A Horseman Remembers 9/11 Originally Published in Horse Directory, September 2011
By Tom Gumbrecht
Like everyone else on the morning of September 11, 2001, I can clearly remember exactly where I was and who I was talking to when I heard the news. I was talking to a client with a backyard barn in Brookville with whom I had an appointment that morning. “We’ll have to reschedule. Didn’t you hear, they flew a plane into the World Trade Center”. I hadn’t heard. The radio in my truck is as likely to be off as it is on, and it was long before the days of instant internet updates. It sounded like an event of which to take note, but I didn’t really understand the need to cancel an appointment.
As many probably assumed, I pictured an errant, small Cessna trainer on a sightseeing mission losing its way and striking one of the towers. Unfortunate, certainly, and tragic to those involved. When I turned on the radio I learned that the reality of what had happened was quite different. The second airplane had just struck the other tower. Feeling the need for human contact at that moment, and being in the proximity, I stopped at the barn of another client, this one a commercial facility in Syosset. The normally busy riding ring was empty, and everyone was gathered around a ten inch television in the barn office. I knew then that the gravity of the situation was much greater than I had contemplated. I arrived in the huddle just in time to see the first tower fall. I remember nothing being said, perhaps a gasp, but everyone stood transfixed at the tiny screen for a moment frozen in time.
I called home to my wife, Mary, who had just seen what I saw on TV. I made the decision to stop by at the home of my elderly parents in Glen Cove. It seemed at that moment to be an event unspeakably horrific in nature, but one directed locally and specifically at the World Trade Center towers. As I drove, I heard the news about the third and fourth flights in Washington and Pennsylvania. Normally a person who assumes that nothing bad will happen to US, the magnitude of the situation began to reveal itself to me and I couldn’t fight back the thoughts of a cataclysmic event the likes of which had only been imagined by doomsayers and screenwriters. And we were in the middle of it.
On the drive I talked to Mary and we made arrangements to have Samantha brought home from her sixth grade class at a small parochial school in Hicksville by our car-pooling partner and mom of Sam’s best friend, Kate. Once at my parents’ house we sat and stared at the television some more, as there was little else to do. Lacking information, the airwaves were full of speculation and conjecture, and I felt the need to get home and be with my own family. When I got there, Samantha was there already, with Kate. The children, Mary, and I stayed close, as if we were expecting the aftershock of a hurricane. I promised Samantha that I was sure that we were going to be all right. It was the only time I can remember consciously lying to her.
Kids being kids, the girls were soon outside in the barn fussing with Buddy and Magic, just being what they were, young girls who loved horses. I watched their carefree meanderings from the house and wondered how long they would remain carefree. I joined them a little while later and was struck by the seeming normalcy of life once I stepped into the barn. The horses didn’t know what had happened, and weren’t afraid of what might happen next. To them it was business as usual. The difference in my mental state once I walked into the barn was remarkable, and the thought of it remains so, even today.
Later that evening I walked out to do night check and was taken by the unusual silence. I had never realized how much background noise filled the late summer evenings until it was no longer there. All at once, the stillness was permeated by a lone jet fighter slicing through the evening sky cutting a perfect incision over the barn from west to east. I remembered at that moment, when I was a child and my father would get up when the eleven o’clock news came on after having dozed off in his chair. In his nightly ritual, he would make the rounds and lock each door before making his way to bed. I remember how secure hearing that last lock-bolt click closed made me feel, and I always drifted to sleep soon after. The low shriek of the fighter jet gave me, at least for that moment, a similar feeling.
But in the hours, days, and weeks to come, it was my horses who gave me back my sense of normalcy, or as close to it as I had been able to get. They deal in the here and now, and that’s all; they reminded me that life does go on by expecting of me the same routine that I had always provided for them. My personal losses were much less than some others. But I had lost a sense of security, the sense that after all, we were going to ultimately be all right. My horses gave it back to me, a day at a time. They quelled my fears by requiring that I live in the same world they do, and not the dangerous, fearful, horrific place that lay in my projections.
For that, I continue to repay them…. a hug, a bale, and a bucket at a time.
|Magic, foreground, and Samantha with friend Kate, in barn aisle, on the afternoon of 9/11/01.|