Today I’ve asked the Wayback Machine’s inventor to carry us back to Sept. 14, 2001.
“Excuse me?” a reincarnated Mr. Peabody might respond. “Why would anyone want to go back to that week?”
That inventor — a star of television’s “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends” (1959-61) — has a point: Friday, Sept. 14 was only three days after 9/11. The nation was in shock. Thousands had died in the Twin Tower, Pentagon and Pennsylvania suicide hijackings.
Yet, despite all this, I was supposed to write a humor column on that very day. Wisecracks in the face of carnage? How on earth would I pull that off?
Twenty years out, I still wonder
After all, from three days out in 2001, nothing seemed safe. Nothing was secure. All of us were worried. Life was on hold, as we all feared what might come next and how much worse it could be.
Often insulated from national crises by geographic and cultural distance, we in the Mother Lode were hit hard. I was editing morning copy in The Union Democrat on Tuesday, Sept. 11 when word of the attacks came in.
I hustled over to Servente’s, which had the nearest TV, and watched in disbelief. Then it was back to my desk.
We all but scrapped the front page, giving it over to AP wire copy describing what quickly became known as “the Attack on America.”
Publisher Geoff White put a heart-stopping wire-service shot of the second tower engulfed by a near-nuclear cloud of smoke. We never used wire photos on Page 1.
“We have to run it,” White said.
The next day’s top story was supposed to be a Tuolumne County supervisorial vote on the proposed Mountain Springs subdivision. Although highly contentious, it suddenly seemed irrelevant.
The Democrat’s front pages for the rest of the week were instead dominated by 9/11 wire copy and photos. But our reporters were sent out to get local reactions and angles for Wednesday’s edition.
We reached a former Twain Harte resident who lived just blocks away from the destroyed towers: “The street was covered with ash and debris,” she said. “It was so dark we couldn’t see. We didn’t know if we’d get out of there alive.”
I was on the paper’s editorial board at the time. White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and I agreed that we had to depart from our local-issues-only policy and say something about 9/11.
“We must hold tightly to our lives, our families and our communities in the face of this attack,” read our day-after editorial.
“So take your children to soccer. Visit friends. Play golf. Build that new deck. Book flights for that long-awaited Hawaiian vacation.
“To instead assume a bunker mentality will only play into the bloody hands of the killers. We cannot let them undermine a nation that took 225 years to build.”
“United we should stand,” the editorial was titled. Which, from the vantage point of 20 years, we have not.
But on the afternoon of 9/11, members of Congress — in a surprising, reassuring display of unity — assembled on the Capitol steps to sing “God Bless America.”
Still, I asked myself, what about that looming Friday column? Where was the humor?
Indeed, 9/11 was tough on comedians: The Onion’s first post-attack issue was cancelled. Late-night talk show hosts were tongue tied. One standup comic, I heard, ventured into hijacker humor only to be shouted down.
“Too soon!” yelled an audience member. “Way too soon!”
So I tiptoed into that Sept. 14, 2001 column, searching for the familiar and the comforting amid occasional one-liners.
So did it work? Well, nobody has called to complain about the resurrected column below.
This column was published in The Union Democrat on Sept 14, 2001:
IF I DO my job, this space is supposed to leave you laughing. Or grinning. Or at least without that sour, curdled expression with which you began reading it.
But when thousands die in terrorist attacks and when national anxiety is soaring, some say, nobody is in the mood to laugh. What’s more, they add, any attempts at humor amid such tragedy are tasteless and misguided.
Which is tough on a guy whose job description lies somewhere between journalistic court jester and paid wiseacre.
But there is a second school of thought — the one that issued me a diploma after I sent them five bucks.
Teachers at that school say laughter is never more needed than at times like these. Humor, they explain, is a coping mechanism, a buffer against reality that would be too bitter to swallow straight.
SO I WENT on a search not only for humor, but for the comforting, familiar elements of daily life that some feared would vanish forever in the wake of Tuesday’s “Attack on America.”
I started in the Tuolumne County supervisors’ chambers, where the East Coast tragedy was marked by a moment of silence. Followed by hours of bickering and backbiting.
As tragedy unfolded in New York, our leaders squabbled and sniped reassuringly about lot sizes, gridlock, noise and odors.
First came a marathon debate that led to approval of Mountain Springs, a project that won’t be built out for 12 years. Next, supervisors argued over whether Cal Sierra Disposal should move its transfer station in five years.
Five years? Twelve years? Board members and the folks bellyaching at them must believe we will somehow survive the tragedies of New York, D.C. and Pennsylvania to bicker deep into the future.
NEXT I CHECKED the county’s criminal underbelly. It’s still fat.
Police blotter items logged in the disaster’s aftermath have a certain familiarity: Papers burn in Jamestown coin laundry. Neighbors squabble on Chukar Circle. Man “acts strange” in Sonora. Mailbox bashed in Twain Harte. Dogs fight on Midland Drive. Minutes later, so do their owners.
Don’t these people know that our very way of life is under attack?
According to the Tuolumne County Jail, 19 inmates were booked into the Friendly Confines on Sept. 11, 2001. And most of the behind-bars population of 123, said Sgt. Bill Meek, were glued to jail TVs — and swearing lustily at the unseen hijackers — throughout the long day.
These guys may rip off your car stereo, cook crank or cold-cock buddies with pool cues. But, hey, when it comes to hating terrorists, they’ll match upstanding Rotarians curse for curse.
THEN THERE’S this conversation, reported to the Sheriff’s Office at 8:02 a.m. Tuesday:
Anonymous caller: You know what’s happening in New York?
Tuolumne Utilities District clerk: Yes.
Caller: The TUD water supply will be next.
Extra patrol was ordered for the ditch system.
Later, New Melones Reservoir was cleared of bass and ski boats. Deputies were dispatched to the dam.
Or is there really a scrawled, crumpled Arabic target list in some Kandahar hideaway where “TUD Ditch” follows “Pentagon”?
HECK YES things are scary. And God knows we’re all skittish and frightened. But let’s be thankful we’re still deep enough in the boonies — that brand-new Applebees restaurant notwithstanding — to be under terrorism’s radar.
Melones and Lyons dams, really, will be OK. And not even a Taliban kite is likely to come crashing into TUD headquarters, Wal-Mart or the Stadium 10 theater.
We should also be thankful, as Tuesday’s county board debate proved, that life as we know it is resuming.
Things would be different if our county supervisors had gathered on the Courthouse steps, a la Congress, for a post-meeting, acapella rendition of “God Bless America.”
Then we’d know the end was at hand.