did a lot of extraordinary work that day, and the hospitality of the places they landed in, where people were stuck for days, was great."

September 11 was a watershed in many ways for the aviation industry. "Before that, the standard drill for a hijacking was to cooperate," Hynes says. "It's a negotiation. They want something. No harm will come to you or your passengers…So certainly that has changed. If something happens now back there [in the passenger cabin], I am going to land that plane, I don't care where we are. That's everyone's mindset now: We're not going to debate or argue, we're just going to land immediately and deal with it on the ground."

Hynes is one pilot who'd like to be able to carry a gun in the cockpit. "It's just another level of deterrence," he says. "I find it strange that the government says it's not safe for me to have a gun, because if I use it I might kill maybe two or three people, but if there's a hijacking an F-16 is gonna shoot us down and kill 150 of us."

The other big effect of 9/11 was economical. The airline industry got a $5 billion bailout from the federal government but still made drastic workforce cuts.

Hynes says the airlines' poor business planning was aggravated by 9/11, and he wonders if the industry is simply using the attacks as a convenient hook for making long-wished-for cuts. Continental has furloughed 10 percent of its pilot force, and longtime pilots like Hynes have been demoted to co-pilot.

The economic fallout has hurt pilots, mechanics and flight attendants, and the increased security measures can be as annoying sometimes to pilots as to harried corporate flyers. But Hynes says not everything has changed in the air: "Certainly I have no qualms about getting on an airplane. The plane still flies like it did before, weather is still weather, and air-traffic control delays are still air-traffic control delays."

A Return to Family

Houston native Kristian Marlow, 15, could see the New York skyline from his bedroom in the New Jersey town of Wyckoff. He'd been living in the suburban town of 16,000 for four years, and he and his mom had occasionally eaten at Windows on the World, the restaurant on top of one of the towers.

He was getting ready for a Latin test at Ramapo High School when word came over the public-address system that a plane had hit one of the WTC towers.

The news hit hard in the bedroom community. "A lot of us were stricken," Marlow says. "Many of our friends, or the parents of our friends, work there."

There was a moment of silence, and then schoolwork resumed. After gym class, Marlow saw the second plane hit on one of the many TVs tuned in to coverage at the school. "Then we knew it was obviously not an accident. People started crying and they started trying to call their parents right away," Marlow says.

That was a problem for him. He knew that his mother was flying to Houston from Newark Airport to see her father. Then word came of the crash in Pennsylvania of a jet from Newark.

School was let out; Marlow returned to his house and finally reached his mother on her plane. In the brief moments before her cell-phone battery ran out, it became obvious she knew nothing of the day's events. Her flight was diverted to Atlanta, where she was stranded for two days before driving back to New Jersey.

Marlow says 9/11 was "a real eye-opener" for kids of his generation. "We'd seen things about stuff like the Vietnam War and we just said, 'It can't ever be that bad here, we're in America'…We thought we were safe -- it's not like we're worried constantly now about terrorists attacking us, but there's not the same kind of security as before. Someone attacking us for religious reasons, it was just startling to see."

Seven Wyckoff residents died in the attacks. "You know everybody there, so it was hard. And our neighbors came home that day covered in soot. It was unbelievable," he says.

Partly as a result of the attacks, Marlow and his family have moved back to Houston. He's now a sophomore at St. Thomas High School.

"Since we moved from Texas we never really had family around us, we were always on our own," he says. "The people who lived near us [in New Jersey] were stricken by the attacks, but at the same time they were surrounded by family, and that helped them get through it. The opportunity came to move back to Houston, so we decided to come down here and live near my grandparents.

"We never knew what we were missing," he says. "Being around family for the holidays and knowing they're close really makes a big difference."

Getting Back On Stage

Rocker Mary Cutrufello has long been a favorite of Houston audiences and music critics. She moved earlier this year to Minneapolis, but last September 11 she was at her Montrose home.

"One of my hunting buddies called me at eight in the morning and at first I was like, 'What are you calling me for this early?' " she says. "And he was like, 'Dude, we're under attack, turn on your TV.' "

Cutrufello, 32, was raised in Connecticut and graduated from Yale before coming to Houston in the '90s to start a career whose highlights include a Tonight Show gig. "I felt like an expatriate down here" the day of the attacks, she says. "An expatriate New Yorker. I'm a rambler, and I don't feel particularly attached to any of the places that I've been, like a little bit, maybe, but not a lot. I certainly didn't think I felt as attached to where I grew up as I felt that day. It was a sad day for all of us as Americans, but I really felt like an American in Paris or something. That's my home."

She wasn't scheduled to play again until the following Saturday, the 15th. "Even then I was still a bit worried," she says. "You want to be respectful, and people hadn't really processed all the information yet. People were pissed off, people were grieving, and I don't think a national response had congealed at that point."

Cutrufello says she "temporarily retired" some of the songs in her repertoire. "The song 'Free' comes to mind," she says, "with the line 'the blood lies in the still remains' -- I don't think I sang that for the rest of the year."

The show that evening at Rudyard's was an acoustic set, and with a crowd of friends in the room the night soon became one of recovery.

"By then, I guess, the time had come to change over from shock and grief to mending and healing," she says.

She hasn't written any songs explicitly about 9/11: "It's still kind of hard for me to get close to."

Cutrufello's parents were on a bus tour of the Canadian Maritimes on September 11 and experienced an outpouring of support. "The rest of the week that they were up there, the Canadians would find out it was a bus full of Americans and just walk up to them and hug them," she says. "They would tell them, 'Canada's on your side' and things like that -- just complete strangers. They just freely gave them all that love and support."

Helping People Cope

Dr. Melinda Stanley, 44, had an immediate concern as she watched the second tower get hit that day: Her husband was in the middle of one of his periodic stints with the Air Force Reserve. She learned soon enough he was safe, however, and her thinking turned to the longer-term effects of the day.

Stanley works at the Mental Sciences Institute at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston, where she specializes in anxiety disorders. The patients she saw regularly would no doubt be stressed by events, she knew; she also knew that many in the general public would find themselves battling anxiety and fear from the attacks.

The attack on a civilian target, at a seemingly peaceful time, left many people thinking things were out of their control.

"It's something that could touch us more than war, because people make a choice to be in the military and possibly go to war," she says. "It felt like something that was not avoidable by any of us. It made you feel more vulnerable than reading about a hijacking, because you can always decide not to get on a plane if you want to avoid that. Things that we thought were controllable before, we now realize they sometimes aren't."

Her day that September 11 was little different from many other Houstonians': "I was getting the kids ready for school and for some reason I just turned on the TV," she says. "It was after the first tower [was] hit, so I was just staring at the TV, thinking someone had made a mistake or something. When the second tower was hit, you knew that it wasn't a mistake, and it was something so alien to us.

"I took the kids to school, then the Pentagon was hit and you're thinking, 'Is Houston coming next?' So I left work and got them. It felt safer at home for some reason -- at least we were together."

Like everyone else, Stanley started phoning people she knew. "You call friends, you look for social support," she says. "That's why everybody talks about these things a lot when they happen -- when you get support, you know you're not alone, not the only person who feels this way."

Her patients sought the same support from her. "My patients are already anxious to begin with, and when there's trouble they can focus on potential threats that other people might ignore," she says.

Others can take positive feelings out of the tragedy, using it as a way to connect more deeply with family and friends.

She says in the days after the attacks -- and in the build-up to the anniversary -- there is a need to keep events in balance. "Sometimes people felt that it was hard to stop looking at the coverage on TV; it was a way of trying to get control over the event," she says. "People go back to it and go over it and over it to try and make some sense of it, to see if there was something they didn't hear before that explains it. But you can get too wrapped up in it and get away from your normal life."

Children, especially, may become overwhelmed by news coverage and talk of what happened. Again, balance is important, she says -- maintaining a normal routine, not overdosing on TV, and talking things out.

"I doubt the anniversary per se will cause any problems that weren't caused by the original event, but it could exacerbate things" in an already anxious child, she says.

"I would tell them this: This was a terrible thing that happened, but we have found out that we could cope with it."

What did we lose on September 11? Another Houston Press writer, managing editor George Flynn, saw just how casual things were in the White House, less than two days before 9/11:

Rather than months, years seemed to elapse before the anticipated eight-by-ten glossies arrived. Photos captured us with an ever-beaming Laura Bush in the Blue Room of the White House; a grinning George Bush posed with us in the East Wing's Cross Hall.

Those prints, with their stock "Best Wishes" messages and signatures, are nice keepsakes. But the most memorable part is the light blue ink stamp on the back: "Official White House photo," followed by what was a nondescript date at the time:


I'd been a tag-along on the trip to D.C. with my close friend from Austin. She'd helped Laura Bush set up the annual Texas Book Festival when George was governor, and the first lady invited her and the handful of other early organizers to her inaugural National Book Festival.

Events had a decided atmosphere of earlier, honorable eras. Friday night was the black-tie fund-raiser in the gleaming Great Hall of the Library of Congress, complete with soaring ceilings of Italian marble, ornate statues and strains of the Marine Corps orchestra. In this setting, even war was honored in the most noble of terms -- Stephen Ambrose read from The Wild Blue about the courageous B-24 pilots; Tom Brokaw followed suit with his World War II tributes in The Greatest Generation Speaks.

After the festival on Saturday, we made my first visit to the Lincoln Memorial, noticing that international travelers dominated the American landmarks. A man in a turban seemed so proud to assemble his family for a snapshot at the massive feet of the seated Abe; others helped women in flowing native dresses ascend the stairs.

There was mingling with the natty in-crowd of Georgetown that night, followed by the premier event, Sunday brunch in the White House. In the East Room, that hallowed place where JFK and Lincoln had lain in state and Teddy Roosevelt's kids roller-skated, we helped ourselves to eggs Benedict atop fried green tomatoes.

Of course, beyond the elegant tapestries was strife. Fights over dangling chads had died, only to be replaced by the furor over funding for stem-cell research, federal appointments and protesters pledging to disrupt the approaching World Bank meetings. A sagging market prompted administration calls for Americans to jump-start the economy. (Only a month earlier, a Newsweek article on the subject began: "Raymond Herbst, a New York firefighter, is going to splurge. He's taking his wife to dinner at Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center.") And who needed a reminder that, yes, there was unrest in the Middle East.

Such concerns made it that much more surprising to see George Bush and his entourage entertain the crowd at the Library of Congress. Buzz-cut adviser Joe Allbaugh, the gracious Condoleezza Rice, other administration officials and even the rather stiff John Ashcroft came and stayed. Many of them reappeared for the Sunday festivities. Bush was hardly a harried president as he chatted with old Texas friends, posed for pictures and seemed to enjoy the event at least as much as the invitees. It looked as if his term could have been a perpetual four years of meet-and-greet in this place so insulated from the real world.

By early evening, our Continental airliner was banking over the capital after the takeoff for Houston, giving passengers a glimpse of the mighty fortress known as the Pentagon.

A day and a half later, 9/11 exploded. News bulletins broke in to report that Bush had been whisked away to an undisclosed location. So had Cheney. Cabinet officials were hunkered down in hectic briefings. It was hard to visualize the sorts of red alerts and likely panic racing through what had been such a tranquil White House.

Even with the cynicism that comes from a career in hard news, during the trip I felt refreshingly like a naive stranger treated to a quick glance into this place of enormous power.

The photos helped show something much different. All of us -- the president and first lady included -- were innocents on that day. So was the rest of America, for that matter. Terror was about to take hold of America. We were oblivious to that approaching horror. And to the bitter realities beyond.

Eventually, of course, memories of 9/11 will fade. People in the 1940s were sure that December 7 would be seared forevermore into America's memory; now, however, the day passes with little note unless it's a major anniversary.

Houstonians will always remember where they were and what they did September 11, and the days afterward. But the ultimate story of that day has not yet been told -- it could include a war in Iraq, or more cycles of violence and reprisal, more pain and tears.

But it will always include the smaller stories: the kid returning to his family, the pilot fighting the economic fallout, the Muslim who learns both the generosity and the closed-mindedness of America.

The big picture may indeed never become clear, but the mosaic tiles are still there for all to see.


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