I pulled up to Caldwell Hall for my 9:00 am meeting with my dissertation director on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Caldwell Hall is on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. I had defended the dissertation the day before, but the committee requested changes to the text. I made the changes and planned to meet with my director before depositing the manuscript with the registrar. Once it was deposited and stamped with the official seal of the university, I would be a brand-new Ph.D ready to set the world on fire.
Turns out the Pentagon was on fire instead. By the time we finished our meeting, the Romanesque building with red carpet and mahogany furniture had erupted into a frenzy of people rushing down halls, phones ringing, and helicopters thumping overhead. We were told that not only had New York City been attacked, but now the capital was under attack, too. The campus was in lock-down and nobody knew if more missile or plane attacks were imminent. A state of emergency had been declared. There was also a report of an explosion at the Treasury Department, which was down the street from the White House.
Here’s the thing. It takes a long time to get through a doctoral program. It takes a lot of money. It requires commitment beyond what most people are willing to give. I spent three years in coursework, one in qualifying exams, and another four writing the dissertation. And I already had a master’s degree. I had moved my family, including three teenage daughters, from California to Maryland. I say this not to excuse what happened next but to give you some insight into my mind at that moment. You see, despite all of the chaos and panic around me, the only thing I could think of was–a box.
Why a box? The handbook for depositing the dissertation required that the manuscript be printed on paper that was “plain, white, nontextured, and acid free.” Anything else (e.g., off-white) was unacceptable. In addition, the paper had to be a minimum 20-pound bond with at least 25 percent cotton fiber content. The school preferred 50 percent. Finally, the manuscript had to be delivered in an appropriately-sized box or it would be rejected. I had followed the specs down to the letter, except, of course, for the box.
I stood in the hallway, paralyzed, people rushing around me. I knew I was going to die. We were under attack. Any moment a missile could come hurtling toward us from space. I thought I overheard someone murmur “North Korea.” Whether from despair, arrogance, fear, or selfishness, I decided that I would die with my boots on. I was going to deposit the dissertation and get my doctorate. Just one thing stood between me and success.
“Have you got a box?!?”
I must have looked like a madman. I asked everyone I came across, from students to professors and a woman in a hair net. Finally, a Dominican nun took pity on me and led me to the Xerox room where I found the perfect box.
I dashed to the Registrar’s Office. It was closed. Frantic, I pounded on the mahogany door until an administrative assistant opened it. I explained the situation. She refused. I stuck my foot in the door and kept it there. She relented and let me in. Then, for the next hour, she and another admin typed the necessary forms for me. They said they’d rather do something productive than sit idly by. One had a son working in one of the towers; the other, a husband at the Pentagon. They had been unable to reach them by phone.
Just before 10:00 am the registrar wheeled out a television set from his office and the four of us watched in horror as the South Tower came down. The typewriters stopped clicking. No one said a word. A half hour later the North Tower imploded onto itself. We had watched people leaping to their death, fire engines rushing to the scene, and thick, black smoke billowing from the towers. Now this.
Neither of the women broke down. They both found out later that their loved ones had survived, the one in the tower having worked on a lower floor. He was lucky. I sat there exhausted and ashamed, especially since I wasn’t going to die, not on September 11. I could just as easily have waited and returned in a few days with a sturdier box.
When the campus opened up I went to the Mall, where there were armored personnel carriers on the streets. From the Washington Monument I could see Secret Service agents on the roof of the White House. However, I didn’t have a sense that I was witnessing history. It was just all so sad.
I suppose if you live long enough, you see it all. I remember that weekend in November, 1963 when time stood still. It stood still again that afternoon.
Having a doctorate wasn’t so important anymore, even after all that time and effort. It didn’t define me. Neither did knowing that I could die at any moment like those people in the towers. So, what did?
Haven’t had enough? Check out Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: Why would you waste thoughts on someone who refuses to acknowledge your existence? Leave “wishin and hopin” to Dusty Springfield (Letters from Culver City).