Goodbye to 2011–Reflecting on Ten Years Ago

The year of 2011 has come and gone, without disasters like we knew on 9/11. That’s not to say our world is at peace or there is no more danger, because that isn’t true. But revisiting that one day was a time of reflection: all of us remember where we were and what we were doing, ten years ago.

On September 11, 2001, a group of us were cocooned in natural beauty, indulging in the completely hedonistic pursuit of wine, fine cooking, and our shared passion for history. We wallowed in the peace of this golden setting, once a luxurious estate of the 1930s set amongst rolling grassy hills that were topped with sprawling oaks and surrounded by the vineyards of Northern California’s world-famous wine country.

Here are the memories we all should have treasured from that special week:

Sorties to an old Russian fort, tours of historic olive presses that still produced extra virgin olive oil in a time-honored, traditional manner, visits to boutique vineyards with tastings of course, and the sunrise shimmering red and gold across mists arising from the RussianRiverValley.

About forty of us had been drawn together by simple bonds: our love of western history, good wines, and gourmet cooking provided by the CIA-trained staff (that’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the other organization with the same initials). Fresh produce was either grown right there, on the grounds, or delivered by local farmers, and even the simplest vin ordinaire, brought from local wineries, tasted great. We walked through small villages and strolled the endless grounds. We could have been in Provence.

Once this had been a true estate, in the grandest sense of the term, surrounded by several hundred unspoiled acres ofNorthern California. Upon the death of the owner, it had been donated to the Episcopal Diocese of California and was now leased out for religious retreats, corporate think-tank conferences, and gastronomic orgies such as ours.

Its gilded elegance had faded over the years, but the charm remained. The bonds of camaraderie had pulled us there, not the need to name-drop “where we had stayed.” None of us cared about television reception, which was fortunate, because there was none. Seclusion had been its original owners’ prime objective, and in September of 2001, it would further isolate us, too.

For four days we’d luxuriated in the beauty of this calm setting. Cradling our expanding abdomens, we’d check our watches during history and culinary lectures, already anticipating the next meal. Would it be Portabellas with locally made Parmesan from the cheese maker we’d visited earlier? Maybe Veal Marsala? Which wine? Would it be from Mantanzas Creek, the winery we’d visited yesterday? And that whole grain, freshly-baked bread—seasoned with locally grown garlic. Yum… fresh butter from the creamery in the next town. And in the morning… would there be omelettes aux fines herbes? The herbs snipped from their own special garden? Maybe those blueberry muffins again: the blueberries would have been picked the night before, also grown here on the estate. Fresh food, delicious food. Our thoughts were simple and focused, our concerns really important.

The last morning of our stay we climbed up the increasingly steep hill from the guest cottage we’d been given. At least we had that climb: we needed the exercise. Fortunately, my husband and I had planned a hiking trip into King’s Canyon after leaving this gathering.

“Thank goodness for that hill,” we’d often say. Some of us would stroll across the estate’s oak-capped hills, but that wasn’t sufficient to counteract the diabolical temptation of the CIA’s epicurean fare. Our daily walk took us up neatly bricked paths, past the pool and several terraces, and through an arbor of tawny grapes.

“I smell French toast,” I contributed, sniffing appreciatively. It would be served with garden fresh strawberries, picked yesterday or maybe this morning and still fresh with dew. I knew this. They would also serve their own yogurt. rich, thick, and creamy.

“No,” my hubby replied. “I think I smell their sausage grilling.” They did make their own—preservative free, nitrite free, and seasoned to perfection.

If a group of people could actually hallucinate food, I believe we could have done so. None of us were overeaters, just highly appreciative ones. We huffed and puffed our way to the top, en route to the dining room. Other couples joined us;  huffing and puffing in unison like a steam engine arriving slowly at a train station.

We acted like a raving pack of starved animals, although nothing could be further from the truth. We had perfected a habit of trying to rush the dining room, especially in the morning. The CIA staff had grown wise to us and locked the doors, not to be opened until—groan!—seven forty-five. We had no formal organization as such, but usually one person would station himself closest to the doors, trying to decipher from scent or sound what was going on; he was the self-appointed, volunteer Guard and Lookout.

The morning of September 11 seemed different somehow.

The Guard and Lookout wasn’t positioned at the narrow crack between the dining room doors; he wasn’t posed for spying and sniffing. The staff wasn’t entirely cruel and into deprivation-torture (that’s supposed to be the other CIA) because they had placed a long table outside and there arranged a coffeepot and cups, anticipating the stampede of forty-some impatient, salivating guests each morning.

The Guard and Lookout, a tall slender man whose name I’ve forgotten, leaned over the table. No one had filled a coffee cup as yet. Others had gathered around this gentleman who was staring down at something, a small object on the table.

It is important to once again consider that, in this rolling remote countryside, miles from anything in the way of a technological center, there was no television—none at all. In the year 2001 the multiple complex satellite systems, what we depend on for television signals, for relays for cable communication, for most of our cell phones’ connections, and now even for some radio transmission—these didn’t exist, certainly not in the vast numbers that provide today’s wide coverage. Cellular technology, although well-established, was in a state of relative infancy compared to current far-reaching possibilities.

A group had gathered around the man and whatever was on the table. Then words, like the ripples a pebble creates when tossed into a pond, began to work outward from the center of the group, this man and his transistor radio, a small object about the size of a package of cigarettes. I couldn’t remember when I’d last seen one—it was that unfamiliar.

“A plane’s crashed into the Pentagon!” and then, “Those towers inNew York—a plane’s crashed into one of them!” followed by “Another plane’s heading for the Capitol!” He paused a fraction of a second. “No, they said the White House has been hit!”

Amongst the ripples, waves of confusion further disturbed the placid waters of morning. “This must be a hoax,” someone said—he must have known about Orson Welles’ 1939 radio broadcast, War of the Worlds.

Another voice, from someone bent closer to this archaic piece of technology, shouted out. “The second tower—those tall ones—it’s been struck, too!” There was almost silence for a split second as the little radio crackled uncertainly on its two AA batteries. “Everyone’s been killed.”

Breakfast had lost its importance.

Late comers climbing up the hill or arriving from the main mansion were told—and the murmuring and questioning rippled outward.

The doors to the dining room opened. No one went in. The CIA staff hadn’t heard either—during these events they would stay on the grounds too. They gathered with us, standing about in their white, string-tied aprons, as they learned the truth.

Then, as we would do and still do now, almost as if choreographed, all reached for cell phones—our impotent, silent cell phones. Our group varied in age from mid-40s to early-80s but all of us, even in 2001, carried cell phones. We might not have been as well-connected then as we are now, but we had this basic technology at our disposal and we counted on it.

Much of the information we received that day, as for most of the nation, proved incorrect or speculative. But it was bad enough. My son, who works in D.C. two blocks from the Capitol, travels from Dulles to NYC at least twice a month. Try as I might, for hours, I couldn’t reach him or my daughter-in-law. We assumed the worst.

I’m sure we ate breakfast, but what it was didn’t register, for us or for the others. The lecturer on Northern California history arrived as we were finishing. He had driven in from an area with television reception. He had watched it happen, live, on the small screen. We crowded around him, our questions repeated again and again, because we couldn’t process the answers.

The resident managers of the estate opened the vast old living room, a grandiose hall where moguls had once brought their mistresses to hobnob with movie stars and sip martinis—in what seemed such a distant, innocent age. There was a television after all. The staff had kept it for group classes at conferences, because it could be used as a VCR.

 The manager switched it on. “Sometimes, we can get reception on a PBS station because their transmitter is right up there.” She pointed out the window to a distant hillcrest. There was no sound, but frantic black and white lines darted and flickered across the small screen, and then began to scroll upwards, until they disappeared, too. Occasionally, just before the speckled lines vanished and the screen turned black, a faint picture teased us: one airplane, a tall building, black smoke, and then there was no more building.

Meanwhile, as if we thought our cell phones were lying, we kept punching at them. One small group went up to the Gazebo, a large redwood structure where one could view the countryside for miles around—acre upon acre of undulating vineyards in one direction, small towns in another, the Russian River in another, and the pristine rolling grasslands the estate was trying to protect as stewards of God’s bounty on earth. There still was no phone reception.

This property, like many of the grand estates of that era, had built its own chapel, long since deconsecrated and now an ecumenical meeting place for all. The pretty little building might not have a cross or crucifix or a sanctuary light to indicate its holiness, but no one had removed those genuine Tiffany stained-glass windows revealing this had once been a consecrated place of worship.

At noon—with all of us still incommunicado—the staff announced they had organized a short prayer service in the chapel, for two o’clock. By one-thirty I stood on the hill, staring out toward the vineyards, doing nothing. I’d occasionally pluck out my phone and try and try again.  

One of the resident coordinators passed by, put her arm around my shoulders, and asked, “Where are you trying to call?”

I told her.

“Oh, no,” she gasped. Then she pointed out in the distance. “There’s the priest now. He’s retired and he’ll come in from the next town if we ask him.”

I squinted into the soft golden haze that covered the vineyards and finally identified what she was pointing at. A road curved through the fields, and, every few seconds, I could make out a man on a bicycle, pedaling furiously. Black shirt and white collar on top; faded blue jeans on his pumping legs below; gray hair flying loose in the breeze. Only inCalifornia.

Our group represented all faiths and cultures and some of those with no faith at all, but I’ll surmise that right then, at that moment, everyone needed something to believe in. Something to cling to. Everyone attended the service. And there were volunteers of goodness. Someone in our group offered to play the chapel’s simple electric organ. One of the staff brought out a battered guitar. There were hymns—ones that everyone sang: “God BlessAmerica,” “America the Beautiful,” the moving “National Hymn,” concluding with our National Anthem. Brief prayers were interspersed among short readings from the Psalms. It was one of the most beautiful, moving, and heartfelt services I’ve ever attended.

After the prayer service, we returned to the Gazebo. At three o’clock California time I reached my daughter-in-law. She, too, hadn’t been able to call my son from their suburban Virginia home, only a short distance away. They’d finally spoken. “It wasn’t my day, dear,” he told her. “I’m safe.” She and I sobbed together on the telephone, tears of relief. Her brother works in the Pentagon, the wing that was hit. However, he and his wife, at the last minute, had found a cancellation for a week on Martha’s Vineyard: they were on vacation. His office was demolished.

I looked up from my cell phone and met the eyes of the woman sitting across from me, her eyes brimming too. We’d sat with her and her husband at meals, establishing a nice friendship—and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve forgotten their name.

“I just reached Annie, our daughter.” She gulped and composed herself. “Her husband’s a firefighter in New York City.”

My heart lurched several inches toward my throat.

“He was in that group that rushed into the first tower when it was hit. He was overcome with whatever he inhaled. He was carried out immediately, but his crew continued in. They’re all presumed dead—but Eric’s in the hospital and he’ll be all right.” She cried. I came across and held her.

By the next morning, the outside world had reached us. Newspapers were brought in. We looked and we saw. After one more exquisite meal to prepare us for the road, we headed out for the Lodge in King’s Canyon National Park. Others weren’t so lucky. For those who had flown to California, it would be days before they could reschedule their flights.

Once in our car and away from obstructing hills, news on the car radio came in, loud and clear. That’s all there was. Even after two days of hiking in King’s Canyon, that’s all there was. It seemed impossible to talk about anything. For a long time it felt as though the necessary connections in our brains that could make conversation about anything else had been severed.

Ten years later, it’s difficult to write about. I feel that isolation and horror, fresh and new. The question is not “What if…?” Not anymore. It’s only “When?”

I’ve learned too that six degrees of separation is a myth—we are joined more closely than we could ever imagine. A second more important lesson is that we should never again take our happiness or peace and safety for granted.

This story, for those of you who’ve read my novel, Last Night at the Claremont, might  sound familiar: now you know where it came from.

Hope and pray for peace in 2012.