Hard Candy: This is America

This week we’ll remember September 11, 2011. It is a hallmark disaster. My mother’s generation remembers where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot; mine has etchings of collapsing towers burned behind their eyelids.

When the towers fell I was in San Diego on business with people I didn’t like much. They didn’t like me much, either, as hard as that is to believe. We were a day away from flying home and when the FAA grounded all flights indefinitely the idea of spending endless days with these people while 2500 miles from home made me physically ill. When a friend called and offered to bring me back to their apartment in Arizona, I jumped at the chance.

Of course, once we hit Arizona, I realized that no matter who you’re with, when you miss home, you miss home. And on September 12, 2011, I missed Florida like you wouldn’t believe. Once our family ascertained that all our New York members escaped the attacks physically unscathed, my focus sharpened and narrowed to one fine point: home.

For those of you who remember the days following 9-11, you know what I mean. For those of you who may not have quite reached adulthood yet, you probably remember it being scary. But it was more than that: combat – be it war or something else – is scary. Hurricanes – real ones – are scary. Horror movies – good ones – are scary. But this wasn’t scary; this was terrifying. All we wanted was our families and friends close. We had no clue when the next attack would come; we had no idea how the next attack would come. To be that far from home and and have my world so irrevocably, horribly altered was my own personal hell. I wanted home. I wanted to smell Florida’s familiar scents. I wanted my mother.

I hopped on a Greyhound bus. Good lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I will never do that again. I found myself on some sort of “every stop in America” Greyhound tour that turned an 18-hour trip into four days. INS (back when it was called INS) stopped us when we were one minute inside New Mexico. Why? Because, apparently, on September 13, 2011, our priority was finding illegal Mexican families.

Things did not improve as we crawled through the barren landscape we call “Texas.” For those of you who have never visited the Lone Star State, allow me to describe it: dust clouds and oil rigs. Oh, and Big Macs. I am positive that Greyhound and McDonald’s have some sort of licensing agreement; we stopped at every McDonald’s along the way – and nowhere else. This, as you may imagine, taxed the nerves of every air traveler sentenced to bus transit to get home; apparently the only thing worse than airline food is quarter pounders ad nauseum. We were scared. We were tired. We were overdosed on sodium. We wanted to get home and the driver just kept stopping, at one point answering our complaints with a suggestion that next time we book the non-stop route. Next time? I don’t think so, Greyhound. I will yank my eyelids off with tweezers before I board your bus again.

Unsurprisingly, several busloads of passengers rioted at the Abilene bus station at 12:30 in the morning. We missed our connection in Dallas because a bomb threat at the bus terminal kept us out of the station. By the time we left Texas, we cheered, the high point in a trip through the bowels of lower America hell. At this point, there were five of us who had boarded in Arizona who were Florida-bound. We stuck together, refusing individual tickets on different routes that Greyhound promised us would get us home faster. We were Team Florida, knowing only that we alone shared the end-of-the-line promise of saltwater, shrimp, and sunshine. Terrorists had altered our America but we felt if we could just get back home something, however small, would be right again.

We hit Mississippi Friday night as the oil rig workers met the bus. Remember, these were the days before iPhones and web browsers on phones. Those of us who owned cell phones rarely had a signal throughout most of the trip, so we shared information as one of us received it. We felt helplessly uninformed – we had no idea if any other area of America had fallen prey to terrorists – but these poor guys had no clue; they were clearly dazed by the sheer number of us at the station, vying for bathrooms and outlets for our phone chargers. One of my road-weary bus-mates tried to explain what had happened to one young man. He did not believe her.

“I don’t get it,” the rig worker said, clearly searching for an alternate explanation to a crowded bus terminal. “You’re telling me that a bunch of sand n–––s took down planes with box cutters?”

We all looked at each other, sheepish and saddened. We’d somehow overlooked that incongruity: so involved with the aftermath was America that we’d thought little about how implausible the cause of deaths sounded to those not privy to the live horrors on major television that past Tuesday morning.

A few hours later, Interstate 10 delivered us to the Sunshine State. We looked at each other; a few of us – myself included – teared up. We had arrived; we were home. The whole of the bus, from Arizona to Tallahassee, was America. But this slice of America… this was home. This was our America. It was well past midnight, but we saw sunshine.

Harriet Beecher Stowe described Florida as a piece of embroidery, with two sides: “One side all tag-rag and thrums, without order or position; and the other side showing flowers and arabesques and brilliant coloring.”

On September 11 and the days that followed, never was that more true, not just for Florida but America. It was a collection of horrible, glorious moments I will remember until the day I die. There was a dichotomy in our lives: we were fallen, yet planning to rise. There were horrible, dusty moments when our defenses crumbled, and wondrous images of the black ribbon of road welcoming our tag-rag group home. We were tired patriots on a journey home through a fallen land.

We hated every state but our own, but we still loved America.

Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.