I still have the same bike I had then, a Trek that I'd ride from the Parkmoor Village apartments in Colorado Springs to the radio station where I worked just west of downtown. It was an awesome trip. I'd go through Palmer Park on a trail that often had me walking, or limping, out of areas that were too treacherous for me. I'd worry that I'd wreck again. Wreck like I did when I broke my back in 1999, but I'd stay relatively safe. Nothing memorable. Except that breathless cruise across the city after my brother called and said he was rejoining the Navy. They'd need him for whatever war we were going to have to wage. He would be right.
The memory I have is this small, cathode ray day that would begin with the call about the Twin Towers, and end--well, I don't think it's ever ended. In Colorado we'd been preoccupied with how the Denver Broncos were going to do without their star wide receiver Ed McCaffrey. He suffered a horrendous leg break during the September 10th night game against the New York Giants.
All it took was thirty minutes on a Tuesday for that sun to set. We were left to find something to illuminate us.
On the dusk of that dark morning, I emerged from Palmer Park pedaling viciously to get to my radio job. It was all hands on deck for KRDO 95.1 FM and 1340 AM. There was a TV station, too, KRDO TV-13. Everybody was going to have to help decipher cryptic news bits and bring as much calm as possible.
As I left the trail and cruised into the open pavement of the downtown area, a rugged man who looked like a homeless wizard yelled at me. "Did you see what happened to those towers?" I kept riding until I had this notion that maybe I didn't know what happened to those towers. I had this hope, some silver-lined dread, that this guy might have seen something different. I whirled around and asked, "Do you know anything more?" And it's weird when you speak out loud about certain things. Like death. The death of a loved one sometimes doesn't seem real until you blurt it into the universe.
I paused for a moment, wondering how I was even going to be qualified enough to talk about it on the air? How was anyone qualified? This was new. This guy who'd sauntered out of an alley would be as educated on surprise terrorist attacks as anyone. I felt small, and in this short interaction, realized a similar trait: fragility.
In a strange finishing bit of dialogue that I hadn't even expected, I told the guy that if he found out anything, to give me a call. "I'm about to go on the air and the number is 473-PEAK," I wrapped the conversation like I was finishing an on-air break. My lumbering dumbness floating between us. He wasn't impressed.
I don't remember the rest of the ride other than I was flat-out dangerous, pedaling through lights and jumping sidewalks to get to the station. I wanted to be there. I wanted to be there to inform, but I also wanted to keep rumors from spreading. I wanted to make sure no one was accused before they should be. Not that one jock on one station in the Springs can be such a force, but that's why we get into the media in the first place: we have the delusional temerity to believe that we can make a difference. I'd only been on the air in that market for a year and a half, but it was enough to know that there were those set to go off on a revenge tour without any provocation, let alone the destruction of America's trade center. Trade Centers.
I would get to the station and it was weird. You know how all the time there are little barriers between people. The boundaries. And not boundaries in a personal space way but boundaries in an unnecessary way. Doubt, suspicion, paranoia, assumptions. Those things that keeps you from truly appreciating each other.
Well at Pikes Peak Broadcasting on September 11, 2001, those were all gone. We were all communicating. We were all talking. We were nodding, and helping and touching. We were all at each other's bedside. We were walking open wounds. Pouring forth whatever anyone else needed. All of the help that we couldn't give to ground zero, to the injured, to the mourning, to the dead, we were giving to each other. We breezed around the hallway as if we'd all lost twenty pounds and were fueled with newfound purpose. And were younger and faster and hadn't carried any other burden in the world. Bills didn't matter, unpaid bills didn't matter, we weren't upset that the promotions department couldn't get us better on-air prizes, and we weren't bent about Britney Spears showing up on the playlist so often. We were there. Unabridged. Available
Some people might wonder: how do you fill so much time? How do you fill so much time on the air, especially when you're used to Britney doing much of the work. The microphones opened, and so did our brains, and our mouths, and our concerns and our hearts. Pauses became as necessary as the information itself. Fumbling around near a live mic; thinking, looking, paper ripping. Someone from the hallway shouting an update. All of it was on the air.
In the back of my head I kept thinking that I was not the right guy for this. Just yesterday I'd been talking trash about the New York Giants. And here today I'd rolled up to a microphone open to a community in need. People I never knew listened let me know they were listening. They just wanted to know something. Anything. Was there going to be enough gas for their cars? Was it true that there would be martial law? A lot of the calls were speculation about who had done it. A lot of calls about Muslims. So much fear. Shared fear. I'd never heard this before. Yet it didn't matter how inane the callers' concerns, the conversation seemed important. This was important contact. The air was suffocating but we were okay with sharing it.
"Listen, please, stay home." I asserted in my first attempt at terror advice. "Don't get in line to get gas. Just stay home." I think that may have been the first paternalism I'd ever dispensed. Stay home. Just stay home. Get your kids and go home.
The gas panic was the biggest thing. People wanted to be able to move. They wanted to be prepared for however long the siege was going to last. We had five phone lines coming into the studio and they were all blinking. The fifth line was the hotline from anyone important enough to know it. It didn't blink, it flashed a strobe. When it went off you needed to answer it. On 9/11 it just kept strobing. People that I didn't even know knew the number were calling it.
I looked at my boss and repeated what I said on the air. He agreed. He felt people should just be at home as well. That was weird, too, because he and I dwelled on opposite poles. And not in that way where we'd eventually meet on the other side. Just opposite. Here we were in this little room--imagine about three port-a-johns side by side. He'd always done his best to tolerate me and I would do my best not to get fired. Well, that's not true. That last part. But today we were trying to figure out how to talk. Radio professionals, comm majors, broadcast school alumni in a studio figuring out how to say things.
I called my mom while a song played. She was sad. Turning inward, frustrated. But ultimately, her first born was going back around the world again to join some kind of battle somewhere. Ten years earlier, in 1991, my mom had written this in her journal: "War is such a despicable word; it even tastes bad."
"Dammit, Jared." Weird hearing her cuss.
"Mom, mom, what am I going to tell people?"
"Tell them to be nicer to each other."
A little girl called. She was a regular requester. She played the violin and I'd put her on the air sometimes to apprise listeners of her progress. "Yeah, hey, Ewy, um, do you think that--well my parents say this is the beginning of a lot of war. LIke the biggest war ever."
"I dont' know," I said, clearing my throat like it might propel better words out of me. "I hope not. I hope that the violence we've already seen helps us...ahem...realize that war isn't the answer."
I hung up. There's going to be war. Probably going to be war. I muttered to myself.
"Mark, what do you think?"
Mark Goldberg, one of the morning guys, had just gotten back from riding his bike around town. He knew about everyone so I figured he'd gathered something from someone.
"That sounded pretty good."
"What I said to her?"
"Yes, but I think everybody is going to want to kick ass now so we're screwed."
"Ok. I'm not going to say that."
"Good idea. I wouldn't say that."
"Mark, I was even talking to a homeless guy today to help me do this."
"Help you do what?"
"You know, just help me talk about this."
"I know, man. I know."
The woman who was on before me on the midday shift was one of the most comforting souls on the planet. She knew how much I'd struggled when I first got to Colorado Springs. I tried way too much at once. Instead of being the polite guest who came into your front door, I burst through the side of the house like a drunken Kool Aid man. Spilling the contents of my head everywhere.
She came in with a public service announcement.
She read from the fax paper. "There's a prayer rally tomorrow at 1pm at Focus on the Family--"
"Oh, christ, Focus."
"I know, Jared, but it's...it's good. They can be good."
"I'm not putting that on the air."
"It really should go on the air."
"I doubt that."
Why am I me? I wondered. I've got to be comforting. It's time. I've got to be comforting. That's it. It doesn't matter--it doesn't matter, Jared. It doesn't matter what they believe and it doesn't matter what you believe. It can't matter. That's when these kind of things happen is when that matters.
There's something about humanity here. It's all about humanity. This lonliest of creatures that has to adopt friends from other species.
I called my girlfriend. She was getting ready for work and watching the TV.
Here's who we were, in a metaphorical sense: I know a guy who just lost the lower part of his leg. He says he had phantom pains in a phantom leg. Sarah and I, in September 2001, had phantom innocence.
"I'm not sure we'll be taking off for our trip tomorrow." Sarah said about our first planned vacation as a couple.
"Everything is grounded right now. But who knows."
Sarah had just started a job in the financial sector. People would soon be calling her and asking where their retirement money had gone. Phantom innocence.
The song had a minute left. Lee Greenwood. I grabbed a phone call.
"Yes, ok. A prayer rally. I got it. That's important. I'll make mention now. Thank you. Thank you."
I got some good feedback that day. An email that I'm still looking for from a man who'd moved from the Springs from Egypt. He appreciated that I kept reminding people that we didn't really know who had done it or why, and even if we did know, we did not yet know who or what they represented.
Inspired, I wrapped up my Focus on the Family prayer PSA break..."Please, let's all be nice to each other. We're cool and we're calm. We're America and we are the hippest cats on the planet and we shouldn't be shaken to the point of acting like ass___!" I went into commercials.
Did I say 'assholes' on the air? Oh god. The phone blinked. The strobe phone. Shit.
"Hello, The Peak!"
"You almost said assholes on the air."
"Oh, crap, did I?"
It was the news guy, Kyle. He wasn't going to sleep for a while.
"No, you didn't say assholes, you paused and said clowns. Still, you know, probably--"
Mike, my boss, popped his head in.
"Jared, good message. No 'ass' please."
"I'm sorry. I was rolling. I'm emotional. Hey, Kyle, whaddya got?"
More phone calls. I couldn't get them all. Boss Mike had already been headed to the studio with an email when he heard the ass.
"This guy's not happy. He says you're getting political at the wrong time."
"I'm not sure what he's talking about," I lied knowing full well what that email was going to say.
He handed me the printout of the man's complaint. His electronic thoughts pressed onto dead trees.
President Bush had landed in Marine One on the White House lawn looking all important and I was pissed about it. Even more so, I was pissed that I was pissed about it. He's the president...of the world. Goddammit Jared. All I'd said was, "Ahhh there's our boy...coming to make a difference." Yes, "our boy." That was bad. It was wrong. It's dumb and wrong. You're being divisive and as dumb as a person that you'd criticize.
I didn't say any of that to my boss. I wish I would have. I stared at the email and then looked up at him.
"I'm sorry. I'm trying to start a conversation, I guess."
"I can have Shawnee come in or--"
"That's OK. I've got this."
"I know you've got this, I just don't want this," he said, flicking the paper email.
Feedback good and bad. I was learning something. I was learning about voice. I was learning to talk again. Typically when you open the mic on a top 40 station, you've got about 30 seconds. You have some focus. You have an idea. You're coming out of one hit song and you're going into the next. You tell them about the weather. You tell them something of the band they're about to hear. And maybe cajole the listeners to join you at a car dealership on Saturday. Yeah, there's more to it, but there's always a focus. Today, the day, 9/11, every time I turned on the mic it was like a pulled a lever to a trap door.
I'd toggle the mic. Creaaaak, crash. The floor dropped.
When you come out of a song you always want to say your station, your call letters--the thing you want people to write in the Arbitron diary. Pound it over and over and over. One time a 45-55 year-old male wrote in the Arbitron, "I hate John Ewy." He kind of got the name wrong. Or maybe he was abbreviating some frustration about John Elway. But the Ewy part was a pretty good clue he was talking about me. (My show was 'Ewy in the Afternoon'). I joked with my boss, "I should stop saying my name so much so people won't know who they hate." He smirked in his suit and tie. He was a national guard member. A military man. A conservative pinstriped to the floor. But now he was out of his office and my new partner on the air. We worked on turning terror into talking points.
Back on the air.
"Peak 95.1. (pause) What a day. We have so much to learn and thank you for being here. We're going to be here to...you know...keep you updated. You know...Mike..."
"We're just going to be here. That's all we can do."
"That is correct. We will also be cutting in live feeds of Peter Jennings as well as Jon Karroll of the local KRDO TV-13 news crew."
"We have a microphone and a phone, so let's talk."
Pause. I was going to cry.
"Oh sheesh. Mike, do we cry. Are we crying yet?"
"I think you can if you want. I certainly have felt emotional and, at times, sick."
I don't remember how we ended, but soon we were sharing Peter Jennings. Oh shit, I thought, as I listened to his anchor voice break.
Strobe light. It's Jay. The night guy who drove down from Denver once a week to record his shows.
"Mike, Jay wants to know if we should delete his tracks..."
"That is a good question. They won't make much sense."
And that's a good point. We can be torn from innocence--or at least some comfortable level of knowing--to an intestinal-ripping free fall in moments. Jay's tracks had been relevant the night before: promoting music, enthusiastically sharing music news, popping off a quip or two. Yet a few minutes on a fall day alters everything. Going from Jennings to J-Lo would have been sacrilege. So how come we can't reverse it? Go from terror to good times just as quickly? I don't have an answer. I guess it's the difference between falling off a cliff and climbing back up it. That's what I thought about as I deleted Jay's tracks.
"Jay said he heard Whitney sing the anthem and he did cry."
"If he were here I'd hug him."
"It's a different day, isn't it?"
I remember my mother. I remember in the future of the past. Star Wars chronology. As it would be two days shy of four years later, in 2005, when I'd be sitting in the same situation wondering how not to cry. Or how to. Some limbo that had me making funny nose noises. She was about out. I needed to talk to her about going. Someone had brought that up to me, that it was time to talk to my mom about dying, and I yelled at that person and she packed up and flew away to Alaska.
I sat at the edge of her bed and I couldn't get through the gummed-up works of the tangled brain. I couldn't get out. Every time I opend my mouth I'd start to bawl. Like my jaw and my tears were connected. Truth to tears more likely.
I would find out later that crying is OK. The magical women of the hospice would say that she needs to know that you're going to miss her. They would say, "It's okay. She needs to know how much you mean to her."
On the air in 2001, I did not know that. Even when I did in 2005 I really couldn't put it into practice.
Mike adjusted his shirt. His tie was perfect. Sometimes just the jet wing folds of his collar made me feel like a slouch.
"Mike this is tough."
"It is tough."
"OK....listen...we're here and I daresay frustrated, sad and confused. Just like Peter Jennings and our guys on the AM side, we're still trying to figure out what's next. We're trying to figure out everything. Everything. I guess we're trying to figure out everything again."
"Jared, we're going to get a news update from Kyle and have some traffic from Jan. Isn't that right?" Mike said to push me out of my rut.
"Yes. yep. Kyle?"
I faded him up on the mixing board. I could hear Jan in cue. I dunno, tucking something in. She was a pro.
Are you going to cry, Jared? Just cry. Jesus, you cry over an episode of That 70s Show. It's OK.
They need to know how much you need them. Let them know how much they mean to you.