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911 Diaries: More About my 16-Year-Old Brain Than You Ever Wanted to Know

American Pit Bull Towers

I was writing in my sketchbook/journal the very moment I heard about the attacks on 9/11/2001. This isn’t unusual, since I was pretty much always writing in my sketchbook back in those days.

As many of you know, my Uncle Cole worked in the Pentagon and was killed that day, but we didn’t know it right away. It took several days for his “missing” status to be officially turned to “deceased” by the government upon discovery and identification of his remains. We knew in our hearts fairly quickly, though, because if there had been a way to call and tell us that everything was okay, Cole would have found it.

Cole and Baby Hannah

I won’t go into detail about our relationship here, except to say that he meant the world to me. He believed in my future with a passion, and he encouraged me in the present with a sarcastic wit that made me smile and try harder all in one go. He called me his daughter, and I felt as close to him as I could possibly be. I’ve been looking for him in every man’s face ever since, and I’ve yet to find him again.

Cole's Shadow, My Shadow

I have typed up a few excerpts from my writing in the first few days after 9/11/01 here, but I have left out some parts. I have spared you the superfluous punctuation I was so fond of writing in those days–hyphens enough and at such slants to frighten even Emily Dickinson, and an absurd quantity of these guys:  “>>>>>><<<<<<<”

I also skipped some particularly embarrassing bits (which there are quite a few at 16) and mundane bits like phone calls, silences, repetitive hunger statements, a few of the strangest encounters, and so on. I wrote too much of everything. I still do.

Most of what is in the secondary quotes, ‘___’ is headline, newscast or announcement I overheard at the time and jotted down amongst my own stream-of-consciousness commentary.

Photos from High School

I was in Mr. Joseph’s Math class. I know it was early in the morning, and I’d just gotten back a quiz on which I’d gotten a 7 out of 8, surprisingly (I always struggled in Calculus. I should have stuck with Algebra. It would have been more useful in the long run, and Mrs. Pietztrak is amazing. The way my brain works, learning Calculus replaced learning Algebra, and I think I did worse on my math SAT scores because of it. 20/20 hindsight.)


The word of the month was “self-discipline.” I wrote about who was sitting where, what they were wearing, upcoming soccer games, and Aimee Mann lyrics, as well as the crappy novel I was reading that everyone was making fun of me for: The Thorn Birds. Even Mr. Brown, my very bright and well-respected history teacher had chuckled at me about it. I wrote about my study schedule, who I had a crush on at the time. Why did I write all of that?  I suppose it’s just what I did so I wouldn’t feel too alone with my thoughts.

Photos from High School

It’s difficult after the fact to decipher one’s high school brain. Sometimes I feel like I am the same person I’ve always been, but when I look back at this writing, I am thankful that things, and I, have changed.

A school-wide announcement was made that there was something going on, and that teachers should turn on their televisions so that they could discuss it with their students.

“An announcement is coming on… there’s some program–terrorist actions? The world trade center in New York has been bombed. It’s smoking greatly… I think a plane full of people hit it. The plane had been hijacked. Now the building is falling over more. This is crazy.

“Two coordinated airplane attacks on the building. And these people seem to talk about it in such calm voices. Red and orange plumes of dusty smoke–world trade center. Saw bodies falling out of the building. Then a second explosion. The building is 110 stories high. The second plane may have flown out of New Jersey. The first is a plane from Boston. I think–American Airlines.

“Now it is believed even a third plane. Now Mr. Joseph turned the television off. He says he’s been to the World Trade Center. Huge [illegible] he said. ‘There’s a lot of trapped people up there now,’ said Mr. Joseph. Low murmors of the room… discussing.

“My eyes are tired. My whole body is tired, and I am thirsty.

“‘No, I’m not your sock monitor,’ said Mr. Joseph. Ewe. I just got hit in the back of the head with William Sowell’s dirty sock. Ewe.

“‘How’d you like being hit with my sock?,” William asked me. I just stuck my tounge out at him and turned back around.

“Now they say the Pentagon was hit! Uncle Cole…an emptiness inside of me. Bush is speaking. He’s on his way to D.C. right now. The north tower has collapsed–it took no more than 50 or 60 seconds for the dust cloud to move blocks away. Emergency workers–struggling for breath. Breathing problems. The whole city is full of smoke and dust. Hard to even see the buildings. This is very odd. Sad. It is unlikley that Cole was hurt, but there is always the possibility, I suppose. Kelly said once that being in high school now, she started wondering who she loves that is going to die. She says by statistics, when you’re in high school, at least one person you love will die.

Photos from High School

“The streets of Washington are crazy. All federal employees have been ordered to go home, so there are traffic jams, of course. Both towers have collapsed down across the very densely populated area. ‘A GREAT LOSS OF LIFE.’

“Major avenues closed so that ambulances can come in. People wandering the streets aimlessly… WAR? BEGINNINGS? ‘just the tip of the iceburg’

“110 stories in each of those buildings. A Pennsylvania crash, too. There has been no expecting this terrorist attack… ‘an intelligence failure,’ ‘efficient, sophisticated attack,’ ‘we don’t know that this is the end of it.’ ‘very few terrorist groups capable of this kind of planning.’ Seeing people jump out of windows. The heat of the explosion on the back of his neck. The CIA has been evacuated. National security agency has been evacuated. I think maybe this was done TO EMPTY OUT THOSE BUILDINGS??


High School

“All flights in the United States have been diverted to Canada. I wonder if more stuff will happen. I wonder what grandmother and grandfather Hogan are doing. If they are…which I think they would be…We’re getting Physics papers back. Perhaps random comments here for my sanity. ‘So many people with families. Our hearts go out to them.’ Now there’s a lot of talk in the room about the Physics papers. blehblehbleh. I have a piercing head ache now. I wonder why. Surreal. Flight 93, United Flight 175. On a typical day there’d be tons of flights–now all stopped. The first ever total stop of flights. Boston to LA.


Between these points, I remember that we were all moved into one classroom–I think it was Mr. Kirby’s. We were all together, and not really doing anything but waiting. People were being called home. Logan told me that she was sure Cole was fine, in an effort to console me. I think I took over writing about mundane things on purpose. I was thinking about how I didn’t want to look back on this time, and the words I’d written, as being irrational. I was used to my own teenage hyperbolism and trying desperately to overcome it, moment by moment.

“2:00pm… thirty more minutes until time to leave. I’m hungry. I wonder if it is raining outside. I think before I go see Camara [my gift horse, received upon the occasion of my parents’ divorce from the very kind Ellison family, who were not riding her at the time much. The gift horse was announced along with the divorce, as I recall, at a Waffle House breakfast of pecan waffles sometime between 7th and 8th grade. I always remember thinking of how well “divorce” and “horse” rhyme.] I will go home and at least get a little something to eat. I feel a bit sick. Budd left at the beginning of this period. His father came for him and said Budd had a doctor’s appointment. Or something. I wish he could have stayed. Egg drog thing… I’ve got to do it tonight. I hope I’m not up too late with it. That would suck. I’ve got to finish my lab, too. Blehbleh. ‘Perhaps in some aspect, all of our lives have changed today. It all began at 8:45 this morning.’ News on all over the school. It is like an echo of despair. The murmuring [illegible] of newscasters–the recorded and transmitted wail of sires. I am yawning. Logan said it’s not raining outside.

Paul and Logan

“11:11pm Well, Cole does work in that part of the building. And he is among the 10 percent missing. No other word other than that. Grandma is here, of course. When I went home for a bit to type my Physics paper, I called Andy. We talked for a long while. I called Logan once, but I haven’t heard anything else new about Cole since then, so I haven’t called her again.


“11:37pm Well, I’m on a bed right now in the front bedroom. Red room. Grandma’s got the T.V. on in the living room. She’s going to sleep in the living room in case those people call back. Mom’s on the bed next to me with pillows piled on her face. Marion found a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing for half price, so he bought it for me. The binding had been slashed a bit when they opened the box. I’m very pleased to own it, though. Ever since the thing this morning, I’ve been thinking about Stephen King’s The Stand. I’m worried about my school work. Oops. I’m eating ice, and I just dropped a bit of water on this page. Oh, well. Anyway, I think I will try to read my book now.”

SEPTEMBER 12, 2001, WEDNESDAY 4:50pm

“Well, it’s pretty certain now that there is no more Cole. We’re going to D.C. in the morning. Grandmother’s house is full of people. Sweets on the table, uneaten.

Photos from High School

“‘Cole this… etc.’ Murmuring. Prayers. A fan on in the corner. Grandma crying. Prayer circles. Two preachers, one Andy Oxford. No school for Hannah tomorrow.

“8:40pm I went and hung around the church a bit. Yvonne was there. Couldn’t help but for a few tears. Only music seems to be able to do that. I’m definitely going off to D.C. in the morning. We leave at seven… Probably won’t be back until Sunday. I won’t be able to play [piano] at church this Sunday. Too bad. Mom’s about to go home.”

Photos from High School

SEPTEMBER 14, 2001, FRIDAY, 10:22am… 63 degrees F

“A fourteen hour drive yesterday. We’ll go to a briefing this afternoon. Killed by impact. ‘A NATION MOURNS.’ — ‘AMERICA UNDER ATTACK’ — ‘”DISPICABLE”‘ –headlines. Pat is going to try to go to the site right now. Photographs all over the house. The muffins Pat made him Sunday still in the fridge. I drank some Crystal Lite this morning that he’d made. I put his dry scalp shampoo in my own hair. I used his toothpaste. His little notes are all over the house in his slanted, all-caps handwriting. Perfect. Straight. Slashed-through when done. I do not think that I realize it yet. NO MORE COLE. Uncle Cole. Uncle Cool. COAL. Anyway… right now Jean, Taylor, Marion and I are in the television room. Pat and I went on a walk earlier this morning. It was quite cool outside. Pat said it’s the coolest it’s been. The first cool day, I guess. I went and ran this morning, but my head hurts so much from not sleeping that I could not even run enough to satisfy my legs.


“‘Kelly called me before we left.

“‘LUNCH’ reads a note on a yellow sticky-note. On the cutting board ‘THAI SHT,’ ‘TO DO:’

“‘This is a really terrible time,’ Hillary Clinton.


“Eddie the cat is walking around meowing. Taylor drove down from New York. He got here about 2pm yesterday. The rest of us got here around 8pm. It is raining outside right now. Pat will be going back home with us for a bit. I’m pretty sure we leave tomorrow morning at seven a.m. People crying on the television. Pat is a widow. My favorite uncle is gone. There won’t be any funeral for a few more weeks, though, probably.”

After this my handwriting becomes so narrow and slanted for several days that I can barely read it. Then,

SEPTEMBER 19, 2001, 9:28pm, WEDNESDAY

“The military men came today in thick, crisp green uniforms, shined black shoes, and medals. They found Cole’s remains, but they can’t be released yet. Still a ‘crime scene.’ It could be several weeks. Whenever the remains are released, Cole’s funeral will be at Arlington Cemetary, so Mom and I will fly up to D.C., I’m sure. I hope that flights will be all okay by then. I lost my good pen already. I never can seem to keep good track of them for very long. The farrier’s coming to tend to Camara tomorrow. ‘Welcome back,’ said mr. Kirby to me today. We are reading J.B. in one World Literature class. I am liking it very much. There aren’t enough copies for both classes so we are just reading it all aloud in class. It’s very great fun. I do love Mr. Kirby’s class. I’m staying at home [illegible] yet. Pat and Mom may be coming to eat lunch with me at school tomorrow, so that will be good.

“‘Mrs. Brown has been very good to me since the passing of Cole. But, then again, when has she not been good to me? She said my first painting afterwards ‘haunted her’ and that she thought about it a great deal. She said she likes it a lot. I am glad of that; I like it a lot, too.”

The little, almost unthinkably tiny, barely legible writing goes on for many more pages and days with barely a paragraph break. Part-mourning, part listing daily activities, loving school (and fearing failure with every assignment,) talking about friends and crushes more, the 12 books I was always reading at once (for myself and for school,) about assignments such as “Investigating the quadratic function,” and transcribing the very strange death dreams I was having every night. It depresses me to read all of it over again. Makes me feel again the way I did in those days.

A good grade on a paper and a positive comment from my English teacher, or scoring a goal in a soccer game made my day. Not getting a call from a boy ruined my evening. Did I want to make art all the time? Did I want to be a writer? I spent all of my free time on both of those activities, reading, exercise, and constantly recording what was happening to me. I had a vague terror about my future.

hannah & horse

I wrote about re-watching Bennie and June while looking at old photographs and eating frozen caprisons and cereal for supper at Kelly’s house. I wrote about talking with Logan on the phone, riding my horse in the rain, my family’s grief, running until my legs hurt, and going to the State Fair with Sarah, Will, Jason Ho, Hillary Hall, and Noah Mink.

Sarah Beth

At the State Fair, we looked at the llamas, bunny rabbits, and horses. Then to the rides and the Haunted House, about which Jason Ho proclaimed, “It’s like telling a bad joke. Over and over and over and over…” We calculated the degrees of separation on the ferris wheel–18 degrees, to be exact. Jason broke his glasses off, which actually ended up making the rides scary because he couldn’t see anything. And, while we were walking around seeing the animals, one of the guys was talking about how much more fun it will seem the tomorrow, how great just walking on that road would seem in the future. “I mean, it’s fun right now,” he said, “but it’ll seem like it was even funner tomorrow.” We all agreed.


At the back of the book are a bunch of folded notes and crumpled ephemera ranging from church programs to candy wrappers and terrible poems. The funniest of these is a sheet of notebook paper where myself, Budd, and who knows who else drew the backs of people’s heads and passed it back and forth to see if the other people could guess who it is based on the doodle.  A chemical diagram for “puntane” is also drawn on the paper, as well as a simple sketch of “a member of the I-poked-my-eyes-out oedipus fan club,” whatever that means. And I have boxes and boxes full of these books. They are so ridiculous in so many ways, yet I can’t bring myself to throw them out.

Photos from High School

Note: I apologize that I cannot identify the photographer in many of the photographs of us from high school.  Please let me know if you took the image and would like to be credited. I found them all on some floppy discs I was clearing out of my stuff a couple of months ago.

This last photo is some activity we all went to on a weekend where we built this structure. I wrote about it about a month later. Budd was staying at my house, and we overslept because my alarm didn’t go off. We almost missed the bus. We both had to pee on the whole ride there. We had forgotten to go in our rush of getting up and getting to school.

So, here we all are…or most of us, anyway:

Photos from High School

7 thoughts on “911 Diaries: More About my 16-Year-Old Brain Than You Ever Wanted to Know”

  1. This was so touching. The way you juxtaposed this horrible tragedy with your regular high school life made the whole event seem so bizarre because it really did creep it’s way into our normal lives and became part of our landscape while every day things were happening around us. I remember on that day my first thought was, ” could Saturday Night Live have a normal show this Saturday and will they make fun of this?” I think I also thought the same of late night shows. My brain was already trying to make sense of how to incorporate this tragedy into my day-to-day. I had just started college.
    I love you. You are such a great writer.

  2. You always called me “Marion” and not “Dad.” I wanted you to trust me as a friend and never worried about it. Upon reading this, however, I hope that I was enough of a dad to help you through this, as well as being enough of a friend.

  3. Pingback: The Luckiest Unlucky Girl in the World | Orange Barrel Industries

  4. Wow! I look back at all my ramblings from high school, the journals and notebooks filled of things and think how trivial it all is, but at the time it was the most I had to say because it was the most that was going on. But I’m glad I kept them. I really think my kids would appreciate knowing that I was just like them… and their kids will be just like them. Typical kids. My Journal from 2001 doesn’t have much in it, which makes me sad. I wish I wrote more about how things impacted me at the time, or didn’t.
    Thank you for sharing.

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