When special American holidays roll up on the calendar, it always feels strange being here. Even when it’s Independence Day, Thanksgiving or, Memorial Day in America, it’s just another day here in Germany. Today feels especially strange. September 11 is a day of mourning and remembrance. On this day, every American thinks about where they were and what they were doing at that moment they learned the world might just be falling apart.
For me, I didn’t suffer any direct losses of family or friends. On a professional basis, I did know someone who was on the plane that slammed into the Pentagon. I had spent time on Capitol Hill working with Barbara Olson when Congress was investigating another tragic loss of innocent lives, this one in Waco, Texas. Whether you agreed with her or not, Barbara was smart, hard-working and had a lot of guts, such a rare combination in politics. Her death was not only a horrendous loss for her husband and family, it mattered to people like me too. (sorry hyperlinks not working. To learn more about Barbara Olson cut and paste this into your browser: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Olson)
But another loss started that day and I’ve never felt comfortable sharing it, daring to compare my loss with the epic loss of others. But, by doing that I’ve missed the opportunity to talk about a good friend. So, on September 11, 2001, I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico with Gary. We had just left California and were moving to North Carolina. On the way, we detoured to Albuquerque, where we had once lived. It was just an opportunity to visit with old friends and load up on green chile.
At the top of my friends-to-see list was Charlie Young. Some years before, When I had moved to New Mexico, I had a rough start at my new job. In any state, people in politics are predisposed to dislike/distrust outsiders, and in New Mexico that was definitely the case. I don’t know which was worse, the fact that I came from Washington, DC or that I was a Republican. Either way, I was a bit of a target.
One person in particular saw my arrival as an absolute threat to her livelihood and I needed to be destroyed. I soon learned tales of my arrogance, incompetence and other rotten things that were circulating in the political world. The legislative session hadn’t even started but I was already cobbled into a caricature that I did not recognize. I’d never been smeared before and, even when you know things aren’t true, it still smarts when people you’ve never met before don’t like you.
The session was coming and I was feeling a bit paranoid for myself and for the organization I represented. I had to do something. I called the best contract lobbyist I knew of and explained the situation. He thought I was paranoid. Then he called me a week later and said: “You’re right. What you’ve heard is really happening but don’t worry, my friends and I will have your back.” I felt a little bit better about things after that and looked forward to the session so I could start defining myself among the people who wanted to see me fail.
In the meantime, I developed a few strategies and one of them was to get to know Charlie Young, a veteran of the lobbying world. He was one of those curious characters that you hear about and don’t know which stories to believe: he was a draft-dodger during Vietnam, he had a vicious wit and, he was cut-throat operator. He turned out to be all of those things and none of those things. Most of all, he became a mentor and a dear friend. And, he made me laugh. A lot.
Fast forward to September 11, the date Charlie and I had already scheduled to have lunch. When Gary and I woke that morning, the first tower had just been struck. Then minutes later we saw the live strike of the second tower. Like many others in the world, we spent the next few hours mesmerized and horrified by the unfolding events. My mobile rang and it was Charlie. Him: “Can you believe this?” Me: “No.” Him: “Should we still meet?” I knew what he was thinking. At a time like this, it seemed so selfish and superficial to meet a friend for lunch. Then again, I thought, life is fleeting. I wanted to see my friend. Me: “Yes, let’s still meet.”
So Gary and I met Charlie at a restaurant filled with quiet patrons, eyes glued to the television that had been pulled in from the bar. Charlie hobbled in on crutches. A couple weeks earlier, he had suffered a seizure while mountain biking. He’d never had a seizure before. Always athletic, it was a real shock to Charlie and his family. But, fortunately he took it seriously and told me in detail all the medications and other things he was doing to recover. His wife Lucy was a doctor and Charlie was a highly informed patient.
It had been a couple years since we’d seen each other so there was a lot of gossip to catch up on. Despite the gravity of the day, I threw my head back in a laugh at one of the latest legislative exploits. Then I looked around, embarrassed. To an outsider, it must have looked terrible to laugh on a day like this. But, that was Charlie, always able to turn things around no matter what was going on. We talked a few more times on the phone but that was the last time I saw him on that trip.
Two years later, I was back in Albuquerque for a wedding. Nora was a few months old, and I flew in with her and Gary would be come a few days after that. One evening, I went to dinner at Charlie and Lucy’s home, high up in the desert. He was full of excitement because his daughter was running in her first campaign for public office. Funny enough, he was a mostly a Democrat but his daughter was a Republican. It didn’t matter to Charlie. He was so proud.
But the mood changed over dinner. Charlie was highly agitated about the impending American invasion/liberation of Iraq. He was angry that Bush and Congress were giving it the go-ahead. I got a sense of how he felt about Vietnam, even though I thought he was wrong on both counts. And, for the first time ever, Charlie was upset with me. I supported Bush’s decision and Charlie looked at me uncomprehendingly. I was sorry to upset him but I wasn’t going to change my principles either. The ripple effect of September 11 never seemed to end. Fortunately, we rebounded to enjoy the rest of the evening. All was good.
One thing he mentioned before I left was that he was looking forward to a cycling tour in Colorado. I thought of his seizure but didn’t want to bring it up. Then, a month or so later, I got a message. Charlie was dead. On the cycling tour, he had bike trouble one day and needed to get it to a repair shop. He separated from his group and went into town. A car rounding a corner didn’t see him and Charlie ended up on the windshield, a fatal blow. Life is fleeting.
Again, my September 11 remembrance is nothing compared to the fear, desperation, horror, and tragedy suffered by so many. I mourn those losses and I also think of Charlie. (more about Charlie: http://www.abqjournal.com/venue/personalities/284022person01-07-05.htm)