After twenty years, the memories are starting to fade into something like a movie I saw long ago, even though I lived it. Each year, some of the details are lost, and the whole story takes on the structure of a legend, with high points that must be recounted, and a few fuzzy low points that could be dropped from the retelling entirely, because if I donít Iím likely to replace them with newly misremembered information that didnít actually happen. Such is the stuff of memory, and legend, and history.
Twenty years ago I lived through one of those moments when you say to yourself, ďFor the rest of my life, I will never forget a single thing that happened on this day.Ē And then, gradually over time (and twenty years is a fairly long time), you start to wonder exactly what happened that day. You know it was momentous, but maybe, somewhere in the recesses of thought and memory, you mislay the sequence of events, or the intensity of the experience.
It could be easy to refresh the part that everyone knows about what happened that day, because itís the twentieth anniversary and itís all over the news, in print and on television. Itís so pervasive that even people who werenít there probably think they remember it, probably better than I do. There could well be people who werenít born yet (in which case they would most likely be children or teenagers) who know more about the event, the sequence, and certainly the long range impact, than my memory dredges up unprompted.
What I remember most vividly, if this isnít a contradiction, is the darkness. I remember the cars inching through crowded San Francisco streets with no traffic lights. It should have been chaos, and yet it wasnít quite that. People got where they needed to go, eventually. At some intersections civilians got out of their vehicles and directed traffic, so that others could get home. In the end, it didnít take as long to get from Candlestick Park to the Golden Gate Bridge as it might have. It took forever, but it was over before I knew it.
As I drove through the city, I listened to the one radio station still operating, getting spotty details about bridges and freeways that crumbled, and buildings that fell, and fires that raged. But the bridges and freeways werenít totally destroyed, as we thought at first. The buildings were mostly still standing, although people on the streets below could never be sure for how long theyíd hold up. And the fires were bad enough, but not bad enough to burn down the city. Sadly, people died, but not thousands. Still, it was some time before I could admit to myself that it could have been worse.