On the morning of September 11, 2001, my husband Charlie and I were in our home in Rancho La Brea. While we slept, two planes left Logan airport in Boston and one plane left Dulles in DC, all three were bound for Rancho Sausal Redondo. Around the same time, a Boeing 757 took off from Newark with the destination of Rancho Buri Buri.
Our phone started ringing around seven in the morning. My husband and I were asleep. A few hours earlier I nursed our two-month-old son, and my husband changed his diaper. We were new parent tired and we let the phone machine pick up the call.
In 1822, a 22,000-acre parcel of land was deeded by Mexican Governor Alvarado to Ygnacio Avila. The ‘ranch of the round willow,’ Rancho Sausal Redondo, included sandy beaches, bluffs, creeks, and an ideal temperate climate for raising livestock. In 1868 the Avila family sold the rancho to pay the court costs they incurred after proving their property rights to the federal government. Los Angeles Airport sits where Avila’s sheep and cattle once grazed.
Rancho Buri Buri was deeded to Jose Antonio Sanchez in 1835. The Mexican lieutenant used the land for grazing and agricultural to support the nearby mission. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the Ohlone people, the Native Americans of the peninsula; gathered, hunted, and fished the land. The Ohlone built boats of tule and navigated the bay and shore that is now San Francisco Airport.
Shortly after the phone machine picked up the first call, the phone rang again. I heard my friend Scott through the machine. His voice had urgency. Even in my sleepy state I knew something was off. I quickly got out of bed, ran to the living room and picked up the call. Scott said, “Mark is okay.” I said, “Why wouldn’t Mark be okay?” He said, “We were attacked. The World Trade Center is down. Mark was in the subway. He walked out of the train at Times Square. He’s okay.” “Oh my god,” I said. I yelled to Charlie, “Put on the TV. Something bad has happened.” I hung up the phone, we watched the scenes, we hugged and cried. We were like millions of people watching TV that morning.
So much of that day is a haze. The images were sharp and piercing, but processing 9/11 muted and blurred my psyche. Even today it is hard for me to fathom the actions of the twisted and broken young men that caused so much pain. At the beginning of the 20th century, a poor young, radicalized man, Gavrilo Princip set the world on fire by killing Archduke Ferdinand which activated World War I. As a new mother, it was scary to think where my child and his peers were headed, now that nineteen radicalized 21st century Gavrilo Princips had hijacked four planes to make some misguided point to the world.
On American Airlines flight 77, three children and their teachers were bound for a special field trip to the Channel Islandswhere they would participate in a National Geographic Society ecology conference. One of the students was 11-year-old sixth grader Asia Cottom . On October 9, in 1542, Juan Cabrillo sailed into the Channel Islands, as he navigated Alta California for Spain. Cabrillo wintered in the islands and interacted with the local Santa Barbara tribe, The Chumash. Later on a return trip, Cabrillo would die of an injury and be buried on San Miquel island.
The Channel Islands are important to the Chumash. In their creation story, The Rainbow Bridge, they tell how all Chumash lived on Santa Cruz Island until one day, Earth Mother Hutash, built a rainbow bridge in the air between the island and a mountain in Carpentaria. Hutash instructed the people to climb the rainbow to get to the land where there was more food and water. The people were scared because the bridge was so high, Hutash told them to keep their eyes on the goal and they would be okay. Many followed her advice and walked across the bridge but those who looked down got scared and fell to the water. Feeling sad for the humans, Hutash turned the falling people into dolphins so they could hold their breath. The Chumash call dolphins their brothers and sisters. The teachers and students on Flight 11 would have learned this story from a docent at the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary and they would have learned about Cabrillo had their plane not been crashed into the Pentagon. Before her trip, Asia told her mom, “I’m so excited, I get to swim with the dolphins.”
David Reed Gamboa, age 3, was on United Fight 175. David and his two dads, Daniel Brandhorst and Ronald Gamboa were heading home after a Cape Cod vacation when their plane was flown into the south tower. I wept a lot after 9/11. Hormones that helped percolate my son for nine months, exited my pores, leaving me raw and my emotions exposed. 9/11 stories hit my vulnerable solar plexus. In the fall of 2002, I read about David and his two dads in an article focused on the events in Los Angeles honoring the first anniversary of 9/11. Their story was so tender, I knew I had to go to their memorial.
I don’t think I did anything that day in 2002 on logic, it was instinct that guided me. I buckled Jack, who was now fourteen-months old, in his car seat. I stopped at a market, bought a bouquet of flowers, and then headed towards West Hollywood Park. I found a parking spot in front of the old library. I was grateful it was in the shade. Jack’s stroller wheels glided on the park sidewalk, I looked around trying to find something resembling a memorial. My eyes scanned behind children playing on a large slide, there I saw flowers next to a rock. I pushed the stroller over the bumpy grass and wood chips. When I got to the rock, I read the plaque that described the family and how David loved the park and he would always tell his dads, “Five more minutes.” I touched the rock. For one year, 9/11 was just images, it felt good to touch something hard and real. I placed my flowers near the memorial. I was about to turn the stroller back to the car when Jack yelled out. Too young for words, his hands did the talking. I followed his pointed finger. There off in the other side of the park was a play yard with small slides and things to climb, it was covered in a shade structure. Jack, like me, was on instinct and on some level, he knew that area was just for toddlers.
I felt my psyche wake up, it was not 2001, it was 2002 and my son needed to get his yah-yahs out. I pushed the stroller to the small, gated play area. As soon as I opened the gate and put Jack in the sand a look of satisfaction crossed his face. I struck up a conversation with another mom who poured toys on the sand for her son and Jack. Jack grabbed the shovel and pounded the sand. I felt my body relax. My child was having fun, he was safe, and I was talking to an adult, and it was all happening in shade. A switch went on. I needed this place, our family needed it and so West Hollywood Park became our second home for the next five years. We came to the park almost every day. We formed relationships, we made ‘park’ friends. Those friendships led me to West Hollywood Elementary, Jack’s first school. From there I learned the power of community. I stepped up. I was no longer the person who made snappy comments in the back of the room, I put myself out there. I grew comfortable in this new skin. I fought for causes important to me which included public education and supporting the greater good.
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I helped the teachers put an event together that honored the day. I reached out to Brad Burlingame, the brother of Charles Burlingame, pilot of American Airlines Flight 77 who died with Asia in The Pentagon. Brad had many memorials that week, but he said he would speak to the students. After the event Jack and I walked with Brad around the campus, he had an office in West Hollywood, and he wanted to see the school. Jack, who was now in fourth grade, had a passion for aviation and he and Brad talked about their favorite planes. Brad gave Jack a memorial coin with the Pentagon on it. It was a tender moment standing in the playground with Brad as we talked about his brother Charles. Parents will tell you that your world changes when you have a child. For sure. But there are other meaningful moments that come through your kids in mysterious ways. I would never have guessed; a profound personal path was launched when I visited David Gamboa and his memorial in Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas in 2002. Chalk one for instincts.
Three weeks ago, I looked at my calendar as I decided how I was going to get out the vote, I knew what I wanted to do, which was to go to one busy corner and remind pedestrians to vote. The weekend before Tuesday the 14th was critical since it was last Saturday before the vote. When I saw that it was the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I thought it was a perfect way to honor the day. I arrived at 10 am on Saturday with eight signs. I took the hot corner, the northeast corner of Fairfax and Third. I didn’t want the volunteers to have to slog it out in the hottest corner. It was stark like an Edward Hopper painting. Good friends and fellow activists spread out on the other corners. Each one-hour shift brought fresh volunteers. Word had spread through different circles, so I met new people who had signed up. I also had mom friends from Jack’s schools. One friend from Jack’s middle school was the first person there at 10am, I felt confident having her there. Another mom friend came later in the day, I met her in the fall of 2007 when her daughter joined Jack for the first day of kinder. My heart swelled when she crossed the street and said, “Give me my sign.”
For seven hours we reminded people to get out their ballots and vote NO on the recall. On this twentieth anniversary of 9/11, my friends and I were willing to get in the streets and mix it up and have conversations about why we were voting NO. Most of the feedback we got from others was in agreement. People would say, “I already voted NO.” I would follow with, “Great. Get your friends to do it, too” Of course we had people yell at us, ‘Vote YES’. I ignored them or would say, “You do Yes, I’m over here doing No”. Some Yeses were rude, and a few people flipped me off. Of which I would shrug my shoulders and give them my best, disgusted mom look that said, “Come on, you know better”. Curiously, the rude Yes’s almost always activated someone to say, “Don’t pay them attention, I am a No.” A couple people even brought us bottled ice water and orange juice and said, “Thank you for being here”. Those were thoughtful gifts and took the edge off the heat and the angry Yes people.
While waiting for the light to change one woman who looked a little older than me said, “I have my ballot at home. You are a good reminder for me.” I saw a faraway look in the women’s blue eyes. I was aware of my sunburn, it felt like a bad one. My arm was tired from waving a sign for hours. I was grateful this vote would be over soon. I thought how much money it was costing Californians. It made me angry like my sunburn. If people didn’t like the Governor, they could vote him out in 14 months. This recall was so stupid. I said to the woman, “One plane took a vote twenty years ago, I thought it would be good to honor them by reminding people to vote today.” The woman shook, her eyes now looked alive, “You just gave me chills. I’m from Pennsylvania, I’ll go take care of it right now. Thank you.” We were far from 2001 and thousands of miles from the scenes of the terror that happened so long ago but in one second it all came back to her and to me.
I stood there and watched her walk south on Fairfax. From where we stood I bet it was a day’s horseback ride to Rancho Sausal Redondo which did not receive three planes in 2001 and five hundred miles north a plane did not reach Rancho Bari Bari. I pondered how four planes didn’t make it to the land of the ranchos. I turned back to the pedestrians, raised my sign high, a horn honked and someone gave me a thumbs up. That is how I spent September 11, 2021.