Ethan Shaffer

It was no secret that I wouldn’t be returning to St. Joseph’s College for the upcoming fall semester. With that in mind, I started my usual summer job landscaping as soon as the snow had melted in May.

After a few weeks of trimming grass and cutting trees, I received an unexpected phone call from the father of my friend Jared. Jared had gone to high school with me in Rangeley, but had moved back to Massachusetts the previous year.

The phone conversation went like this: “Ethan, this is John. You wanna work for me or what?”

I was a little surprised, and told him I’d think on it. “Get back to me in a week,” John said.

If being direct was a skill, John was a master. The call left me a little nervous; after all, I’d never been to Boston, let alone lived in the area. As it happened, I had met a girl from Cambridge that March. Living 40 minutes south, in Easton, would make it all the easier for us to enjoy
time together.

The company I would work for was called N.E. Bridge Contractors. I spent the summer rigging bridges for inspections in various parts of New England, riding fast motorcycles, and seeing sites with my newfound love, Nancy.

The days were long, starting well before the sun rose, ending late in the afternoon. We used barges, lifts, and specialized boom trucks. There were even planks on pulleys that rolled underneath the smaller bridges. The work was hard and often dangerous, both in the tasks we undertook and the neighborhoods we performed our work in.

As the summer neared end, my work schedule became sporadic, and there would be days during the week that sleeping in would become my norm.

One September evening, I fell asleep knowing there wouldn’t be any work for me the following day. The room I occupied was located in the finished basement of Jared’s family’s split-level home. The office was also located there, and was just down the hall from my room.

I had been up late, and in those days I could sleep through a cattle stampede and an AC/DC concert all at the same time. Unbeknownst to me, a phone call had been trying to come through, but my circa 2000 Nokia phone wasn’t getting reception in the sub level of the house.

Finally, I heard the business land line ringing. I didn’t usually answer that phone, but begrudgingly did after repeated calls came through.

“New England Bridge,” I said in the most groggy form of professional speech I could muster. I was surprised to hear Nancy’s voice on the other end. She informed me that she’d been calling me all morning.

In my dazed, half-awake state I replied, “What’s the big deal?”

“Turn on the television,” Nancy said, in a somewhat excited tone. When I asked her why, she rapidly explained something about an airplane, and a building in New York.

Fiddling with the three different remote controls in the living room upstairs, I managed to accomplish what she had asked me to do. What had been quickly explained on the phone couldn’t be appreciated until the picture came into focus.

As I watched in horror and amazement, the first tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. A sensation of astonishment came over me. The phone was still pressed against my ear, when Nancy explained that the Harvard office of the recording secretary on Mount Auburn Street was sending everyone home.

I sat there with my mouth open, trying to understand what I was seeing. Words like attack, phrases like “God help us,” and frantic news anchors’ voices came at me like bombs during the blitz.

I can’t remember what transpired after that moment, or what I did next. What I do know is that I needed to be close to someone. Hundreds of miles from home in a place that was so different from my rural mountain upbringing, it was imperative that I be near someone I loved.

The engine of my 1994 Chevrolet Silverado cranked and came to life, and I started my drive up Route 24 toward Boston. By then I knew that flights were being grounded, and that Logan Airport had something to do with whatever I had just witnessed.

My mind raced as I reached Interstate 93. I remember seeing a single jet plane in the sky and the feeling of unrest that came over me as it passed over the highway. Traffic was slowing down as the Boston skyline drew closer. There I was, inching forward with every release of the clutch pedal.

Finally we were deadlocked. It wasn’t uncommon in Boston to be sitting still in traffic at any time of day, really. This time . . . this time was different.

Have you ever seen that R.E.M music video? You know, the one where everyone gets out of their cars while Michael Stipe sings “Everybody Hurts”?

Well, it kind of happened. Many of us turned our cars off. Some of us got out, while others spoke to each other through our windows.

We asked each other for information. People were crying. The worry on unfamiliar faces, and the impromptu support group in the middle of a city highway was like nothing any of us had probably ever seen. We cared about each other. There was love in fear. It would be one of the many moments of humanity I would feel in the coming weeks.

I don’t remember getting off of the Sullivan Square exit, and I don’t remember parking my truck in Inman Square. But I remember going with my girlfriend, to see her mother at the hair salon, and hearing all that everyone had to say in the shop that day.

It was incredible. It was mind boggling, as anyone that was alive that day can most assuredly relate to.

In the weeks to come, we would watch the news with eager anticipation. I would see figures adorning the sides of highways with candles flickering in their hands. I would listen to news radio programs until the wee hours of the morning, until my truck’s ash tray would overflow.

In October, I moved back to Maine and continued my long-distance romance. Almost a year later, on the fourth of July 2002, Nancy and I wandered from Inman Square down to the Charles River near MIT.

F16 jets were flying in the dark, past lit high rise buildings. U.S. warplanes were patrolling Boston. There were butterflies inside me.

On the outskirts of the MIT campus there were U.S. Army personnel dressed in fatigues, dawning semi-automatic rifles. They were all business. We walked by, and I wasn’t sure what to feel.

We took our seat on the curb of Memorial Drive. The Boston Pops played as they always did, people sang, the crowds came in steadily. The display began.

If you’ve never seen a Boston fireworks show on the Charles, make it a bucket list item. It was fantastic. Thundering blasts erupted in step with the music. Beautiful colors so high in the sky.

Then there was the finale, and what a sight that was. It seemed as though it would never end.

When it did end, though, there was silence. The voice of our president covered the landscape. It was haunting. It was emotional. It was . . . reassuring.

At that moment politics were not relevant. We looked up into the darkness while he spoke, and these orbs of tiny fire floated toward the earth. It was almost as if heaven opened a giant hand and tossed out hope like fairy dust.

It was something we could cling to. Something we could look forward to.

I focused on one. It came closer, and closer yet. Just before it reached me the fire burned out, and I realized it was a tiny parachute with pyrotechnics attached.

I believe I still have it somewhere. I wanted to keep it to remember a moment in time . . . to remember a job I took with a bridge company one summer . . . to remember fireworks by the Harvard Bridge, and to remember the bridge of humanity that was built from tragedy.

That at least was how it felt that evening.

Ethan C. Shaffer of Rangeley serves on his town’s board of selectmen. He enjoys writing poetry, as well as performing on stage as a storyteller.


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