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Where were you on 9/11?
by Rhys Thomas
posted September 10, 2011

The editor of this magazine, newly installed as organizer/manager of the National Croquet Center, was having breakfast at Henry's Bistro on the Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach when another regular came in to announce, "A plane has hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center in New York." We all assumed it was a freak accident and that some people were killed. Later, after parking at the Center I decided to visit the USCA quarters before going to my own office and was surprised to find Shereen Hayes and her staff transfixed in front of a 16-inch TV set. "They think it's a deliberate attack," Shereen said. We watched in silence the escalating horror: first, people jumping to their death from high floors to avoid the flames; the second plane hitting the South Tower; the sudden and yet agonizingly slow collapse of the North Tower, floor upon floor, as more realizations dawned: "The South Tower will collapse, too! Those people have to get out of there!" And finally, "This is a war!" We were watching events that would change the world, and only now, ten years later, can we begin to count the cost and measure the consequences.

Nearly six thousand miles from the vortex of terror that enveloped Manhattan Island and Potomac Flats, there I was, on Waikiki Beach, pondering the irony of this day, irreparably changed by the diabolical course of human events transpiring before the eyes of the world, and another infamous day, sixty years gone. I am not old enough to remember the Pearl Harbor attack, but I was there on September 11th 2001.

I was visiting Honolulu to conduct interviews for a unique project: "Sex in World War Two" --three salacious hours for The History Channel. Hawaii was a natural beginning, Pearl Harbor being one of the great hashmarks of History, the launch pad for any study of American involvement in The Big One, as people of that great generation called World War Two. I was there to research and report the seedy story of the most notorious and profitable red-light war zone in America--Honolulu's Hotel Street. But that sexy tale is not what brings me to this essay. No, I am compelled by the peculiar and serene juxtaposition of past and present in Hawaii that September day, felt by the veterans, felt by suddenly stranded tourists, felt by the inherently good people of Hawaii.

I was sleeping in my oceanfront hotel room when the phone rang just before four o'clock in the morning. One always imagines the worst at such an hour. The female voice at the other end was hysterical, crying, terrified. To my enormous relief she was not my wife, nor my mother, but a work associate, Lauren. She's a kind child of the last tenth of the 20th Century, with street smarts, a good education, and a flair for drama. On that morning she had the difficult duty of assisting our modest television documentary production venture from afar. She was calling from our base in Los Angeles.

"We're under attack," Lauren sobbed. I heard horror in her tears. She told me to turn on the television, so I did. I'm sure I felt like almost every other person in the world who watched that unfolding scene on TV, realizing its terrible surreal truth.

I hadn't had the set on for more than a few minutes when the South Tower collapsed. It was only a matter of minutes before Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw all predicted the fall of the North Tower. And then it fell.

Beyond shuddering thoughts of diabolical genius, I began to deal with my own seemingly meaningless situation. It was 4 am in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We had a full day of work planned--five interviews carefully scheduled by Lauren's months of work. Would they still happen? We'd have to wait until a decent hour--at least 8 am in the mid-Pacific time zone--to call the Vets and find out if they wanted to carry on or not. I don't think I'm stepping too far ahead in this story to say that each one appeared before our camera, as scheduled.

Leaving the TV set on, I dressed and left my hotel room, rode the elevator to the hotel lobby and went straight for a money machine. No one else was around. I withdrew the maximum amount of cash from the machine, thinking of the vital financial institutions that might be affected, that might be no more; thinking that the computers could go down at any moment, be down for days, or longer.

I walked out of the Hotel, the Moana, the magnificent Old Lady of Waikiki, and stepped onto the imported sands of Waikiki Beach. It wasn't quite dawn. To my left, the East, I looked at the timeless painted postcard vista of Diamond Head, back-lit by the first rays of the rising sun, the great Tiki Torchlight of Renewal, or maybe Pele herself, outshining the terrific TV images replaying through my mind (the second jet... diabolical genius).

To my right, the West, was the front-lit horizon of the Pacific Ocean, turquoise in color and nature, lapping the sanded volcanic rock that is Oahu and its neighboring islands. The Rock, that's what the Vets called Oahu back in 1941.

While confounded by the encroachment of civilization, Hawaii is still magical. One can only imagine what it must have been like one similarly serene morning, sixty years before, when another beautiful sunrise was broken by the horror of human abomination. That day forever changed Hawaii and America. This day did the same.

Along that early morning Western sky I spied a line of ships, creeping like ants in silhouette across the water-lined horizon. War ships. A destroyer. A heavy cruiser, somewhat akin to a battleship. An aircraft carrier. Another destroyer. This was the pride of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet, at battle stations, under steam. I watched as the war ships turned to port out of Pearl Harbor, moving toward the mainland, covering Waikiki. I'm sure other ships went to the West, toward Asia.

Finally, I saw a dark, foreboding hulk of a ship creep to a position just outside Honolulu Harbor, the gateway to tourist Hawaii. There it stopped. At first, I thought this might be a tanker, wanting to go to sea, maybe in a hold pattern because of the changing global situation. But I couldn't tell. The dark, brooding vessel just sat there, as if it had anchored. Later I learned it did just that.

Up to that moment, there were very few people on the beach or wandering around the hotel grounds; but with the sunrise came the usual casual bustle of Hawaiian life. Tourists were jogging or grabbing donuts and coffee. Locals began surfing the soft swells of Waikiki and going to work. Just another perfect day in Paradise, or so it seemed. But everyone knew, or soon found out what was happening six thousand miles away. Every TV set on the Island, it seemed, was turned on, the audio booming through the streets.

I'd have to wait until 8 am before we could reasonably begin calling the people on our interview list to see if they wanted to keep their scheduled appointments or postpone. Until then, I had nothing to do but watch the unfolding tragedy and Hawaii's reaction. I went for a swim in the ocean, I ate some fruit, I drank some coffee. None of that seemed to process.

At 7 am, I called my friend and photographer, Dan Waymack. I knew he'd be awake--he never sleeps--but common decency prevented me from phoning him any earlier. He was watching the tube and wanted to know, "What are we gonna do?" I said we'd have to call the interviewees. He said to come on up to his room.

Dan is an original Southern Gentleman, someone who'd defend the honor of a slighted slattern on principle. With ten cases of production gear hauled from Little Rock, Arkansas, he was already my hero. He was staying in one of the great rooms at the hotel, a stunning suite, many floors up, with dynamic views off two separate porches. This was to be our interview studio. When I arrived at his door, Dan was already set up for the day--he'd done it the night before. The only thing we had to do was plant our first guest in the hot seat, turn on the lights and roll tape.

Before setting to my task of making phone calls, I asked Dan if he'd seen the U.S. Navy's show of force off the coast. He hadn't, so we went to the balcony. From our luxury perch, beyond the surfers and early morning swimmers, we could see six Man O' War picketed off Waikiki. Then we looked at the large, dark, foreboding ship that was just sitting outside Honolulu Harbor. I asked Dan what he thought it might be. In his distinctive Arkansas drawl he said: "I don't know, Mister Rhys. Let's take a look."

Dan brought his video camera to the balcony. Peering through its long lens, and at the image it projected on the monitor, there was no question about that dark, brooding ship anchored at Pearl's gate. It was a guided missile ship, with men at battle stations, loaded and ready for way more than bear. We rolled some tape on it.

Soon, a commercial airliner appeared, approaching Honolulu from the West. Just then it occurred to me that I hadn't seen any airplanes coming or going that morning, not until this moment. This was the first airplane I had seen. Again, using Dan's long lens, we could see it was a stretch-model Boeing 747, and it had escorts. Two fully armed US Air Force F-15's Eagles soared alongside the jumbo passenger jet, guarding it and guiding it to Honolulu's international airport, on a path directly over the guided missile ship.

There was no mystery about the purpose of that ship, nor the severity of the action it aimed to take. If any airplane deviated from this flight plan, it was gone, along with all its unsuspecting passengers. None of them knew a thing about the attacks - at least not yet.

Dan and I watched this drama unfold with wide open eyes, wowing as it happened. The scene was repeated a number of times that morning. All aircraft flying from Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific to the US mainland had been diverted to Honolulu. One by one, the airliners straggled in, and each got the escort treatment.

Most of the airplanes carried passengers who were suddenly and quite unexpectedly on a Hawaiian holiday. No reservations for these folks. Somewhat fortunately, it was just after Labor Day, a typically "down" week for Tourism on Oahu. Few hotels were near capacity, so rooms were available for these unintended guests. Very decently, many of the Waikiki hotels cut rates in half. Some rooms were even gratis to the truly needy. This was Hawaii, after all, where the people have a history of helping one another through tragedy.

Sixty years ago, the scene was chaotic, Oahu under air attack, bombs bursting, fires burning, ships sinking, sirens screaming, airplanes droning. Smoke, belching from the Harbor blowing out to the Pali, covering half the Island, served as a signal for all to help, and the people came. Civilians from all walks of Hawaiian life chipped in that day, carrying litters, giving blood, making bandages, and much, much more.

Curiously, I knew from my research for the show I was producing that Honolulu's licensed prostitutes, the two hundred some-odd working girls of Hotel Street, were among the first to arrive and aid the wounded at nearby Hickam Air Field. For their swift comforting action that day, Honolulu's harlots earned the lasting respect and admiration of every sailor and soldier on the Island, much like the public service personnel of New York City and Washington were earning from every American on this day.

On that faraway day, December 7th, 1941, Honolulu was wild and unsafe, the center of a terrible storm: Ground Zero, to use a term that would not be coined for another four years. On this day, September 11, 2001, Honolulu was the safest and surest city in America. Never did I feel so secure. The State of Hawaii was completely fenced and protected by the impressive might of the United States military. There would be no sneak attack on Honolulu this day.

It also didn't take long to realize that we were literally stranded on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Islands were, in fact, locked down.

I'm sure my friends felt for me. Most of them knew I was away on business at the time of the attacks and that I often traveled to Boston, New York and D.C. I'd actually flown three of the four doomed flight numbers in the months before. Friends and family were understandably concerned. Somehow, the words, "I'm stuck in Hawaii" didn't kindle much sympathy. Yet the stranding was real. We had no earthly idea how long we might be there. In 1941, people had to wait for months before they could get a "priority" to the mainland. Such were my thoughts until 8 am, when it was time to go to work.

Lauren and I called the five people we were scheduled to interview that day. One by one and to a man and woman, they all confirmed our appointments. As one veteran of Pearl Harbor said to me, "this is no time to sit around." I wasn't too surprised. He had been a Marine Corps bugler, assigned to the USS West Virginia, aboard the great battleship that fateful December morning she was bombed.

Each and every person we interviewed that day, along with others we talked to over the next few days, compared the attacks on Washington and New York City to Pearl Harbor. Indeed, both major newspapers in town, the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, did the same in banner headlines. Most striking to me was that these aging WWII veterans, men and women alike, were all very calm. Yes, we were six thousand miles removed from the carnage, but the terror was still real.

Perhaps the strangest sight in far-away Hawaii was not something that happened, but what ceased to happen. For three full days, not a single commercial aircraft flew across the face of Waikiki--an airspace usually filled with incoming and outgoing traffic, so regular and constant that the absence of jet noise was hauntingly noticeable. The quiet sky was serenely chilling.

Closed air space proved to be a blessing in disguise for our production. No airplanes, no audio problems. It also gave Waikiki the aura of being locked in Time. With no air traffic coming in and none going out, the streets seemed empty. Ocean view tables at nice restaurants were available without reservations. Business, people said, was down about 80%. Unfortunately for those whose livelihoods depend on tourism, this is how it would remain for months in Hawaii.

We spent our evenings at the Moana's famous Banyan Courtyard, relaxing in the shadows of its sprawling old tree, filled with history and mischievous birds. We quickly learned to sit under umbrellas. We sipped refreshing beverages, listened to the ocean, and watched as tourist catamarans sailed off on sunset cruises, most with only two or three passengers on board. We enjoyed the Hawaiian sunsets.

The first night we laughed about our predicament--"stranded, in Hawaii." Our sound guy, Steve, was more than slightly concerned. He had some important date with his girlfriend back in Little Rock. She wanted him to come home. Dan and I joked about Steve stowing away on a freighter. He seriously asked how long it would take to sail to California. About seven days, we laughed. But jokes aside, even freighters weren't sailing, not yet.

On the second night we got stinking drunk.

On the third night, Thursday September 13th, just after sunset, something simple but remarkable happened on Waikiki Beach. The usual sunset bar crowd had gathered at the Moana, because there was no other crowd and nowhere else to go. All were enjoying the evening repast when, suddenly, a roar of jet engines called out. Then it appeared, a United Air Lines passenger jet, climbing out of Honolulu International airport, heading across Waikiki and toward the US Mainland. This was the first commercial airplane to leave Honolulu since the attacks.

At once, people on the beach began cheering, like they do when the swallows arrive at Mission San Juan Capistrano. The rippling cheer grew steadily, building to a tidal wave of celebration. That moment on Thursday evening was as miraculously surreal as the events of Tuesday morning had been tragically surreal. People were cheering an airplane.

To me, this was a sure sign of the pending return to normalcy. It meant that those who had been diverted in their travels would soon fly off to their originally intended destinations, and those who'd been scheduled to leave, Dan and Steve among them, would soon be going. Yet it was more. That aircraft, climbing out at sunset, was symbolic of certain triumph over the evil that had befallen America and all enlightened humanity.

Over the next hour, several more jets took off, one by one, each saluted with robust cheers from the beach crowd, some perhaps intensified by intoxication. The next morning, the first passenger jet came in. Friday night, more planes took off, including one that carried Dan and Steve back to Little Rock. There was less fanfare on the beach that evening, but still, there was affirmation of the Will of the People, the will of the best to prevail in the worst of times.

Rhys Thomas, 55, retires in 2012 following two elected terms as US representative to the WCF Management Committee. He's a writer by profession and lives in Los Angeles with his wife Michelle. It's a handy base for the hundreds of hours of documentary television he has written, directed, and produced for The History Channel, National Geography, Discovery, and the Travel Channel, earning him an Emmy nomination. Thomas has held many management posts for the USCA, including chairing the Selection Committee and then the International Committee. His retirement from management in 2012 follows two elected terms as the US representative to the World Croquet Federation. During his tenure with the WCF Management Committee, he has lobbied endlessly for equal representation of the USCA at all WCF World Championships, and for greater management transparency. As a championship croquet player since 1988, he has represented the USA on three Solomon Trophy teams and in three WCF World Championships, and was the 1996 US MacRobertson Shield team coach and manager. Between 1993 and 2000, he managed four USCA National Championships (American and Association rules). In 1997, he managed the Solomon Trophy at Sherwood Country Club, where he served as croquet director for 15 years. He hopes his retirement from management in 2012 will enable him to play more competitive croquet and perhaps even regain championship form.

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