Four words I’ll never forget

David Fong TDN Columnist

David Fong TDN Columnist

I was asleep when the phone rang.

When I saw it was my mother calling, I immediately answered it — something I almost never do. She asked if I was watching the news on television.

“No,” I replied in my most annoyed tone. “I was sleeping. What do you want?”

So long as I live, I’ll never forget her next four words: “David, we’re under attack.”

Those are the most chilling words I’ve ever heard — they still bring tears to my eyes more than a decade later. Earlier this week, our nation marked 16 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which took me back to that conversation.

At the time, I had no clue what she was talking about. It didn’t take me long to find out. I asked Michelle — to whom I had been married for less than three months at that point — to turn on the television. We sat there in our bed, staring at what was unfolding in front of us.

We were under attack.

Terrorists had already hijacked and flown planes into the Pentagon and both World Trade Center towers. We would also find out soon enough that one attack had been thwarted and a plane had flown into a field in Pennsylvania. We didn’t know what to think, say or feel.

Soon enough, however, our journalistic instincts kicked in — we needed to be at work. Although she was a copy editor at a nearby metropolitan newspaper in the area and I was still working as sports editor here at the Troy Daily News, we both felt the pull of the newsroom gnawing at us. Maybe we could help out in the coverage at our respective newspapers. Maybe we were hoping we could find more answers on the wire. Maybe we just wanted some place we could feel safe.

We were under attack.

We couldn’t go to work, immediately, however. We had already committed to taking my nephew Alex to his preschool picnic. I remember his teacher talking to the students about working together in a sack race. “It’s not about winning or losing,” Mrs. Godfrey said. “It’s about learning to work together.”

And I remember thinking how salient those words were so far away from the horror unfolding in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. Couldn’t we all learn something about working together?

We were under attack.

As soon as we had dropped off Alex after the picnic, I raced into the newsroom. I wasn’t surprised at what I saw — all of my colleagues scrambling to get stories and photos ready for the next day’s edition. We would have to mourn later — first, there was a job to be done. That doesn’t make us cold-hearted, that just makes us professional. After watching the television for a few minutes, I went into my office and sat down in front of my computer.

I had to write my weekly column — and I had to do it that very moment, while the emotions still were fresh. I had to write about what I was thinking and feeling and how much I was hurting. I had to write about how angry I was, how confused I was and — most of all — how scared I was. Writing is how I’ve always coped with my emotions. When I can’t find the words to say, I can usually find the words to write.

Halfway through, Megan, our associate sports editor at the time, walked in and saw tears streaming down my face. I had been crying for 10 minutes and hadn’t even realized I had been crying. She took one look at me and said, “You’re writing your column, aren’t you?” She knew.

We were under attack.

I went to my mom’s house for dinner that evening. After school let out for the day, she had spent her afternoon accounting for all of her children. My oldest brother was living in Baltimore — was everything safe there? My other brother still was serving in the military — would he be called to duty? My little sister was working in downtown Columbus — were more attacks coming our way?

She had tracked down everyone and everyone was safe. Thank God.

At some point after dinner, I was sitting in the living room talking to my mother. I think we both just needed a few minutes away from the television. Randomly, without warning, I burst into tears.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“It’s just so horrible,” I choked out between sobs. I think that was only part of the answer, however. I think part of it was me just being happy I was with my mommy. At times like those, don’t we all want our mommies?

We were under attack.

So much has changed since then. My nephew is no longer going to preschool picnics — he’s now a sophomore in college and I am more proud of him than he’ll ever know. I’m guessing he doesn’t remember that day. Michelle and I are no longer newlyweds — we have been married for 16 years and are the proud parents of two amazing children.

Lately, though, I wonder how much really has changed. Are we truly any safer than we were 16 years ago? Sometimes it feels like the threat remains the same — only our enemies have changed. I worry less these days about planes flying into buildings and more about nuclear weapons falling from the sky. I suppose I shouldn’t live in fear, but sometimes it’s almost impossible not to.

I don’t worry so much for myself, mind you, but for my children — and I’m guessing my mother felt much the same way 16 years ago when she picked up the phone to call her baby boy.

I hope and pray I’ll never have to wake one of my children out of a sound sleep to tell them, “We’re under attack.”

Troy’s very own David Fong appears on Thursdays in the Troy Daily News. Contact him at dfong@aimmediamidwest; follow him on Twitter @thefong

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