All of us of a certain age know where we were 20 years ago on Sept. 11.
Imagine a small village with thatched huts lit by torches, women in skirts of dried grass, and a shoreline of beaches and coconut palms and you’ve got a pretty good picture of where I was.
Anchored off a remote island, my parents, brother and I couldn’t have been farther from the events of that day. I was 16, on a sailboat in the volcanic archipelago of Vanuatu on the other side of the planet. (It’s a long story, but it wasn’t a vacation or pleasure cruise. It was our bohemian lifestyle for seven years.)
I bring it up because I want to mention something special that happened that day and the days that followed.
Consumer satellite phones were in their infancy, and we had no internet or television on the boat. Our connection to the world was a ham radio. We tuned it to Voice of America and the BBC and experienced the events through the voices of the reporters.
We weren’t alone. There were other boaters traveling the area – expats from a variety of countries. Periodically, we would hear a knock on the hull and strangers in a dinghy would express their condolences and support. (Traditionally, boaters fly their nation’s flag off the stern, so it was clear we were Americans.)
Here we were in the middle of nowhere, and people from all sorts of backgrounds were asking us what they could do to help. It was a microcosm of what would play out across America and the world.
“At a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action. That is the nation I know,” former President George W. Bush said in a speech a week ago marking the 20th anniversary. “This is not mere nostalgia; it is the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been – and what we can be again.”
It was a time of horror on a mass scale followed by an explosion of love and service that I saw play out half a world away in a bay in Vanuatu. On this 20th anniversary, when times aren’t the best, it’s something worth looking for – remembering – in the distance.
“We saw that Americans were vulnerable, but not fragile – that they possess a core of strength that survives the worst that life can bring,” Bush said. “We learned that bravery is more common than we imagined, emerging with sudden splendor in the face of death. We vividly felt how every hour with our loved ones was a temporary and holy gift. And we found that even the longest days end.”