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.”

11 thoughts on “Where Were You on September 11?

  1. Oh, my gosh, Bruce, I’ve learned more about you and Stormy than I ever knew before. I didn’t even know Stormy’s name is Mary, and now I’ve forgotten how she got the name Stormy. And I didn’t even know she was raised in Colorado. That must be why you’re living there now. I was raised in East Denver (Park Hill) and attended East High. This is a wonderful interview. Thank you for sharing it, and the photos, too.

    • Thanks for the compliment. The bit about her name is in the book, page 12. In case you’ve misplaced your copy, when we met our host family for the training period, we decided it was too hard to have to explain that with our limited language skills. Stormy decided to use the name on her passport, as our hosts expected. We came to think of that as her Bulgarian name. Our fellow volunteers knew her by her preferred name, Stormy. As for how that came to be her name, it’s in the footnote on page 13: “Stormy has had that name since before she was born. For reasons of their own, it was her father’s nickname for her mother. Then when they were expecting their first child they referred to her as ‘Little Stormy.'” We had a visitor today who asked Stormy’s mom about the name, and Mom delighted in telling about it.

  2. This was a good refresher, Bruce, reminding me of where I was on 9/11 and all the thoughts of that period and going into Peace Corps nine months later. I became so much more sensitive to “war” as so many others in other countries experienced it.
    This week has been informative too from the perspectives of young adults who grew up without one of their parents.
    And witnesses, like Brian, who now are sharing that time period and how it has affected them.

  3. Wonderful chapter, Bruce. Thank you. I hadn’t known that Brian was right there. What a moving account.
    RE: Brian, back in the spring, I couldn’t find a WashPost, so bought the nearest big city paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. Found an article about property development which interests me because my son does that in Atlanta, but as I read, I thought of Brian, then saw his name, then gradually realized, “hey, that’s MY Brian Murray! ” You three, what a team!

    Peace and blessings to you and Stormy.

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