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What seemed like just another day actually wasn't

The morning after the worst attack in U.S. history, with images of a jetliner serenely plowing into a glittering office tower and the Pentagon on fire seared into our minds forever, maybe what was most startling was how utterly, blessedly normal everything felt.

Two hundred miles to the north, blocks of South Manhattan looked like Dresden in '45, as rescuers continued the grim task of searching through the rubble for the lucky and the dead.

Forty miles to the south of us, with mortuary teams and specially trained, corpse-sniffing dogs fanning out, the same grisly work went on behind the charred, crumbled walls of the Pentagon.

But here in Baltimore, why, you could almost fool yourself into thinking, however briefly, that Sept. 11, 2001 had never happened.

The sun was shining, birds sang in the trees, the sky was so blue it made your eyes water.

Stores and businesses opened, men and women went off to work, kids went off to school, seniors unlimbered in yoga classes.

At 7 a.m., I went for a walk in my neighborhood and soon passed a gaggle of middle-schoolers waiting for their school bus.

There were about 10 of them, boys off to one side, girls on the other, in the standard gender segregation you see once puberty hits.

All of them were chattering excitedly. But one girl's voice seemed to rise above the others. Then she said something that seemed to hang, like laundry, in the crisp air:

"If they bomb Washington, we're toast."

So maybe it wasn't just another day after all, not if schoolkids were starting their morning chit-chatting about enemy strikes on the nation's capital.

As the day unfolded, it was clear that many of us, whether at work or at home, were still hunkered around the TV, hungry for more details on the horrific attacks the day before.

The coverage was wall-to-wall for a second day: footage of weary rescue workers looking for survivors, interviews with somber-faced politicians vowing vengeance, anti-terrorism experts pontificating on whether we could track down Osama bin Laden - the new Dr. No in our international pantheon of evil - and slip a missile into his tent.

Katie Couric and Matt Lauer talked with Rudy Giuliani and Sandy Berger, CNN paraded out one talking head after another with new details: of a rental car found in Boston possibly used by the terrorists, of arrests in Florida and Providence, R.I., of Russian reaction to the bombings, so many details it made your head spin.

In the car on the way down the JFX, I turned on the radio and listened to WBAL-AM and Chip Franklin's morning talk show.

Out of the ether came voices, voices filled with anger, with shock, with fear. Fly your American flags, more than one caller said, show your support for the country.

Rich on his cell phone said: "Life will never be the same in this country."

Don from Reisterstown said Rich was full of it. "We will emerge from this even stronger."

Two hours later, when I drove up Television Hill to the WBAL studios, a security guard stopped me before a closed gate. A police officer sat in a patrol car a few feet away. I waved; he didn't.

So much for a normal Wednesday morning in Charm City.

In the third-floor studio, Chip Franklin looked tired from two days of discussing the attacks and their aftermath. News anchor Bill Vanco was a co-host of the show with him. When I asked the two to characterize the tone of the callers, they said there had definitely been an outpouring of patriotic fervor, but that most of the dialogue had been level-headed and fairly restrained.

"There doesn't seem to be a well-spring of anger in terms of 'Let's go level Afghanistan,' " Vanco said.

"Did you hear that one guy, though?" Franklin asked me. "He said: 'I wanna go over there and kill 'em' and [defile] their graves.' "

While I was there, Mark from Bel Air called. In a quavering voice, he said: "Hi, Chip, I hope I can hold it together as I talk to you."

Then Mark explained that his father was a World War II survivor, and that Mark had been filled with shame after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon - ashamed, apparently, that the country was not better prepared, intelligence-wise, to thwart the terrorists.

Then, Mark said, he went to his father and said: "We let you down."

I stayed for another 45 minutes, long enough to hear Dan from Baltimore say of the terrorists: "There's only one way to stop these people, and that's to remove them from the face of the Earth."

But his voice was curiously flat, almost disaffected, as were the voices of several other callers.

"When we start burying people," Franklin said, "that's when you'll hear the rage."

All day long, wherever I went, people were gathered in little knots, talking in hushed tones about the burning buildings they'd seen on TV the day before, asking each other how this could have happened to the greatest country on Earth.

On the way home, I saw what is fast becoming the mournful symbol of this crisis: a young man on the side of the road, waving an American flag.

When I got home, I turned on the TV again. At that moment, CNN was running a crawl that said the White House may have been the intended target of the jetliner that slammed into the Pentagon.

Air Force One might have been a target, too, the crawl said.

It hadn't been just another day, after all.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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