Sunday, September 11, 2011

11 SEP 11: Can I Laugh Now?

The weekly Saturday siren test in Columbus did not happen this weekend. That probably disappointed some cynics -- the ones who wanted a siren to interrupt the mayor's proclaimed moment of silence at 12:00 noon.

I was napping at noon - awakening at 12:03 p.m. to get out of bed and offer a prayer, noting today's anniversary of the 11 September attacks. It actually was fitting, because I was asleep ten years ago when the drama started to unfold. I'd spent a late night writing jokes for LaughLine subscribers - and then some visitors went and spoiled everything.

On that Tuesday morning ten years ago, I awoke around 10:00 a.m. as if nothing unusual happened. After the morning prayer, I turned on 1270 AM which carried ESPN Radio at the time. But instead of hearing Tony Kornheiser, there was Peter Jennings - and strangely, the native of Canada didn't seem to be talking about Canadian football.

The sound of Peter Jennings led me to turn on TV - and my first sight was one of the World Trade Center towers collapsing. My first thought at seeing that? The Europeans did it -- because I'd heard church pastors warn for decades of Europe rising to conquer the U.S. How strange it was to learn these weren't even trans-Atlantic flights.

After the facts of the matter settled in my brain, my second thought was that World War III was underway -- and an unending war at that. After all, the attackers had religious reasons for what they did. You can't defeat radical beliefs with reason and logic. Once e-mails started reaching this blog, that thinking became even more obvious....

I was "producer on call" at WTVM in 2001. I wasn't at the station that infamous morning, but anchor Alicia Smith related on Facebook the other day how a fellow producer started crying at the sights on TV. That producer realized war had begun - and she had enlisted in the Army only days before. These were the days when people only thought of military service for the extra money they could earn.

(To this day, I'm not sure why that producer chose to enlist in the Army over working in television. This should tell you how low the pay scale in Columbus television news really is.)

I expected a call to come to work that day in 2001 -- but only because a supervisor alerted me in advance that some kind of fill-in duty was coming. The assignment wound up being web work, posting reporters' stories to the Internet. Ten years ago, WTVM was still a television station with a website - while nowadays it can seem like exactly the opposite.

Columbus media became topsy-turvy on that Tuesday. One WTVM reporter called WFXE-FM "Foxie 105" to see if its programming had changed. Sure enough, it did - because he wound up being interviewed live on the radio for several minutes. Soulja Boy didn't write those anti-military rap tunes fast enough.

It turned out my duties were changed by the 11 September attack. The supervisors planned to fire the 11:00 p.m. producer that day, and have me replace him. He wound up working one extra day -- and sadly, his personal day of disaster came on Wednesday the 12th.

But years later, I discovered another Columbus TV journalist had his job saved by the attack. Depositions filed a federal lawsuit revealed WRBL's News Director was ready to fire anchor Phil Scoggins. He changed his mind because of how Scoggins handled the events of that day [7 Feb 05] -- and Jon Paepcke still is waiting in Birmingham for that anchor chair to open.

I was allowed to leave the station around 6:45 p.m. on 11 September 01 - and I hurried to a special evening service at St. Luke United Methodist Church. My own congregation was too scattered and small to do anything special. I would up singing a solo hymn the following weekend - and not only was there no boost in attendance, the pastor didn't cancel his scheduled off day.

But as the special service ended, I faced a dilemma. What should I do about LaughLine -- a humor service for subscribers? Should I cancel the Wednesday edition, as I did months before when my father died? Or could there still be room for laughter, amid the death and chaos? After all, the sun didn't stop shining in Columbus that afternoon....

I decided to keep daily editions of LaughLine going, through it all. Not all of my subscribers agreed, and one of them wrote saying I did a "disservice." I explained my intention was to laugh in the face of the enemy, and help in some way to bring healing. Those of us who hope for something better than this life can be the most frustrating optimists at times.

For several days, humor columnist Argus Hamilton and I walked a very lonely road - keeping daily joke-writing going, as many people across the U.S. grieved and mourned. But in time, the nation's "funny bone" was healed. "The Onion" returned to weekly issues. But ten years later, I still haven't been invited to host a comedy night at The Loft.

Over the next few weeks, we'll reach into the LaughLine archives to remember how our country responded to 11 September 01 - and how we tried to keep a sense of humor, leading to the assault on Afghanistan four weeks later. Perhaps after a decade, an old cliche finally can be applied. Someday we really CAN look back on this and laugh.

(BLOGGER'S NOTE: For more reflections on Columbus in the wake of "Patriot Day," check our entry for 11 Sep 06.)

TEN YEARS' LAUGHTER/12 SEP 01: An open letter to whomever was behind Tuesday morning's terror: If we need help with urban renewal projects in New York or Washington, we'll ASK you!!!!!

Several disaster stories developed Tuesday which proved inaccurate. One false report claimed a car bomb went off outside the State Department. Apparently that was nothing more than Alan Greenspan's jaw dropping at the nearby Federal Reserve building.

An ABC News poll released Tuesday night shows 86 percent support for a U.S. military response, even if that means war. Come to think of it, why DIDN'T we see anyone from the American Civil Liberties Union on TV Tuesday?

Back at the White House, the West Wing was evacuated as a precaution. But several so-called "hard rooms" were set up for essential personnel. They also sprang up across the country - otherwise known as comedy clubs.

Congress quickly rushed to President Bush's side after the disaster. Dozens of them ended the Tuesday of Terror outside the Capitol, singing "God Bless America." What - no national anthem?!?! Well, then again, they'd show a LACK of unity trying to hit those high notes.

The Tuesday of Terror was condemned in many countries - but not all of them. A group of Palestinians actually danced in the streets of a West Bank town, and celebrated by handing out candy to children! Why can't they be a bit more sympathetic - and beat the U.S. in soccer or something?

Local TV stations put important messages on the screen from time to time, while the networks covered the disaster. One of them blocked part of the screen -- to show us the midday lottery numbers! We almost expected another message, about what we missed because the soap operas were canceled.

. One woman admitted to us she was angry because U.S. intelligence was unable to stop the hijackings. Then again, it didn't stop Timothy McVeigh, either. Maybe it's time to make everybody sit in a room with Oprah Winfrey's "Doctor Phil," for a week of confessions.

We took one UN-confirmed call, claiming Fort Leavenworth, Kansas was put on a higher security alert Monday. "They knew this was coming," the caller said with certainty. Only later did we realize that base is close to federal and state prisons, so maybe this happens ALL the time.

Many churches in our town held prayer services Tuesday night. We went to a United Methodist church, where the scripture reading included a passage in Matthew 18 about "going to your brother" about his sins. It looks like the U.S. military will do that -- only it's going carrying cluster bombs.

A Rabbi spoke at the prayer service, encouraging us NOT to paint with a "too broad a brush," and get angry at all Muslims. He raises a good point. Only stop the ones with long beards, like Osama bin-Laden....

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