Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

From Horror to History

A birthday, a bus accident, and a terrorist attack.
September 10, 2021
From Horror to History
(Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

September 11, 2015

“The 12th or 10th would be okay, but the 11th would be weird,” said my wife. Our baby was due on September 1, but, following in his father’s footsteps, was clearly not going to show up on time.

So on September 8, Lisa biked over to the hospital. We live in Osnabrück, in northwest Germany, and everybody rides their bikes here: people who can barely walk, 80-year-old Muttis, pregnant women whose hips hurt—they all ride their bikes. The midwives recommend it if it’s less stress (plus it’s easier to find parking). The doctors began inducing labor, and I shuttled back and forth from home. By September 10, our child had apparently accepted the fact that he (as we found out) would have to come on out. But when it was time to move to the delivery room, all the plans went south. For some reason, the obstetrician didn’t have the proper forms about painkiller medication, and we had to fill out six pages of German bureaucratic paperwork again. (Maybe it was in the duffel bag with the camera and the granola bars that was still in the hospital room. I don’t think so, but a granola bar would have been nice for us both right about then.)

In any case, our son was dragged kicking and screaming into this world just before dawn. All three of us were exhausted. It was a frightening, glorious day. The sleepless nights that followed were infused with patience and love. And September 11 for me became a day of creation rather than one of destruction, a day that celebrates the future rather than the past.

September 11, 1971

Back in 1996, during my junior year of high school in Gunnison, Colorado, the whole school packed into the gym one day soon after the school year started. We all knew the occasion was somber, but for many of us, it was discomfiting: A quarter century is ancient history if you’re 17.

It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of a September 11, 1971 bus accident. A yellow school bus had been taking our school’s JV football team over Monarch Pass to Salida, the next town over, for an early season game. Monarch is treacherous in the winter, but on that September day, the weather was unremarkable. But the driver lost control, the brakes failed, and the bus veered out of control and rolled. Nine passengers were killed—eight JV football players and a coach, a man the same age as my dad. The horrible accident made national news; Life magazine ran a full spread of pictures a couple of weeks later. The funeral was held in the gym of Western State College (today’s Western Colorado University)—at the time the largest building in the county.

Nine lives wiped out in an instant. Yet the football team played again the next weekend. They felt they had to. They played for pride, and out of respect.

Over time, for most of the survivors—those who didn’t lose family members—the memories and the grief were carefully boxed up in their minds.

And for the wider Gunnison community, over time the accident receded into the background. For those who remembered it firsthand, it was always there but rarely discussed. But for those of us born in the generations that followed, it was not horror but history. The accident was invoked almost exclusively in the context of making buses safer for the community. In that respect, it was something many of us had heard about since kindergarten. September 11 was a fateful day. After the accident, our school district mandated the strictest safety standards for school buses in the entire nation—such that even today, the “Gunnison Package” includes steel that runs lengthwise along the bus’s roof rather than crosswise along the ribs, and reinforced sides. That means the windows are spaced further apart than in normal school buses—not quite like an airplane, but not at all like a normal bus, and so as a kid you’d curse the fact that your bus was safe. Not only that, but the improved handling in the snow due to the automatic sand dispensers meant that the bus never got to school late. Even now, whenever I see a yellow school bus—mostly on just on TV nowadays, since I live in Germany—I always look to see how much space there is between the windows.

GUNNISON, COLORADO – AUGUST 25, 2021: Zeta Graham, 95, looks at the last two photos taken of her son Pat Graham before he was killed during a bus accident on September 11, 1971 in Gunnison, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti / MediaNews Group / Denver Post / Getty Images)

With the advantages of age, I can better understand some of the other ways the ’71 bus accident affected the community: the priorities of the Booster Club, the whispers from your parents—You know, that man’s brother was one of the eight kids on Monarch. The direct stab of grief and the terrible emptiness where once there was a loved one—to the children born later, these become just a story. How can kids mourn an uncle who died before they were born? They can empathize with their parents and grandparents, but they have to rely on stories to understand.

The transformation from memory to history takes exactly one generation.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary in 1996, during a football game the numbers of the dead players were retired and their jerseys were put on display. The school’s principal was solemn, and the ceremony was sad. But for most of us, it was like remembering the passing of a great-aunt whom you didn’t really know. The players’ jerseys still hang on the wall. At least for me, it was not until I was much older—a parent myself, with all the existential love and fear that entails—that I could really empathize with the pain and magnitude of the loss that day in 1971.

September 11, 2001

I was four months out of college and temporarily back in Gunnison. Monday night I had worked late at Mario’s Pizza and drank a couple beers after my shift, so I didn’t drive home. Instead I slept at my dad’s radio station, where he was the president, chief engineer, sales manager, morning DJ, and janitor. On that particular morning (like every morning) he came in, gave the weather and played a few CDs.

But then he started relaying reports of what had happened in New York at around 7 a.m. our time. By 7:37, there was a 757 in the side of the Pentagon. Something awful was transpiring. I remember my father stating that there had even been reports of “loud shots” at the State Department—just one of the many rumors swirling that day. By the afternoon, we in Gunnison knew, as all of America knew, that our country had been attacked, and that all of a sudden there were going to be major changes in people’s lives. Some were personal—the loss of a colleagues, friends, family. Some were less so—the realization that the world was considerably less safe than we thought it would be after the Cold War ended.

I had been planning to return in October to Washington, D.C., where I had gone to college—but now worried if the friend I was to be living with, who worked at the Pentagon, was still alive. That morning, I was hung over and pissed off and full of the selfishness that an aimless 22-year-old has when such things are sinking in. After dozens of emails and landline calls, I found out that everyone I knew at the Pentagon was okay. For many Americans, September 11 was followed by long days and sleepless nights. Some people were exhausted from grief; others, like my housemate, were dutifully trying to get the Pentagon back on track; still others were thinking about joining the military or taking some form of civic action out of a sense of duty or revenge or grief or pride.

On one of the Saturdays that followed—it must have been September 15 or 22—I went to the wedding of a friend of mine. Her sister had planned to attend, but the sister was living in Washington, and the flights had all been grounded. I had never cried at a wedding, and I’ve never cried at one since. But when the bride’s father held up his flip-phone so my friend’s sister could talk to us, it shook us up.

When I arrived in Washington in October, my friend from the Pentagon still had me on the hook for October’s rent. My housemates and I spent many long evenings discussing the crisis. We thought about where to go and what to do. Eventually, we all left that beautiful brick house, and none of us joined the military—in spite of and because of the long discussions about doing so. We all ended up doing other things. Twenty years on, I’m still not sure what exactly I feel—some admixture of shame, regret, relief, and affirmation—about that decision.

September 11, 2021

When people ask about my son’s birthday, they look at me twice when I tell them. The date still hovers in the air when you hear it, even in German. There’s a brief pause, just a moment too long, and then they move on to the next question.

Modern society is characterized above all else by a belief in a rational order to the universe. Random things within a set may occur, but it is impossible to roll a 13 with the dice. This search for order has done much to shape both modern Christianity and modern humanism, but it also accounts for the rise in conspiratorial thinking—all we have to do is connect the dots properly and surely order will emerge. We have never had so much data, and never had fewer structures to organize it.

Grief inevitably also brings with it a search for order—we want our Why questions to be answered, and even Job (hardly a modern man) felt he deserved an explanation, if not an apology. When grief is combined with rationalism, the drive to search for order is overwhelming. This need not be a bad thing—the 1971 Gunnison Football Memorial Foundation has directed part of its attention to bus safety, and the many of the standards for school buses that Colorado mandated after the crash were added to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards not long after the accident. The state also put a runaway truck ramp in the area of the accident. The attacks of September 11, 2001 also of course resulted in a national striving to bring order to the world.

It is human to search for order, even in places where there is none. The boys who died on Monarch Pass fifty years ago would have been more likely to serve somewhere in Latin America than in Afghanistan, and my boy would probably still be nervously dealing with the first days of school if he were born a couple days earlier. Nevertheless, his future is inextricably bound up with my past, which itself is drawn from those who have always been around me to tell me what it was like even further back.

My son himself, of course, has no inkling of this. He started school this past Monday, the 6th, and for him, September 11 is simply His Birthday. We’ll celebrate with the family on the 11th—it’s a Saturday, so the extended family can drive without worrying about getting to work the next day, and his friends will come over on Sunday for a cake with soccer-playing dinosaurs on it. Our September 11 this year will be more about Paw Patrol than remembering the extraordinary sacrifices of the FDNY. It is slowly, ever so slowly, becoming a normal day for a birthday. It might be different if we lived in the United States. It might be different if we lived in Gunnison.

And in the coming years, I will teach my son about what happened fourteen years before he was born, and what happened forty-four years before. Just as my elders’ memories became the stuff of my education, so will my memories become the stuff of his education. On this act of transmission, of conveying through story and history the truth of what previous generations lived through, depends our best hope of honoring the lives forever linked to September 11.

Matthew C. Rees

Matthew C. Rees is a writer, translator, and educator living in Osnabrück, Germany.