Where Were You on September 11?

Twentieth anniversary of 9/11/2001.  We often hear the question, or hear its answer given as if expected without asking. “I’ll never forget, I was…”  I remember that for myself, of course — I was at work, leaning over a radio with co-workers, stunned — as vividly as if it were yesterday. I also remember telling a reporter about it on the first anniversary of 9/11, when Stormy and I were in Bulgaria with the United States Peace Corps. A friend reminded me of the connection when she said 9/11 was the reason she joined the Peace Corps. I’ve never said it aloud, but that was true for me too. To do something about peace. That is still a worthy goal, and as we remember and mourn may we find opportunities each day to do something about peace. Peace in your own life is a start. Peace with a neighbor, peace with that crank down the street, peace with… 

Well anyway, the following is a chapter from A Breeze in Bulgaria. It’s about peace.

An Interview for Posterity

September 11, 2002

Stormy and I, along with Brian, our fellow Peace Corps teacher in Pazardjik, were interviewed for a local paper, Zname. The interview was on September 11 so that was why so much about the attack on the World Trade Center was in the discussion. The interview was conducted mostly in English. The reporter, Todor Grosdev, knew some English but not enough to compose all his questions or understand us at normal conversational speed. We had the same problem in the opposite direction, needless to say. Stormy’s counterpart, Stoian, was a friend of the reporter and it was he who made the connection. He sat in and helped with translation from time to time.

Peace Corps Volunteers in Pazardjik

Todor had asked us to bring pictures of ourselves, but we didn’t have any. The pictures with the article were ones I took while we were there.

The article was titled, “Adventurers from the Peace Corps.” The introduction said that we were assigned to Pazardjik, that we had traveled a lot but not in Eastern Europe, and that we had interesting backgrounds. It gave our birth years (which we did not tell him, but Stoian provided Stormy’s from her school records) remarking that it was the year of the end of “the good war.” It noted how long we were married, that I was a former military pilot and Mary worked in Customer Relations at American Honda. Brian’s age was given as 26, and that he had worked at a facility for troubled youth.

Military Pilot Bruce McDonald: “Conflicts Should Be Resolved Peacefully”

Bruce McDonald arrived looking like a teenager with a beard and mustache, with his backpack and digital camera. When asked how many pictures he has taken, he replied, “Several hundred.” What is most interesting? “We enjoyed living in the small town of Panagyurishte and I took lots of pictures there of the people and the houses, the monuments and so on. Here in Bulgaria the people take a lot of pride in keeping their homes in the family. The people are the most interesting; generations live in the same home and there is a lot of stability. In the US, people move around a lot more. And the countryside, beautiful. We traveled by train and the soil is so rich, the huge fields of sunflowers, all the other crops.”

Tell us a little about yourself. “I was born in Virginia, went to school in Colorado and it was there that I met Mary. Finally we settled in the Western US after living in many places. I was a military flight instructor.”

[Here it was reported that I flew many aircraft including “Aircraft 4” like it was some kind of secret thing. I had said that I instructed in training aircraft and flew several different small passenger planes, “aircraft for” taking people from place to place. He also ventured that I must have encountered many dangerous situations in teaching young pilots. I laughed and said yes, but I was glad nobody died with all that danger in my flying career. It was dutifully recorded, minus the laugh. Hard to kid across a language barrier.]

How much flight time? “3500 hours in the air.” And then, what did you do after your military service? “I left the Air Force in 1979, worked in an aircraft factory, lived in Taiwan for two years.” What did you think of Taiwan? “Taiwan was a country of hardworking people.”

[Never mind the order of events. At the mention of Taiwan he perked up and asked about “sex tourism” by which he said he meant illicit massage parlors, brothels and the like. Although he gave that description, it bothered me that he included those terms in my answer as if I had brought them up.]

Taiwan is well known to Bulgarians particularly for “sex tourism.” Is that a misunderstanding? “No, [those things] are there but they are not apparent except to those who are looking for them, same as in many other places.”

At this point in the article he wrote that we had lived in many other places including Texas, Louisiana and Florida, and asked why we chose Bulgaria. Here we find Brian’s answer to the same question. It says we were [he was] going to Russia and there was a problem with the visa so we [he] came here instead. I said that was good luck for us since we ended up working together, mispronouncing “good luck” in Bulgarian as “Kismet.” The reporter quoted the malapropism and noted the correct word as “kusmet.”

Where were you on the 11th of September last year? [Omigosh, are we suspects?] “Thousands of miles away in California, listening to the radio. Wondering what was happening, and knowing that there must be peace, there must be a better way to resolve conflicts.”

Mrs. Mary McDonald: “Japanese Genius, American Market a Good Combination”

Mary is no less an adventurer but has the spirit to match the other two. She will teach at the Dimitar Gachev School. Mary, what will you tell us about yourself? “I was born in the Middle West, Colorado, and grew up there. After we moved to California I worked at the national headquarters of ‘Honda,’ in the complaint department. We handled problems that could not be settled in other ways, and we worked with other agencies such as ‘Better Business.’ There are a lot of Japanese cars in the States. It is an interesting combination of Japanese genius and the conditions of the American marketplace. I was involved in teaching the staff people at work, and after work I taught English to people who spoke Spanish. I have taught French, American History, Geography…”

Was it boring being a military wife in Taiwan and other places? “No. I was interested in learning the new culture and language. Our second son was born there. I kept busy taking care of the children, learning a little Chinese so as to do errands and shop in the local markets instead of just the big stores.”

“Our two sons now live in the States. The first is 30 and just told us that he and his wife are expecting a child. The second is in California and is 27.” And surely he surfs every day? “He really loves surfing. He would like to go to the ocean every day to surf. He is a math tutor [private teacher for mathematics] and his wife is a nurse [the Bulgarian term is Meditsinska Sestra, Medical Sister] at a children’s hospital.”

You live in Torrance, near Los Angeles; isn’t it expensive to live in California? “That’s a problem. But we like it because the ocean is so near, and the mountains too.” And because you can see Hollywood stars there? “That’s true. Lots of movie industry there. The place attracts actors, musicians, writers… if you go to certain restaurants you can see them. We live a simple life so we haven’t gone to those places.”

Where were you on the 11th of September last year? “At work, in California. It was difficult to believe that such a thing was happening. I think from that moment the US got a better understanding of what other peoples have gone through with wars and disasters.”

What do you expect from your stay here? “When I heard about the Peace Corps it was appealing because it is something that can increase understanding between the US and other countries. Bulgaria is a wonderful place and we believe that we will also learn more about ourselves, by working here and learning from the Bulgarian people.”

Social Worker Brian Murray: “Lots of Energy Stored in the Eastern Quarter”

Brian is the youngest and speaks Bulgarian very well. After the interview he brought out a newspaper “Trud” from his pack and asked for help in reading an article he had seen, “Battle for Students.” He understood that in this battle Roma students are not wanted by anyone. And he will be working with just these children. He was concerned.

Brian, what did you do before coming here? “I started in accounting. Later with some other people I started a business, but it went bankrupt in two years. The year before coming to Bulgaria I worked in a ‘jail for children,’ something like a clinic.” All the children were criminals? “Yes, some were criminals, even killers. During their free time I would work individually with them. Some kids were applying for college. Many of them had no families, lived in the streets. For some of them I would be more of a brother. I have kept in touch with some of them, though indirectly. Yes, it was very difficult.”

You will teach at Rakovski School and at Sts. Kiril & Metodii School, two schools in what is called “the ghetto.” How do you feel about that? “I haven’t seen the students yet, but for the last two weeks I have felt that there is a lot of energy stored in the neighborhood. The people there have a lot of vitality. A colleague of mine, Dani, is a good example of being committed to helping channel that energy.”

And what part of the States have you known? “I was born in New Jersey and grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have traveled all over Europe and was in India and it was like a safari. Later I lived four years in New York.”

So you were near the place of the tragedy on September 11 of last year? “During that time I was supposed to have a meeting in that place but it was canceled. I was in an office 10 kilometers from there. I knew of the tragedy not from the media but I saw it in person. I stood with co-workers and friends in clear view of what was going on.” How did you feel? “I was shocked. I had a lot of friends in New York. None were hurt. My first thought was, ‘How can this be?’ Normally New York is known as a city where people are not always helpful or friendly, but after the tragedy it was different. We called to find out about giving blood and were told, ‘There is a long waiting list ahead of you. Call tomorrow.’”

What are your thoughts on the campaign against Afghanistan? “The nation supports it but the war is not against Afghanistan but rather against terrorism. American involvement has been longstanding and needs to continue even now to support the country.”

What about an eventual invasion of Iraq? “I don’t know what might happen in that regard.”

Stanimira

Our friend Stanimira McKnight, MD, MS, RPSGT, CCSH, came to see us this morning and joined us for breakfast. We haven’t had any sleep disorders — that’s her specialty with all those initials — but for us the Doctor made a house call! She founded and runs a sleep clinic in New York. We felt it was a bit of a miracle that she could arrange to see us on this trip, since she had a busy schedule lined up for an all-too-short visit to Colorado. Mira, as she is called, carries miracles with her.

We met Mira online, so to speak. She is a travel expert, and so is our son Joel. We connected through his website, Just Get Out of Town (JGOOT). Both she and Joel are accomplished world travelers, and Stormy and I have an interest in travel as well. Those two, though… wow! Along with a few others at the higher levels of the JGOOT biosphere, their dedication to the art of traveling, and especially to traveling well, is stunning.

We didn’t talk much about travel on this visit, though. Mira has such a fascinating story, we wanted to learn as much about her as we could. She already knew our story, after all. She is from Bulgaria, and when Joel learned that fact he mentioned that his parents had lived and worked there for a time. Then she found out about A Breeze in Bulgaria, and even before finishing the book her generous nature took over. She sent us Bulgarian specialty foods — even rakiya! — and we shared an online “happy hour” with others on Joel’s website talking about travel and Bulgarian traditions. It was an instant friendship.

I wasn’t sure Mira had known about the Peace Corps, so I wondered how the story would sit with her. She did indeed have some clear memories on the subject. She wrote me, “I remember the first Americans that came with the Peace Corps. It was like they came from a fairy tale. We were such a closed country we had just heard tales about US. Had no idea what people were like. We were taught to hate them. I never really understood how politics manipulated us (both sides) until I took my husband to Moscow and saw his terrified face right in the middle of Red Square. He told me he had been taught that we were the enemy.”

My dad had expressed some of those same misgivings, you might recall from the book, when we decided to go to Bulgaria.

I knew that Mira came to the U.S. 23 years ago, so she left there a few years before we went in 2002. When she first learned about our having worked there, she asked if there were still long lines for bread and other essentials. She had such grim and dreary memories from those hard times. When we were there we saw the people were frugal of course, and lived very well on little: not so grim and terrible. Our experience was so good, and so fulfilling, and the people so friendly, that it was as if we had been on different planets with just those few years separating us.

I had heard about those times before our arrival, when things were so  hard.

As I was crossing the big square…  something caught my eye in a crack in the pavement. It was an old one-stotinka coin, black with age. One stotinka was a hundredth of a lev, and a lev was about half a dollar, so about half a penny. But that was a current coin. In 1997 the lev was in ruins after a period of wild inflation, reforms were put in place to stabilize the currency, and the old coins became worthless. The devaluation was a thousand to one. This coin was from 1990, so if I had two of them they would have added up to a thousandth of a penny. How many of those would it take to buy a grain of rice? — Breeze, p. 51

Who could live like that? Hyperinflation. Food shortages. Desperation. So hard. Everything failing, falling apart. In the early 90s Mira was in in medical school at Trakia University. She describes it as a terrible time, right after the student strikes that eventually led to the fall of the dictator Todor Zhivkov and the Soviet system.

Naturally I assumed that was why Mira left Bulgaria for America. When I asked if that economic hardship and strife was why she chose to leave, I was surprised that she said she didn’t choose it. “You didn’t choose to come? But… “

There’s a story here, and maybe it ties to miracles. “My mother made me.”

Turns out, it wasn’t just her mother, but also her handwriting. Mira explained, you know how doctors always have such terrible handwriting? “Well, I had beautiful handwriting. When people heard that the United States had the Diversity Immigrant Visa program — you know, the green card lottery — a friend of mine wanted to apply. Since his writing was so bad, and you know, no computers, forms by hand, he asked me to fill out the forms for him.” She didn’t know any English, but she figured out the forms and did it. Then another friend, and another, more and more. It’s hard to say how many, but her friends were flocking to the green card lottery. Not Mira, though. She was taking care of family obligations, and didn’t want to leave her mother to handle it alone. “My mother pushed me to fill out the form for myself. I just couldn’t.”

Then the next year, more of the same. Dozens of applications, and Mother insisting for Mira to “Go… go… fill out the form. Have a life away from here.” Eventually, she yielded. Of all those forms she had carefully filled out, two were chosen in the lottery. One was hers. What are the odds? Mother made a miracle happen.

Mother died some time ago, and Mira still feels her presence, guiding her and making things work out right. Mother makes miracles. A week ago Mira wrote about the success she has achieved in building her clinic. “The lab was just an empty space in 2011, we had it built from the ground up and it was a struggle, still is, but I couldn’t be prouder of the people who did it and are still doing it.” She says it is rewarding, she works with good people and she feels close to her patients. They recommend the lab to their friends and are so grateful when they feel better. “Running a sleep center with 3 doctors and 6 beds is not an easy task but at least I am free to do whatever whenever.”

Mira continues, “I can’t believe it has been 10 years. I did that and it still amazes me that this country is so great. The American dream is truly wondrous. If a 30 years old emigrant from a former socialist country can come here with no money whatsoever, without speaking English or knowing a single soul AND be able to build a business out of nothing, then yes — the American dream is alive and wondrous!!!”

Mira has parlayed hard work and smart choices together with every now and then a little miracle, into success upon success in her work. And travel? This year Rio, Sao Paolo, Alaska, St. Croix, Paris, Sofia. And now even Denver! Next year around the world! Adventurous, exotic, and less costly than you could ever imagine. She proudly told me, “That’s the JGOOT Way!”

One of the quotes Mira shared recently with friends was, “You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you’re holding.” Yes, true. And she reminded me to mention that it helps to have a mother who watches out for you and makes things work out just right with those silent little Miracles.

Columbine

Today is the 22nd anniversary of the Columbine shooting. I was not living in Colorado in 1999, but everyone heard about Columbine. National news. Shocking. Unprecedented. Unthinkable. A month ago, another Colorado mass shooting. It was in Boulder, a King Soopers market. Do you even remember it?

A Colorado litany: Columbine. Denver. Bailey. Arvada. Colorado Springs. Littleton. Aurora. Centennial. Colorado Springs again, and then again. Thornton. STEM School in Highlands Ranch. Aurora again. Boulder.

Columbine was not the first in our state, but it raised a terrible bar. My neighbor Ken Fischer was dog-tired that day 22 years ago, as was his whole Lakewood Police Department team. They’d had an extra-tough shift the night before, but that’s another story. He was doing some hard work on an off-duty day, wrestling and sweating with pulling stumps for a friend, when he heard the call. 

Ken writes for my neighborhood blog, as do I on occasion. In this story, he tells of – what was it, a kind of compensation? A miracle? – seemingly built out of inspiration and willpower. Or maybe it was something dealt out by “a just and brooding God.”

Republished with permission.


By Ken Fischer

1999. The following fall, after that terrible day in April, the Columbine football team took the field. They were not great, but won enough to get to the playoffs.

My sector of Lakewood had the Jeffco Stadium in just about its geographic center. I would often tactically position myself at or near the stadium on Thursday and Friday nights for the rowdy high school events. My dispatcher was aware of crowd noise so she often called me on cell phone with anything critical in nature. Pretty routine, usually just being watchful, but there was one game that I will always remember as something special, almost transcendent.

Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado

Now there was something eerie about the Columbine team. These were the lads that carried one of their own to his final rest several months earlier. Their school was still undergoing repair so they worked through the hurt and anger to do something constructively normal: play football.

Columbine had never been any great shakes on the gridiron. Finishing near .500 was pretty good for the program. This year the team had no real stars and no standouts, and seemed to be a very quiet bunch. They took on a county rival in the quarterfinals and came from behind to squeak out a victory. A surprise. They were forecast to break even that year and winning a playoff game was a big notch on the doorframe.

Per custom, each team passed at midfield, shook hands then boarded the buses back to their school. Except Columbine. They had no school and would not until the following year. They shared time at Chatfield High, their sister school further south in the county.

Just after this victory and handshake, Columbine players and coaches assembled under the south goal posts. Very quiet, no hoorah, no cheers, no one but the team. I was standing on the perimeter with the Columbine principal, Frank DeAngelis. I began to say something to him in passing. He gave me a sign to be silent. I would.

They spoke in brief statements. No game analysis. An air of commitment. No one interrupted anyone else.

Photo from Columbine Football on Twitter, @CHSRebelball, 2018 Text: "Game Day. Tomorrow is promised to no one..."

Photo from Columbine Football on Twitter, @CHSRebelball, 2018

When all who wanted to speak spoke, they calmly walked to their bus. I had never seen anything like this in athletics. This was a team with a purpose.

The following week would be tougher. They were predicted to lose by at least two touchdowns to a far superior Boulder Fairview team that had experienced a fantastic season losing only one possibly two games. Fairview had a quarterback passer who had all the tools. He was a “young Elway.”

The game progressed as expected. Columbine held strong through three quarters but could not manage much scoring. Fairview was about eighteen points up starting the fourth quarter.

I was prowling the Fairview sidelines as Columbine pushed down the field and scored. No big deal. Two scores up, just run the clock.

Fairview turned it over in uncharacteristic fashion and here came Columbine, silent and deep.

Again, the ground game. Columbine scored in about six plays and were one score down with about four minutes left.

Fairview attempted a run, lost ground. Columbine timeouts employed. Fairview punts. Good runback by Columbine who scored two plays later. Still silent, confident, committed. No mistakes.

With a blue chip passer and two minutes to score from mid field, it would be highly possible to get to the end zone. The kid who was setting passing records all year threw two terrible incomplete passes. During a timeout, with just seconds left, I turned to hear a brief conversation between coach and quarterback. The strategy was set. Just do it. Run it in if you have to.

The all-state quarterback had a look that betrayed a feeling of something else at work here.

Fairview ran once and threw a pass into the dirt to lose to a “nothingburger” team in blue that could not be stopped by any dynamic in any playbook.

Columbine Memorial. Photo by Denverjeffrey, CC BY 3.0, Link

A stunned crowd silently departed for the Boulder Flatirons, not quite believing what they had just seen.

A calm, deliberate, committed bunch of young men in Columbine blue gathered under the goal post. They recommitted the season to their friend and fallen athlete, Matt Kechter, as they had done for every game throughout the season.

Columbine went on to beat Cherry Creek the next week for the state championship. Not easily but convincingly, and well enough. Enough to become state football champions for that year.

That team still frequently revisits the Columbine teams of ensuing years. They stand with the quiet authority of dedication and unity, to offer inspiration and support to those playing a great game with great comrades.


Ken Fischer holds a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Iowa and was involved in organizing Iowa’s first Law Enforcement Training Academy. He was on the SWAT Team in the Lakewood Colorado Police Department, and retired as a Senior Sergeant. A longtime resident of the Southern Gables neighborhood, he is an experienced woodsman and now runs a firewood business.