Our Day of Infamy

What follows is an account of what I was doing on this day fourteen years ago. It is predominantly a re-post from a few years ago but this day will always hold more significance for me because I spent the last two 11 Septembers in Afghanistan. I didn’t go there because of today, but if it hadn’t been for this day I wouldn’t have been there.

On this day most of us remember where we were when we still had a World Trade Center in New York, New York (the town so nice, they named it twice).

For my part, I was going in to work late because I had something to deliver for work in downtown Birmingham. I was going to give my brother-in-law a ride to his condo in Dirt Pile (known to everyone besides he and I as a little burg named Mountain Brook). I stopped at my normal gas station, a Jet Station. You cannot make up the good stuff.

When I went in to pay the clerk told me that an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center. Now this did not concern me one little bit. NOT IN THE LEAST! Because I am a Civil Engineer, at the time I was still in school, in fact, I was taking my Structural Steel class. But I wasn’t worried because I know that skyscrapers are designed to withstand an airline collision. Of course, that design is predicated on the fact that the pilot realizes he’s headed for a building and is attempting to avoid it. The Empire State Building was hit by a B-25 in 1945. It is, to my knowledge, the highest fire that has ever been successfully put out. But when the pilot realized a collision was unavoidable he was still trying to avoid it.

Getting back into the truck we continued on and heard that the second tower was hit. Immediately I realized, the first plane wasn’t trying to miss and we were in for a bad day. Modern sky scrapers are not made to hold the weight of the floors above them. The floors are designed to hold up the weight of the floor, the weight is then transferred down. It is a fascinating concept that is a part of the reason I never wanted to be a structural engineer, however, no engineer can ever look at a structure without thinking load transfer ever.

As the radio told us the second tower was hit I turned to my brother-in-law and said, “Johnny, some country just used to exist.” I was as positive of that then as I am now.

Best Birthday Present Ever

A lot of people have been re-sharing their stories about Hurricane Katrina on her 10th anniversary but mine is a little different. The post below is one I did four years ago updated a bit but only the years have changed.

Not bad, except there should be a building blocking the view from this angle, imagine the surprise of the people inside as that one disappeared. Or as the casino barge ran into the hotel.

Ten years ago last Saturday I lost contact with all but one of the family I had in the middle of Hurricane Katrina. My Dad, Mom, Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, there are too many to count. Predominantly they were in Biloxi, a few in Ocean Springs, one as far away as Diamondhead (near where the eye passed), but brackish blood runs through the Byrd veins.

The unwritten rules of hurricanes seem strange to most uninitiated. Cutting the grass the day before it hits, having an ax in your attic, calling everyone you know after the power goes out. I was at work 320 miles away as the storm hit, but still in contact with my family. My sister had half-evacuated. She left her home a half mile from the beach in Biloxi and went to her fiance’s house in Saucier, maybe 10 miles inland. Mom, Dad, 3 uncles, 2 aunts, at least 2 cousins and a second cousin all stayed in Biloxi. Another aunt, uncle, and at least 2 cousins were in Ocean Springs watching the storm arrive.

The stalwart survivor of countless storms since the late 19th century lost to Katrina

About 10 o’clock. I couldn’t get Dad. He, Mom, and a friend of the family were in his house four miles from the front beach. I heard from my sister about 10:30, there was water up to the window sills in the house. None of my other relatives were reachable. Then my sister again about 11, the house had 4 feet of water in it. And then the reports stopped. Not the calls mind you, just the reports there was no news to report. No one knew anything. I was on the phone with cousins in Texas, Washington, an Aunt in Georgia, and people I had not talked to in over ten years. But no one in my family on the Coast except my big sister. The storm passed through my own neck of Alabama. Bad wind, lots of rain, a few limbs down, power out. A neighbor lost some shingles. The power came back on, still no news.

Eleven o’clock turned to noon, one, three, nine pm. The phone was glued to my ear but not with family on the Coast except T-Byrd. On the way home from work I flagged down an SUV that was so full of people there were two guys riding in the back with their feet hanging out the glass because there was no room and told them to follow me for a meal. I tried to take them to our church where we housed a Red Cross Emergency Shelter full of people with names like Thibodaux and Arceneaux with thick Cajun accents. Working with them reminded me of the family I had no contact with. These were the lucky ones that got away just before the levees cracked. They were anxious to get back home to pick up the pieces and start rebuilding, as they had three times before. Yet still no word.

A casino mercifully wiped out the Ohr Museum, unfortunately they built it back.

Tuesday, 8 am. Noon. Two o’clock. I talked with people I didn’t even know. Someone who lived down the street from my second cousin twice removed (I love living in the South where you can keep track of these things). I relayed messages and numbers from friends, old friends, and strangers to anyone I could find. Five pm, and still no word. Seven, midnight. My cousins in Texas and Washington were as frantic as I, yet none of us wanted to admit it to each other (am I wrong? I know at least one is reading this now). I was the connection between all of them. I had no idea where our family was, but I was not going to let them down. My own wife had our children under control, freeing me up to do what little could be done to find out about the rest of the family.

Wednesday morning, six am, nothing. Eight, nothing. Then nine, a strange number on the phone. Nothing odd about that now. I had been dialing and being called from area codes and phone numbers I still don’t know. I answered and heard my Dad’s voice.

The relief that washed across me was strong, but guarded. They were alive. The conversation went like this (not a paraphrase or fuzzy memory here, this is my occasional anal-retentive memory at its best):

“Dad, you have no idea how worried I was.”

“Why, we were alright?”

“Dad, the last I heard there was 4 feet of water in your house.”


“Dad! Mom’s only 5 feet tall!”


I could hear him shrugging his shoulders. They had borrowed a neighbor’s car and went out checking on things until they found someone who had a working cell phone and called. Within an hour I had reports from all of the Byrd extended clan, no fatalities, no injuries, two and a half houses in need of complete stud to stud, floor to ceiling rebuilding. Uncle Pat and Tara had some pine trees down in their yards (within a mile of one another).

The Biloxi/Ocean Springs Bridge lovingly referred to as the bunnyhop bridge.

This was the point at which the wave of relief was complete. I hung up my phone for a half hour and basked in the glow. After nearly forty-eight hours of not knowing, I received the greatest Birthday present of all time: the knowledge that my family, that had not bothered to evacuate or retreat in the face of a Category 5 storm (later downgraded to 4) was alive.

Tullis Manor, not the big thing, that is the casino that took out the historic home

At the least it was better than my sister’s who now shares a birthday with not only the late Michael Jackson but the anniversary of the storm that changed it all.

Where do we go from here

It has been a very long time since I wrote anything other than something for work. Odd for me, definitely different.

As I review my old writings I’ve re-read some of the notes I used as posts while still in Afghanistan. I started from the bottom up so to re-post them now would be odd because a simple scroll down to the second or third posts back would see the same things, but I had some odd connected thoughts.

I also stumbled across one I didn’t blog, or don’t think I blogged because I didn’t note when I blogged it. It was a post about the Battle of Bunker Hill but it was symbolic of a stand that I was about to make–and did. It may or may not have cost me what it could but it certainly came at a cost. Or maybe it was a benefit. No one would quite get the meaning or emphasis out of the writing that I did. Yet that never used to bother me. To be honest, still doesn’t.

So maybe I’m back, maybe not. The site definitely needs to be redone but I’m not sure which way to go. Only time will tell, maybe a little time, maybe a lot. We’ll see.

A Year without Posting

I knew that something was wrong. Something was missing. Something wasn’t right.

I tried to fix it, and failed. I decided I’d try again in a few days, when things slowed down. They haven’t, I didn’t. Finally in frustration I asked for help.

The response I got wasn’t helpful at all. I tried to follow the instructions but to no avail. So I decided to try again: in a few days, when things slowed down. They haven’t. They didn’t. In frustration I asked for help again.

The problem was the same, the response was different. This time they removed the block and everything works.

Except of course that I discovered I haven’t posted in over a year. A very good reason for that is that I stopped writing. Again. For a writer, that is not good. Mostly because that makes you not a writer.

My last post was 11 Jun 2014, 9 days past my self proclaimed year without wearing a tie. My last bit of writing was 11 Jun 2014. I even stopped keeping track of the airplane flights I was taking (I think I ended up spending close to 6 days in the air over the course of 16 months).

Is that about to change? Maybe, maybe not. I need things to slow down first.


Occasionally on social media I have seen people who rail about how people are quick to mention Miley’s latest panty-free night on the town or Hilary’s claim that her tumor told her to run for President or even that the most popular current Republican found a way to cut taxes for his best friend’s company right before awarding him a no-bid contract to provide unneeded services at exorbitant costs. Each of these rants against the paparazzi, politicians, or the most recent harebrained Hollywood death follows with a frank discussion on how no one seems to dwell on the young 19-year-old that just died the day before in our continuing Global War on Terrorism. While it seems this may belittle the latter somewhat, it is the sentiment intended there that I am attempting to invoke without actually naming any of the inane events that precipitate such actions. After just over one year boots on the ground in Afghanistan, I’ve learned how incredibly pointless such attention lavished on those former activities is.

My job entails a large degree of email, most days I average at least 10 per hour. When you work 10-12 hour days that means an awful lot of chatter. In addition to the two non-classified work email addresses I have (because I don’t count emails to the non-work email) there are two other computer systems that are classified. I call them the red and purple accounts, one is for coalition secured emails, the other American only secured emails. With the barrage of other activities I often find my colored accounts neglected and when I remember them I log in to find that I have again missed notification of repatriation ceremonies. This day was an exception.

Without constant monitoring it is easy to miss these since the notice usually is sent two to three hours in advance and the ceremonies typically occur between 2200 and 0200. This is due more to the arrival/departure times than it is to the weather, but are no doubt many thankful for that reprieve as well. This day was an exception in that there was a five-hour notice.

At 2140 on the evening of 11 June I joined five of the military protecting us on site visits and our interpreter to travel to the airfield for a repatriation ceremony. Based on my track record, it could be my first and only, but I was there. We drove about a mile before we parked and joined the foot traffic headed toward the ramp. The temperature was about 85 Fahrenheit with a warm breeze blowing despite the lack of sun. There was little conversation as we joined the group. The hushed noise of typical runway activity provided a backdrop to the activity.

After walking another half mile, there were two formations facing one another with a wide path in between them. Anyone who has served in the military knows that in addition to the high amount of waiting around, if you see a line you simply join in without worrying about what it is for. After we stood there for about five minutes an American walked by shouting for coalition forces to move to the rear.

In a sea of camouflage, the other civilian I saw stood out as much as me, but it was this that attracted my attention to the fact that this was not merely a gaggle of Americans. Romanians, Georgians, and other ISAF troops wearing different patterns of uniforms were also in attendance. The intent was for Americans to be in the forefront to see our departed soldiers on their way home. The reshuffle brought me to the fifth line of people behind the empty path. Soon an NCO walked down the middle of the formation and gave us the brief amount of information we needed to know for the ceremony. Looking around I estimated the crowd to be between 1000 and 1200 gathered to pay respects.

A short march further down the runway I realized that it has been nearly 16 years since I marched with other soldiers (the anniversary of my ETS being a mere two hours away). As we stood at attention I could see from my peripheral vision vehicles driving up. Each soldier had his own workhorse MRAP as a hearse. I was in the group that faced the airfield and could watch a Remote Piloted Aircraft take off before we went to Present Arms.

While rendering a salute a recording of Amazing Grace on the bagpipes began and the procession started. Five American flag draped caskets and one Afghan flag draped casket went between the lines of formation headed to the C-17 at the far end. Four verses of Amazing Grace and one slow, lone bugle call of Taps later we were given the call to Order Arms.

A second RPA took off as I scanned with my eyes the crowd in front of me. There were short people, tall people, every race, and branch of service was well represented. Some had the look of seriousness, some boredom, and a few looked so dog-tired that I swore they could fall asleep on their feet. Most had long-rifles or pistols though not all were armed. An odd occurrence here.

The ceremony took a half hour all together. A somber, sober reminder that it isn’t all trips to the Boardwalk and gatherings in the MWR. There remains a mission to accomplish and that mission comes at a cost. The cost may be far below what it has been in other wars, but it is no less a bill to be paid. There are lots of reminders in this world. Reminders to wake up. Reminders to go to meetings. Reminders to make phone calls. Reminders of where we are: in the free world, in a first world nation, in a third world nation, or in a war zone. There are reminders to take out the garbage, take the cake out of the oven, and to pass along congratulations. Or condolences. And there are reminders that friendly fire isn’t.

Most of all, there are reminders that freedom isn’t free.