Just before the world was reborn in its baptism of fire, I was telling people what an unaccountably happy man I was as autumn approached.
You see, I turned 48 on Sept. 7--the picture here is deceiving--and the next day I hiked to the top of the Chimneys in the Great Smoky Mountains with some of my favorite people in the world: My wife, Jeanne, our children, Alexis, Travis and Justin, my sister Kathleen, her daughter Rebecca Rose, and Alexis' boyfriend, Ralph.
Maybe I was trying to prove something by choosing the fairly strenuous hike and later, up on top, by climbing down through the open-ended cave-like shaft that gives the Chimneys their name. Afterwards, Ralph and I hiked over the sway-backed roof of the mountains to the second peak, an act discouraged by signs on the trail.
On the way back, at the foot of those peaks, a small waterfall in the Little River sang of cold renewal, and so several of us stripped to our shorts and/or T-shirts, depending on gender, and cavorted like seals in those crystalline waters. Then we drove home, where we opened presents and ate dinner, concluding with a chocolate cake my mother had baked. Next we sat on the front porch and sang into the night some songs Kathleen had written over the years. It was a good day and a night, and Sunday arrived warm and life-affirming, even as we said goodbye to Kathleen and Rebecca Rose, who went home to Nashville, and Alexis, who was returning to college in Murfreesboro.
Monday afternoon, as I jogged three miles down the road to shake off a day's work, I mentally composed a letter to God with the idea of turning it into a column, asking that if I have any say-so in the matter, he could just pattern my portion of Heaven after that weekend of my 48th birthday. Nothing fancy, I suggested. Just surround me with people I love and some natural wonders and keep me fit enough to climb a mountain and swim a river once in a while. That's all I want from life, either now or in the hereafter, I said.
Monday night the good spell I was under continued. I went to a reading by two Knoxville fiction writers--Brian Griffin and Pamela Schoenewaldt. Afterward, some of us went to a restaurant on Cumberland Avenue and laughed and talked until the establishment closed for the day.
Outside, at a terrace across the street, Brian and I watched and listened to a man play his guitar and sing. He was good, and his audience reveled in the music and danced with abandon, and so we took a table and sat for a while. Ah, how carefree we were just days ago. I keep thinking of one young woman in high heels and a long black dress that was slit to the hip. She has come to symbolize for me not just that night but the whole carefree world so unaware that everything was about to change. She wove dances before the eyes of the one-man band as he performed everything from "Stairway to Heaven" to David Allan Coe's party-down classic, "You Never Even Call Me By My Name," to which many of us sang along at the top of our lungs. Now and again the woman in black would approach the performer, request a song and then lift her blouse, giving him an eye-full to seal the deal.
Brian and I laughed about that and talked about a dozen life experiences we shared in common, but eventually the novelty of being among young revelers wore off and we made our way to our cars. I drove with the top down on my old Mustang convertible, navigating the night through a starry headwind....
Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, I slept in, basking in the warm, slightly guilty pleasure you get from knowing you've stayed out with friends too long the night before.
It was after 10 a.m. when I shuffled into the kitchen and poured my first cup of coffee. I was sipping it when the phone rang, and then this sad voice was saying a name only family members use when calling me. "Donnie," Kathleen was uttering so mournful and low something had to be wrong. Faces of family flowed through my mind, starting with Alexis... Lord let her be all right... and continuing on... Rodney, Rebecca, Aunt Linda, Uncle Sonny, others from around Nashville.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Do you have your TV on?"
At least it's not personal, I thought, before answering, "No, what's happened?"
"Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. Both towers are on fire."
We had snapped pictures and laughed with our brother Tim atop those twin towers during a visit to New York just a few months ago. But she wasn't through.
"Another one hit the Pentagon."
"You're joking, right.... Right?"
Again that mournful voice. "No-o."
I turned on the TV in time to see a tower dropping down into itself, casting off gray plumes of debris that rose in braided arcs across New York.
Replays of the disaster show a silvery airliner rushing at a wall of glass and steel, to enter almost seamlessly, like a key cleaving unto a lock, a supplicant slipping beneath waters. For an instant it was as if the wall closed behind it, and then came the orange and gold vermilion of the explosion. And I knew a terrible rebirth was at hand.