Sunday, September 11, 2011

09SEP01: “Once upon a time in Esquimalt, British Columbia”

The place where I woke up one Tuesday Morning in 2001
I was never a fan of mornings.
I knew that Tuesday morning would be no more different than Monday morning, except that it was one day closer to the weekend that I used to crave. Once with booze, tunes, women, girls, and more booze.
Given the type of person I was back in the day, I usually wound up with more booze. And there were times that I had to pay for the women.
But this was a Tuesday morning in September, as grey as the ship on which I served, tied up alongside at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, located just outside Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. And it was a day that was no different from the Monday that preceded it, nor should it be from the following Wednesday. Come to think of it: back then, nothing mattered but the weekend from a Tuesday point of view. I was there to get paid. And hopefully to get laid. Which, in my case, I had to pay for that privilege.
The only thing I had to do first was answer that alarm clock. She was an unforgiving bitch with a snooze button effective for only 3 minutes until she got vindictive with a louder blast. So I decided, “Fuck it. I’m up” and struggled to sit upright on my bed. I grabbed my pack of smokes and took out the first stick of the day, a ritual that was costly since a 20-pack of anything would run up to 10 to 11 dollars in BC at the time. But I was jonesing bad for that nicotine fix, because I knew that the day would be another crashing bore of training, teaching, training, dills, more training. I really didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, nor did I really cared about giving a fuck, but it paid for the smokes and the booze. And that was good enough for me.
It didn’t make matters any better that I was also a senior naval combat information operator on that boat. The naval reserve maintains 12 maritime coastal defence vessels, 6 per coast. Of the 6 in Esquimalt, 1 is set aside for refit and alongside training. My job consisted of ensuring that the kids under my control get familiarised with the equipment in the operations room and to get ready for work at sea. Honestly, I had no clue what I was doing, everything seemed a little over my head and I preferred to delegate the dirtiest of dirty works to my 2 senior Leading Seamen. Even though I was their boss, I always wound up partying with them on weekends, trying desperately to behave more sober than the minions. The end result , of course, was major fail.
After I lit up the first stick, I turned on the radio. The Victoria radio scene reflected the Zeitgeist of the 21st century "Naughts" - either all poppy or all crusty. It reflected the city’s attitude which was that of the “nearly-wed or the nearly-dead”, reflecting on those who were close to being married, yet were eventually condemned to an unfulfilling existence, and those who were close to meeting their respective makers, yet were eventually condemned to an unfulfilling existence. A no-win situation if you were stuck on an island. Rather than deal with the vapid blathering of the morning pop-radio deejays, I opted for the tried-and-true CBC Radio 1.
Normally, on this station, there would be talk about politics, world events, local events, more politics and fluff pieces on home and garden care in the morning, with more of the same in the afternoon and in the evening. No matter where you are in Canada, there is always a CBC Radio 1 for news and talk and a CBC Radio 2 for arts and talk, all more or less homogeneous in content and ideology. In fact, the only thing that kept me from being a complete fan of Radio 1 was because their “unbiased” dial seemed to be turned  all the way to Loony-Left. Not that there was anything wrong with dippy hippy philosophy, but when someone would host a “serious” current events show, the last thing the the listener would want is an indoctrination. At least the news coverage was good.
Something was really wrong on that day. The news was centred around a couple of plane crashes, one in New York City, another one in Washington, DC, yet another in Pennsylvania. The first thing that came to my mind was that either some poor soul lost control of the craft then all shit happened, or that some idiot was trying to make some warped socio-political statement by ruining someone else’s day. The President of the United States at the time, George W. Bush, was ranting on how these people should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. He was either over-reacting or off his meds – back then, I thought he was a bit too unstable to be a world leader, but then I had bought into the previous Clinton Camelot spirit that consumed most of the 1990s. “Whatever”, I grumbled to myself on my way to take a much needed shower to shake off whatever cobwebs accumulated in my sleep.
When I returned to my room, the same news was still going on, but took on a surreal, yet disturbing tone. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were no more, and hundreds, maybe thousands of people were either dead or missing. More people had perished at the Pentagon in DC as well as in Pennsylvania. “What the fuck”, I grumbled to myself as soon as I went over to work onboard HMCS Brandon, the designated training ship at the time.
As soon as I stepped on aboard Brandon, I looked around. Normally, there would be people hanging around the boatswain’s workshop located near the sweep-deck usually before 8 am (or 0800 in Canadian Forces speak). But on that morning, there was nobody there. I went in, got the operations room keys from the coxswain, looked around and went to the main cafeteria to grab a coffee and steal a toast. Maybe there would be people in there watching the news and explain to me what was going on in the world.
As soon as I went into the cafeteria, I simply gave up on asking. 31 other people were asking the same questions, either to themselves, to each other or to me, ranging from the simple “Why?” to “Are we going to war?” Like a macabre broken record, the news channels showed one tower at the World Trade Center smouldering from the wound left by the incoming aircraft when a huge airliner drove into the second tower. Then a cut to the moment when the wounded Towers slowly went down like a house of cards. The first tower fell when I got up that morning, The second one fell minutes before I got aboard. And we were going insane. “This looks like fucking Hollywood”, I kept saying. “Master Seaman, are we at war?” “Dr.Dray, what’s gong to happen to us.” The only answer I could muster was “Standby. We’ll have something to do.”
One man, a boatswain Leading Seaman, didn’t share the same feeling of anger, confusion and fear. He was originally from Lebanon, and he made the cardinal sin of saying that the Americans finally had it coming. The ship’s electrician, a fellow Master Seaman, threatened to fill him in – a polite way of saying that he was about to beat the tar out of the guy. I had to step in an break it up. It turned out that the boatswain spent some time in refugee camps back in the day, hence his beef with the US as well as Israel. I explained to him that as long as he was wearing the uniform of a Canadian sailor, he was Canadian, and he had to tone down the rhetoric for everyone’s sake, including his own.
As I was watching the highlights and aftermath of this unspeakable act (the word “tragedy” is not strong enough to describe it), I tried to figure out who would be behind it. Gaddafi? Saddam Hussein? The Michigan Militia? Endless fingers were being pointed. Back then, the name Osama bin Laden didn't create that much of a wave. After all, he was just one of many semi-Messianic terrorist warlords who resorted to hit-and-run attacks on unprotected military assets worldwide. All I knew that these were simply brazen attacks on the most visible symbols of American power, even though nobody had figured out the Pennsylvania crash until later.
All of us lower-deck people sat glued to the television until 0930 when the coxswain reluctantly ordered us back to work. Up in the ops room, we struggled to get back to what was considered as “normal” – delegating, drilling, teaching, ad infinitum. But we were also talking about whether or not we would be the next in line. In one of the rarest moment of clarity, I explained to the kids that we were targets, that any lunatic with a boat could take out the West Coast Navy in one shot. In a matter of hours, we got mustered, briefed and told what was going to happen, which essentially meant that the base was going into lockdown mode. Everyone had to be searched going to and from the base, extra watches were to be conducted along the jetties to discourage sabotage of any kind, and we were to refrain from bringing in civvy guests for the next little while.
The events took me by surprise. I thought that the US was vigilant enough to avert incidents like what happed on that Tuesday morning. So did everyone. But the people who flew these planes never got the memo. Meanwhile, all the laissez-faire that we had taken for granted seemed to have disappeared. Someone was trying to kill us just because they could if they worked and trained hard enough. The reality of the “world’s longest undefended border” quickly faded into history and cross-border travel quickly became regimented, scrutinised and dissected, all because of Osama bin Laden and his band of merry, soulless Jihadists.
In the days following the event, I called up my parents, sister, friends, letting them know that I was alright. I was relieved that my relatives living Stateside were doing well. But I was on edge for the next couple of months mainly because I thought that things would devolve from bad to worse to utterly abysmal. Some people handled it better then others, I just wanted to get my drink back on.
But I never forgave bin Laden, nor his enablers, nor his followers, nor the apparent sight of Muslims cheering this “heroic” act of 9/11. I never forgave them for upsetting everyone’s expectations that the 21st century would bring in peace in our time. Given the petty wars and pissing matches amongst nation-states and tribes alike, I doubt that there ever was a peace at the start: only respites, ceasefires and stalemates, punctuated by bouts of revolts, cold wars, jihads, coup d'états, assassinations and ethnic cleansings. The walls that we thought were broken down started to reassemble. There had been talk of Crusades and Great Awakenings, yet we as humans failed to realize that as a species that sit at the very summit of what is commonly known as the food chain, we are pretty much capable of driving each other to extinction based on petty differences.
It’s just to easy to say that we had all brought all this down on ourselves because of complacency, greed and pettiness, but it takes one individual with command of language and ideology to create a condition poised for an apocalyptic showdown. Osama bin Laden may or may not have been the mastermind of these tragedies, but as the bankroller of many successful terrorist undertakings, he was clearly the one who should've been held totally responsible for the deeds and their subsequent results and repercussions. Iraq, Afghan, Libya, Gaza and the West Bank… the list goes on.
So many other things happened on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. The cleanup at Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers once stood, may be close to being complete, but nobody can, nor ever will eradicate the scars.
All I can remember afterwards was that life, for me, went on, business as usual, on the following Wednesday. Under all normal circumstances, it would’ve been a day no different from the Tuesday preceding it.

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