Books: November-December 2008


Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama that Unfolded in the Skies over America on 9/11

Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama that Unfolded in the Skies over America on 9/11
By Lynn Spencer '88. Simon & Schuster, 2008. 309 pages. $26

"U.S. airspace is closed."
Hundreds of commercial airline pilots headed to the U.S. from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America heard that declaration in the midday hours of September 11, 2001. Though some of the planes were allowed to make emergency landings on U.S. territories, the vast majority were turned around or redirected to foreign airports, mostly in Canada.

The unprecedented decision to clear U.S. airspace of all non-military aircraft was made at 9:42 a.m., just 103 minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Boston, fifty-six minutes after it flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, thirty-nine minutes after United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower, and five minutes after United Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon. Touching History is a minute-by-minute account of that historic morning, told from the perspective of the military and commercial pilots, air traffic controllers, and airline employees forced to cope with the unfolding crisis. Author Lynn Spencer, herself a pilot for ExpressJet Airlines, has chronicled the two-hour evolution from confusion and disbelief to comprehension and action.

The first obstacle the aviation professionals had to overcome was their own incredulity. Hijackings had been rare in the U.S. since the 1960s, and emergency procedures to deal with them were rusty. First reports from the World Trade Center spoke of a small plane crashing into the North Tower. That was hard enough to believe on such a clear day; no one believed that an experienced commercial pilot flying a jumbo jet could possibly make such an error. They furthermore believed that a professional pilot under duress would fly into the Hudson River before striking an occupied building. Only slowly did the observers come to realize that the hijackers were flying the planes.

The entire drama played out in less than two hours. At about 10:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania, intentionally flown into the ground by the hijackers when the passengers launched an assault on the cockpit to retake control of the airplane. It is a much debated question whether the authorities acted with remarkable speed and efficiency to contain a crisis no one had anticipated, or whether the system moved too slowly to curtail the disaster. The 9/11 Commission was broadly critical of the government's response. Spencer makes no apology for the actions of the government at the cabinet level and above, but she ardently defends her colleagues in the military and civilian aviation fraternities, from the senior military officers and FAA controllers down to the flight attendants and fighter pilots on the front line of the attacks. She tells their story from their point of view based on their recollections, with all of the insights and blind spots that inhabit participant accounts.

Clearly, lines of communication and authority proved cumbersome and slow. While Vice President Cheney took control in Washington, President Bush was sent from Florida to a safe haven aboard Air Force One. Richard Clark, chair of the White House Counterterrorism Group, convened an emergency teleconference of the appropriate cabinet-level officials. Little of this produced any helpful guidance from above. Cheney sent qualified shoot-down authority through the Secret Service but failed to notify the military chain of command. Ben Sliney, in his first day on the job as the national operations manager of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Control Center in Herndon, Virginia, closed American airspace on his own initiative.

Responses came in stages. At 9:02 Sliney declared a "first-tier ground stop" for the New York area before cancelling all take-offs from American airports at 9:29. Neither halt prevented the four hijackings already under way, but they may have prevented more. The pilot of United Airlines Flight 23, a jumbo jet scheduled to fly from JFK Airport in New York to Los Angeles, reported that "four young Arab men" were riding in first class, the same pattern observed on the hijacked planes. Flight 23 was in the queue to take off when it was caught in Sliney's ground stop. The plane returned to the terminal, where it was evacuated and locked. The four Arab men disappeared in the mass exodus from the airport.

The military response was similarly incremental. Only a handful of fighter aircraft, partially armed, were available in the eastern U.S. They were piloted by young men and women, many reservists in the Air National Guard, with nicknames like "Duff," "Nasty," "Scooter," "Smurf," "Dog," "Animal," "Rosey," "Lucky," "Bam Bam," and "Doogie." They first established military control of the airspace over New York, and then Washington, wondering if they might be called upon to shoot down an American jumbo airliner filled with innocent civilians. As it happened none of the fighters arrived in time to intervene, though one jet was dispatched to intercept Flight 93, which was headed toward Washington when it crashed in Pennsylvania.

Spencer tells this story with pace and clarity, sometimes succumbing to the breathless hyperbole that gripped the participants. In contrast to the 9/11 Commission, she found that her colleagues performed professionally, even heroically. The national infrastructure was unprepared for an emergency like this. There was enormous potential for accidents and mistakes, for panicked overreaction. The fact that all the thousands of airplanes traveling to or about the U.S. on that chaotic morning landed their passengers safely is a tribute to the system and especially the people who were working it that day.

Havanas in Camelot: Personal Essays By William Styron

Havanas in Camelot: Personal Essays
By William Styron '47, Hon. '68.
Random House, 2008. 176 pages. $23.

Southern literary scholar Louis Rubin once told me a story about riding in a car with Flannery O'Connor. My near glee at hearing the story was related not to literary matters but to my curiosity about the person Flannery O'Connor—my curiosity about an actual visit with her.

The person William Styron (1925-2006) is brought to readers in Havanas in Camelot, a collection of fourteen personal essays written in the 1980s and '90s. Among funny stories, musings, analyses, opinions, and confessions, we find memories of writers Truman Capote, Nelson Algren, and Terry Southern, and of politicians John F. Kennedy and François Mitterand. Readers also learn details of several of Styron's illnesses and squabbles, and of the benefits of his long walks.

Here and there in the essays, I detected Styron's piques. He writes about Terry Southern: "I had met a lot of Texans in the marines, most of whom lived up to their advance reputation for being yahoos and blowhards, and I never thought I'd encounter a Texan who was a novelist. Or a Texan who was really rather shy and unboastful." I did not sense here the tongue-in-cheek that may have been intended, and I think his comment is unfair to Texans. (Maybe Styron was responding in general to advance reputations not of Texans, but rather of Marines.) And in more than one essay here I found evidence of Styron's intolerance of "square-churchgoing America," an almost frightfully complex group that Styron seems to lump into one tight ball.

But most often in these pages I encountered a tolerant and insightful Styron. His essays on Kennedy and Mitterrand deliver a kind of thoughtful gossip that satisfies the sweet tooth of curiosity about famous people, while others show his sense of humor, his wit, and his satirical talents. He was clearly a stimulating conversationalist and loyal friend.

Styron's experiences with the funny and not-so-funny editorial censorship of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, led to a pointed warning in the essay "I'll Have to Ask Indianapolis": "For it goes without saying that the written word is in peril, and its enemies are not just the yahoos and the censors but those who dwell in the academic camp." In this essay, Styron also writes of his love for the Duke University library, where he spent long, happy hours at age seventeen awaiting deployment overseas. He says the Duke library became "my hangout, my private club, my sanctuary, the place of my salvation."

While all of these essays are distinctly enjoyable, none approaches the force, the elegant sting, singing, and scrutiny of the three essays that form the moral core of this collection, thus making this book—for me—important and unforgettable. Those three essays are "Slavery's Pain, Disney's Gain"; "A Literary Forefather," about Mark Twain; and "Jimmy in the House," about James Baldwin. They present forceful and clear observations about slavery, racial tyranny, and race relations, topics so complex that many writers, pundits, and literary critics step around them or expound with simple, benighted declarations. Styron's observations here demonstrate sources of the power behind his best-known work, particularly The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice.

In "Slavery's Pain, Disney's Gain," Styron reflects on a Disney plan, later stalled, to show theme-park visitors in Virginia "what it was like to be a slave." Here he rips into a typical Disney-like attempt to simplify and dumb down a horrific topic: "No combination of branding irons, slave ships or slave cabins, shackles, chained black people in their wretched coffles, or treks through the Underground Railroad could begin to define such a stupendous experience.

"To present even the most squalid sights would be to cheaply romanticize suffering. For slavery's abyssal pain arose far less from its physical cruelty—although slave ships and the auction block were atrocities—than from the moral and legal savagery that deprived an entire people of their freedom, along with their rights to education, ownership of property, matrimony, and protection under the law."

In "A Literary Forefather," Styron defends Twain's Huckleberry Finn and the use there of the word "nigger," thus pinpointing elements of America's "racial confusion." In "Jimmy in the House," he writes about "preposterous paradoxes that had dwelled at the heart of the racial tragedy—the unrequited loves as well as the murderous furies."

Among the musings, reflections, and funny stories, the reader of Styron's fiction finds insights into racism, evil, and guilt that enabled Styron to treat those themes with such power in his fiction. Particularly in Sophie's Choice—but also elsewhere—Styron wrote eloquently about evil and love in close proximity. He showed us over and over how a capacity for evil residing in any individual human heart—along with a capacity for love—helped create unique American paradoxes, confusions, and tragedies.

The Bible Salesman


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