7 Days of Freedom By Christophe Marin
My life, colored with adventure and blessed with love, took a sudden change this past week. And thus began my 7 days of freedom:
Day 1, September 11, 2001 Waking up to the sound of my 3 year old daughter Meghan saying “Papa, it’s time to get up” was magic. Doing so in the rugged beauty of the Telemark region of Norway in a renovated farm house from the 1500’s was even more so.
I played with Meghan, ate breakfast and then set off on a five-hour hike through the mountains… my camera and me. The sights and sounds were heavenly… over 30 varieties of mushrooms, a 5 point deer rack, moose and bear tracks, mountain blueberries and elderberries and so much more… life was good.
At 3pm, I returned to the farmhouse. At 3:30, my wife’s mother turned on an old radio in the house… I’m not sure why. At 4:00 (10 am New York time) she said, “Something is going on.” My Norwegian was next to naught, so I counted on her and my wife to translate. One plane, two planes, New York, the Pentagon, three planes, no four… what was happening? We turned on the TV, which barely received one Norwegian station… chaos and confusion… both in the US and in the Norwegian Farm House.
No phones, one Norwegian TV station, an old radio… I needed more. After stoking the fireplace to keep everyone warm, I scurried to find some wire. An old metal clothesline; that did it. Within minutes my training as a Special Forces communications sergeant had paid off… wire provided reception as a make shift antenna for the radio. I fumbled for stations… German, Swiss, Swedish, Danish, Spanish, French (I understood that one a bit since I was born in France and have dual citizenship) and finally English (the BBC). And there we stayed the better part of the night. Listening, crying, praying, and wondering. Putting an occasional log on the fire and sipping coffee, we strained to hear the faraway station over the static. “This is what it was like in WWII when people hid from the Nazi’s in the mountains and listened to the radio to find out the latest news,” my wife said. (Some of her Norwegian relatives had seen first-hand what horrors war brought during the German occupation of Norway.) I got goose bumps. Unable to process anymore of the BBC broadcast and dizzy over the WWII correlation, I went off to snuggle with my three year old princess and find some sense of peace & comfort.
Day 2 We left the old farmhouse to make it back to civilization, a phone and CNN. Five hours later, we were back in Kristiansand where Karen’s mom lived (a city of about 75,000 people). As soon as we got to my Mother-in-law’s place, I was on the phone with my Mom in Chicago. Everyone was safe, Dad had cancelled all his meetings, the city was essentially shut down and everyone was glued to their televisions. Our vacation was supposed to last for another week, but it was over now.
The rest of the day, we sat huddled in my Mother-in-law’s small living room. We watched CNN with red eyes and tried to explain to our daughter that some bad people had attacked the United States.
“Where Papa?” She asked.
“New York and Washington DC,” I told her.
“Did people die Papa?” she questioned.
“Yes love,” my wife said.
“Did Abbi die?” she asked innocently (Abbi was her best friend in our hometown of Utica, NY).
“No honey, Abbi and everyone in Utica is ok,” I said.
“Did the President die?”
“No Meghan, the President is ok, but some soldiers died.”
“Why, Papa?” she said.
“Because of the bad people honey.”
And with that, she walked away from the living room to play with her doll and “change his diaper”.
The day was a blur; Meghan’s questions and Karen’s thought provoking comment of “this is how world wars start” weighed heavy on my mind. I slept like shit and tossed and turned thinking of the evenings of yesteryear when I had slept in the hotel in the World Trade Center and walked the halls of the Pentagon… I could have easily been among the victims and my girls would be left alone. I cried some more.
Day 3 I wanted to go home, but could not due to the international grounding of all air traffic to the United States. We were stuck. I felt anxious, angry, sad and confused. Paradoxically, I also had a new found appreciation for every little blessing in my life. I spent my waking moments playing with my precious Meghan and hanging out with Karen and the family. I prayed, drank lots of coffee (whose aroma and taste I dually appreciated like no other time before) and enjoyed every breath of life in the safe haven of the world’s most northerly populated country.
Day 4 “I need some time alone… I’m going for a walk,” I told Karen. “Ok hun,” she said supportably.
I walked in a daze through downtown Kristiansand. I found a bench and sat for a spell to watch people. I tried to see/ gauge how people were reacting to the sense of international chaos. Just when I was feeling sorry for myself and pissed off that “these Norwegians” could just mill about shopping and laughing, while so much pain and loss was going on back home, I came across two young girls (about 13 years old) putting up a homemade sign in the town square. I asked them what it said. “We are sorry for your loss and pray for the USA,” they explained.
I told them they were nice people and walked away before they could see a tear in my eye. I now understood that my family and my country were not alone in our grief. We had good, kind and supportive people like these young girls all over the world sympathizing with us. There was a measure of relief in knowing that we all had the support of strangers in these hard times- whether we knew it or not.
Day 5 Karen, Meghan and I met a small group of American women at Laura’s café in downtown Kristiansand, Norway. Laura was originally from New York. They told us that at noon the local folks would have 3 minutes of silence in the old town square. We joined them. A few hundred Norwegians milled around and the Americans (about 20 adults and 30 children) sang “God Bless America”, held flags and cried. We all left as quietly as we arrived- touched and emotionally swollen.
Later that day CNN reported that US troops were being activated. I surmised that my little brother Marc would now be on alert (he was an Army reservist and had just recently returned from a tour in Bosnia). Being a former Green Beret and Army Medical Officer, I thought that I might not be far behind him. Both the thought of my little brother in harms way and my potential deployment were unsettling. Part of me wanted to jump into a fight, but another part of me couldn’t imagine leaving my family behind to seek revenge.
In addition to CNN, the European edition of the Wall Street Journal had now become one of my best mates.
Day 6 Travel day… the flights back to the USA were now open again. I decided to head home and leave the girls in Norway for another week. I needed to get a better sense of what exactly was (and was going to be) going on in the states before the girls came back home.
A five-hour train ride to Oslo. A lot of time to think. A train would be an easy target. No security here, only a Café cart for your convenience. This was the first extended period of time in the past several days that I had no access to radio or television. I decided to escape reality and read a book about the Adirondacks, that beautiful wilderness refuge that sits just minutes from my house in Utica, NY. Thoughts of peace, hikes, fishing and living the American dream filled my mind….. I smiled, a lot.
Our friend Pelle met me in Oslo. “We have time to see the US embassy before we go to the airport,” he said.
We talked about the US attacks. “Unbelievable”, “unimaginable,” “sad for everyone.” You know… for a Norwegian, Pelle really knew how to use English adjectives!
The Embassy was an awesome sight. I had seen it a week earlier and thought nothing of it then. I had been in many embassies in Washington during my tenure in the Army Honor Guard and was not especially impressed with the rather plain looking office building in Oslo. But tonight, it was different. The street was adorned with thousands of candles, letters, flowers, posters, and children’s toys. Pelle and I strolled silently for an hour. We both cried… he had a five-year-old son to think about. The showing of love, sympathy and support was overwhelming… it was abundantly apparent that the USA had many friends in Norway.
I got to the airport in plenty of time and ended up having to stay there from 11pm to 7am waiting to get a plane.
Day 7 Two security check points with metal detectors and x-ray machines and one guard with a pistol in Oslo and off I went to Amsterdam.
And how did I find Amsterdam? As the old military cliché goes… it was a gaggle. Thousands of stranded travelers from all over the world trying to get to wherever they called home. This was sooo different from just two weeks earlier when I had passed through this normally tranquil and orderly Dutch airport.
There was a passport check getting off the plane; a metal detector and x-ray check in between terminals; a long line and a 30 minute wait. After that, another metal detector and x-ray check to the next building followed by another long line and yet another 30 minute wait.
At the gate, there was one final checkpoint- police officers with pistols, undercover agents and five customs police. They asked for my passport, ID and rattled off a series of 10 questions… where have you been, what have you been doing there, who did you see, how long have you known them, who packed your bags, are you carrying any sharp objects, whose cell phone and laptop is that, how long have you had these items? When they were done… an officer motioned to me… “Please step over here.”
I stepped over to one of the many card tables lined up in a row. The officer took my laptop case and emptied the contents on the table. Laptop, paperwork and a zip lock of small white pills (Karen had thrown some Anacin in a baggie for me because I’d had a stress headache for a week). “What’s that?” the customs officer asked, picking up the baggie.
My eyes widened as I thought “oh *%$#”.
“Ecstasy?” the officer asked before I even had a chance to respond.
“Oh, no… it’s aspirin that my wife…” I began to spurt out before he cut me off.
“That’s not much ecstasy.. you can go,” he blurted out very matter-of-factly as he motioned for me to move along.
I stood stunned for a few seconds before packing up my belongings (including my purported ecstasy/ aspirin) and I was off to my gate. The world was a crazy place and everyone was so worried about terrorism, they didn’t even want to deal with potential drug smuggling!
Following all the checkpoints and the weird ecstasy interaction with the Dutch officer, I thought to myself- this should be the safest albeit perhaps not drug free flight I’ve ever experienced!
The flight home was uneventful… thank God. We approached New York and saw a haze of smoldering clouds over the city… an eerie site… the “911 crews” were just beginning to sift through so much rubble. When we hit the ground at JFK in New York, the whole plane burst into applause and a few people wept aloud… it was good to be back in the USA.
I had a three-hour lay over ahead of me to catch my flight up to Syracuse. I made my way past customs (nothing out of the ordinary) and then through one last security point. My connecting flight was in another terminal so I hopped on a shuttle bus and made my way over. Two more security points going into the terminal. They checked my bags again and this time there were Airport Security, Customs, NYPD and US Marshals at the security point… reality began to set in. Surrealism began to fade.
I grabbed a java and plopped down next to a girl from Utah. We watched CNN to get the latest and talked in-between news flashes. She came to the city to help her boyfriend; his father, a British citizen, was in WTC #2 and was among the missing. She looked exhausted, but had an aura of life and enthusiasm that was incredible. I secretly wondered if it was just a façade to keep out the reality of the agony her and her boyfriend’s family was going through.
Our CNN session was abruptly interrupted. A NYPD officer ran towards a gate where a plane was getting ready to depart to New Orleans. Several other officers and the young US Marshall I saw at the checkpoint an hour earlier followed him. What the hell was going on?? People were getting nervous.
They cleared out the seats by the gate and a female officer had her hand on her gun. I was prepared to hit the deck or run if necessary. All of a sudden the emergency exit door next to the gate came flying open- temporarily setting off the alarm.. no one was watching CNN anymore.
Holy shit! Two SWAT officers dressed in full Kevlar, helmets and dawning pump shotguns came flying through the emergency exit door. Were they out there the whole time, I wondered? Were there other SWAT teams outside every terminal? What in the world was happening?
There was no action for a minute. Then, several police officers emerged from inside the gate with a dark-haired, well-dressed man of Middle Eastern descent. Damn! Was this for real?
Airline employees now accompanied the group of officers. They were talking, but we were too far away to hear what they were saying. The Middle Eastern man started raising his voice… he was visibly upset. A flood of questions ran through my mind. Who was he? What did he do? Was he a terrorist? Was he American? He looked like one of my doctors for God’s sake?! I was so f’in confused.
Within a few minutes, the drama calmed a bit. They talked some more. The SWAT team left. More officers came. The man was eventually handcuffed and taken away without further incident. It was over, for now… at least for us. Who knows about what was in store for the mystery man in handcuffs.
The next hour was pretty quiet. Pretty anxious. Pretty weird.
My flight took off on time. Two weeks earlier this flight was full. Today there were only 34 people on board. I made polite conversation with a young law student on her way to Syracuse to celebrate a friend’s birthday. She was studying civil law and wanted to work for children’s rights. I tell her that the world needs more people like her.
My enthusiasm for chatting quickly waned as we took off from JFK. It was a clear day; I could see for miles. I spotted Manhattan. I spotted the empty space and billowing smoke. My eyes filled with tears and I didn’t stop crying until we landed in Syracuse.
All of the videos, pictures and commentary on BBC and CNN didn’t come close to the real emotion of being here in the great state of New York in person and witnessing the destruction; pain; panic; fear and sadness in the American public. TV coverage didn’t compare to this experience. This was REAL and it left a big empty space in my heart.
My friends Brett and Karin met me in Syracuse. It was good to see familiar faces and I hugged them both like I had been gone for years rather than weeks. After a quiet car ride I arrived home where I was affectionately mauled by my three dogs- a Chow Chow, a Dalmatian and a Jack Russell Terrier. Howling, whining, running, licking, jumping, knocking me over and wagging their tales uncontrollably they let me know that it was alright. And with that, I crawled into the safety and comfort of my own bed, surrounded by three fur balls of love.
As I lay there in silence, I wasn’t quite sure about the safety of the world anymore and I still had lots of questions in my mind as to where these terrorist attacks and the subsequent deployment of US armed forces would take us. But one thing was for sure: I was thankful to be back home… in the United States of America.