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Paul Sylvain
Sunday, September 11, 2011

What’s really important in life forever changed by 9/11

Paul Sylvain

Has it really been a decade since terror rained down on New York, Washington and a remote field in Pennsylvania?

I was attending a training program for the former Immigration and Naturalization Service at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Ga., in September 2001. Although the media still mistakenly uses the term “INS,” the INS ceased to exist in 2003. Its passing was one of many changes driven by the events of 9/11.

There are certain events in everyone’s lifetime that those who experience it never forget. The Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was one of those events in my parents’ time. I was 14 and in the eighth grade at Spring Street Junior High School on Nov. 22, 1963, when the shots that killed President John F. Kennedy were fired in Dallas.

Maybe it’s because certain events mark the end of an era or perhaps the end of a dream. For me, the murder of John Lennon was a reality check about our own mortality. Not even a Beatle could escape a madman’s bullet, damn it.

Myself and 46 other classmates, most of whom were assigned to immigration offices in Lower Manhattan, were wrapping up an exam on immigration law on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. It was a pass/fail program. If you failed, you went home without a job. These tests and the drive to pass the program were important.

I turned in my test a little after 8:30 a.m. and went to the break room. The television was tuned to CNN. One of the “Twin Towers” was on fire, and the newscasters were trying to make sense of it.

Tony, one of my classmates, joined me shortly afterward. Both of us were air traffic controllers at the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center in Nashua at different times. We both saw a video replay of a plane hitting the building and heard the news folks say they thought a “small plane” had accidentally veered off course.

We looked at each other, knowing what we just saw was a commercial airliner and not a small, private aircraft.

We never saw the second tower get hit, because we had to return for the start of another class. One of the New York women in our class came running in, frantic and in tears. She had just seen the second tower get struck, and her brother worked in it.

About an hour later, two of the academy’s staff came in and announced solemnly: “The twin towers as you knew them are gone.” We couldn’t grasp that he meant it literally.

Fortunately, none of the more than 30 New York-based students in my class lost a family member. The woman whose brother worked in one of the towers learned later that night that he called out sick that morning and was OK.

Most people experienced the events of that day through television and newspapers. I was always humbled to go to New York and speak to those who lived the nightmare. Before moving back to New Hampshire last year, I traveled to New York City several times to present a training program to non-officers with the agency that replaced INS.

One module focused on national security. How do you teach national security to people who saw things that day they never will forget? You can’t.

But they taught our training team plenty. Their building is only two blocks from ground zero. We simply opened the floor up to them and let them share.

Out of respect for those in the area who lost loved ones that morning, I won’t share what they described here. It goes without saying that many people witnessed and experienced horrors that morning that we can’t even imagine.

My class had about two weeks left in our training that day. After that morning, all we wanted to do was get home and hug our loved ones. Suddenly, those pass/fail tests just didn’t seem as important to us anymore.

So many people got up that morning and set off to work or to catch flights for business or pleasure. There were no last “goodbyes,” kisses or hugs for many. Some had plans to see a baseball game or maybe catch a show that night. Just normal people doing normal things and making normal plans.

Shortly before dying of cancer, musician Warren Zevon was asked by David Letterman about his perspective on life and death. Zevon’s reply? “Enjoy every sandwich.”

He was saying enjoy and savor the simple things in life. Make every moment count, especially with those who mean the most to us.

As we saw 10 years ago this morning, everything we hold dearest to us could be gone forever in a heartbeat.

Paul Sylvain is a freelance columnist who writes from his home in Merrimack. His column appears on the second Sunday of the month. E-mail him at psylvain.telegraph@yahoo.com.