This day in September: Five memories of my dad and the Twin Towers

Just trying to add something positive to balance a negative day. September 11th doesn’t need any more maudlin.

I need to reclaim my memories of those buildings.

1…

I had just woken up and was engaged in my morning ritual of removing my stuffed animals from the grocery bags where they spent the night. This was serious business; the animals needed to bagged every night because if there was a fire, they could be evacuated with less fuss.

My dad stuck his head in my room. My eight-year-old self was slightly startled; he normally was on his way to the train by now. Was I in trouble for bagging my animals again? It was normally my mom who took issue with this completely normal and in no way morbid ritual.

His eyes were wide. “Hey Chris-popples, you need to see this!”

The use of the “-popples” suffix always meant fun was afoot.

We hurried down the stairs to the master bedroom. Our house on Long Island was a split-level. He pointed to the dresser. “Look at that!” The black and white Bradford television, the one that took an eternity to warm up, the one I got to watch when I was sick, the one with the necessary vertical hold knob, was tuned to the Today show.

Some dude was walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers!

I sat on the edge of the bed while watching the spectacle unfold in glorious black and white, breathing in the in smell of the English Leather that my dad slapped all over his face after he shaved.

The Twin Towers will always be monochrome and reek of that cologne you brought your dad for Father’s Day every year.

2…

My dad got to go to some sort of business-guy function in an upper floor of one of the Towers. He told me that the building was so tall, the rain was “falling” upwards. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. After all, this was the same man who spent the better part of my life trying to convince me that Suzanne Pleshette had a wooden leg.

3…

Shortly after the Towers opened, my family went to the observation deck at the top. Stenciled on the windows were little outlines of familiar landmarks. They came in handy because, frankly, it was a bit hazy that day, and you couldn’t really make out much that wasn’t on the island of Manhattan itself. Everything else was drained of its color and only visible because of the stencils.

I could tell my dad was little disappointed I couldn’t see more. When we got over to the west side, overlooking the Hudson and Jersey, he bent down to me and guided my vision over to something in the haze.

“Look, it’s the Pulaski Skyway!” I looked up to him as if to say, “Out of all that, you recognize the Pulaski Skyway?”

“Can you believe it? The PULL-ASS-KEY Skyway!”

I got it. I repeated to him, “PULL-ASS-KEY!”

“PULL-ASS-KEY!” Dad always loved a good Polish joke. And the more, shall we say, dada-esque the Polish joke, the better.

–Where do the Polacks keep their armies?

–In their sleevies!

And what’s funnier that a word with funny hard K’s and the word “ASS?” He loved crazy-ass Polish names.

After all, he had married a girl named Jean Barbara Reniewicki.

4…

In 1987 when I was on my way to a summer abroad studying drinking in Oxford, England, my dad treated me to a couple days in Manhattan. It was my first time there since we had moved away in 1976.

The highlight of the trip for me was a dinner with my dad at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 106th or 7th floor of the North Tower. I felt important. I had to wear a jacket; I can’t recall having to wear a jacket in a restaurant since then.

The night city spread below us. It seemed like I could jump from twinkling light to twinkling light all the way to England. Everything seemed possible.

I prefer a vista to a drop any day of the week.

5…

During fall semester 2001, Monday nights were my drinkin’ night. I hated dealing with Austin “nightlife” on weekends, and Tuesdays were completely open for me, as I didn’t have any classes to teach. I had met my friends at the Crown and Anchor, split a few pitchers, then went over to a rugby bar called Nasty’s. Monday’s at Nasty’s were hip-hop dance nights. I had just come out, and I felt it was my duty to dance. On the way home, I ran out of gas. After dealing with that, I didn’t get to sleep until after 4am.

I ignored the phone when it rang each time. I just half listened to the messages.

Hello Chris. This is your fa-ther. Just checking in on you. Jesus Christ, Dad, don’t you know it’s the crack of 9:30? On a Tuesday?

Hello Chris. This is your fa-ther. Just wanted to see how you’re holding up. Still no big deal because one aspect of dealing with mental illness is dealing with concerned phone calls from your dad, and I had told him the previous week that I was going through a rough patch.

Hello Chris. This is your fa-ther. Just wanted to discuss the events of the day with you. This piqued my interest somewhat, but I didn’t think anything of it because my dad and I always argued politics. Sometimes he would leave messages that consisted of nothing but him holding the phone up to the car radio so I could hear Rush Limbaugh’s voice. You could hear him laughing in the background. “Thought you’d like that.”

It took a call from my stepmom to get me rousted: Chris, this is Ernie. They’re poisoning the water supply. You said you had a water cooler. You should probably run out and get a few jugs. Her voice was not it’s normal cool, measured self. She was scared.

I ran to the living room and switched on the TV. The second Tower was in the process of collapsing.

I called my dad. I called him several times that time. I think we all called everybody several times that day.

During one of our conversations he said, “Let me tell you, it sure is re-assuring seeing some gray hair on the television today.” He was talking about Cheney and Rumsfeld. I knew not to debate him on this point. This was not a joke; it was not bait. He needed to see those “gray hairs.”

My dad died in 2003. I wish he were around because I think we could have that argument about the “gray hairs” now.

I’m headed to NYC in a few weeks. I’ll probably go visit the new World Trade Center, the Single Tower That Looks Like An EpiPen. I will go to the top. I will look to the west, find the Pulaski Skyway, and giggle.

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