Where were you when you learned that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated?
I was on an elementary school playground in Ohio that had gone suddenly quiet, as we watched one of our teachers slowly sink into a swing and begin to sob uncontrollably. We all looked at each other, trying to comprehend her grief, adding our tears to hers.
Many things changed that day in 1963.
There are other seminal moments in U.S. history when the impossible, the unthinkable, happened before our eyes. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. The Kent State massacre.
These were all part of a decade of unrest and social upheaval that expressed the anguish of a generation in the throes of an unpopular war and the seeking of civil justice for all races.
Yet all these events, traumatic as they were, now seem to pale in comparison to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and United 93, which crash-landed in Pennsylvania and was presumably headed to the White House.
I was awakened that morning around 6:30 a.m. by a call from a colleague at a local paper I worked for in Los Angeles. LAX was one of our beats, and one of the hijacked planes had left from there. It was a local story, even though the events were taking place 3,000 miles away.
I turned on the TV and immediately got on the phone with my mother in Connecticut, and together we watched the second tower come down on live television. It felt comforting to not be alone at that moment, but I didn't have words to explain what was happening.
I have a lot of cousins on the East Coast. One cousin-in-law said he would have been working near the World Trade Center had he not been laid off the day before. He would have been one of those fleeing the choking dust and watching as the enormous buildings fell. One of my brothers just happened to visit Coney Island that day and watched the shocking conflagration from across the river.
Another brother lives in the Washington, D.C., area, and from his window he could see the flames from the attack on the Pentagon.
By the time I got to work, around 9 a.m., we had changed our coverage plans and began seeking out anyone with a first-person story to tell.
The stories of heroes kept coming all year. One of our staff members interviewed firefighters who went in the aftermath to look for remains at ground zero. We thought she'd be able to shed light on what happened from a first-person perspective, but the stories she was told could not be printed in our family newspaper — they were too gruesome, grisly and horrific.
I remember vividly in the months after 9/11 that people would proudly fly tattered American flags on their cars. We were wounded but not beaten, the flags said. Everybody had their own way of coping.
I took to driving my car while playing mournful Patsy Cline music at full volume. When people looked at me in puzzlement, I just ignored them.
"I'm Crazy" suddenly seemed like the anthem of the moment. When you do not understand how two 110-story buildings can implode from within; when you see men in business suits jumping out of windows that they cannot possibly survive from; when you realize your family's friends, nieces and nephews have lost loved ones in a terrorist assault, the only way to respond is to accept the "crazy."
That was 10 years ago, and many things have changed. We now have to remove our shoes before boarding an airplane. Homeland Security is now responsible for everything from capturing illegal "boat people" trying to enter our shores, to providing state-of-the-art police and fire protection equipment.
The Laguna Beach Police Department is now fortified by an automatic gate that will come down in the event of a threat.
For the entire Police Department, 9/11 has resulted in a "sea change" for officers.
"Since 9/11 we obviously look upon every event differently," said Lt. Jason Kravetz. "On that day, much of the communities' innocence was taken away because something happened within the United States.
"Since then, we have received grant funding to secure the police facility in order to increase employee safety. We have also sent staff to numerous Homeland Security training courses and have made great lengths to better communicate with surrounding law enforcement, along with federal agencies."
Looking in this paper's archives, I found a story from Sept. 6, 2002 — near the first anniversary of the attacks. Apparently some yahoo in a bright red plane decided to perform aerial stunts over the city — and got the attention of then-Mayor Wayne Baglin and other city officials.
"The plane flew low over the beaches and turned cartwheels over Woods Cove between 5 and 5:30 p.m. and then skedaddled with one wing pointed directly down and the other one up," our reporter Barbara Diamond wrote. "Some said the pilot made a getaway north, some said to the south — a worrisome thought with San Onofre just down the road apiece."
If it hadn't been nearly one year to the day after 9/11, the prank would have probably been considered just hijinks and passed virtually unnoticed, but in those post-9/11 days, potential threats were seen from everywhere.
We have become a society that is looking over our shoulders, even in the tranquillity of Laguna Beach.
CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 302-1469 or email@example.com.