Sunday, September 11, 2011

A 9/11 Story

A Guest Post
By Lois Sutherland Wark

We were driving the wild and rugged north coast of Scotland, day-tripping from our cozy Scottish hunting lodge-turned-hotel in Tongue.  After a day of sight-seeing, walking the empty beaches and climbing headlands to watch the sea crash against the towering stacks just off the coast, we pulled into Durness, the most northwesterly village on the British mainland.  At the gas pump an attendant, recognizing that we were Yanks, asked, "Have you heard about the Twin Towers?"

Stunned and horrified, we drove on a short distance to a grassy clifftop near the ruined Gothic chapel of Balnakiel, where we had intended to walk a sandy path that winds north through the dunes and eventually leads to Faraid Head, where there is a good chance of spotting puffins. Instead, we sat dead silent in the car for hours, listening to the BBC reports from New York and around the world.

Later, back at our hotel in Tongue, our dinner-table mates and hotel staff reached out in sorrow.  The sympathy for Americans -- and for the international community who had worked at the World Trade Center -- was strong and palpable. With U.S. air space closed indefinitely, we remained in our room at the hotel, occasionally taking walks in the rain but no longer interested in touring.  We just wanted to get home.  Home, where no one any longer was safe.

Finally, the call from British Airways arrived:  Our flight from Gatwick to Houston would leave Saturday morning.  On the drive south from Tongue, the rain and heavy clouds seemed very much in keeping with our thoughts.  At the airport, attendants were particularly solicitous of travelers, as though no one ever again would take traveling lightly. It was there, while we were waiting for our flight in the gigantic airport terminal, that we took part in a Europe-wide remembrance of the 9/11 dead -- three minutes of absolute silence.  Halfway through, a harried couple came rushing through a door, clearly afraid they were about to miss their flight. They stopped suddenly,  feeling the silence.  Dropped their bags, realizing what they had walked into.  Joined the mourning.

We had begun this trip to Scotland in high anticipation, a celebration of my Scottish Sutherland ancestry.  Every four years, the Clan Sutherland Society of Scotland gathers in Golspie, on the coast about four hours north of Edinburgh, to spend four days together celebrating our Sutherland ancestry -- a homecoming for the worldwide diaspora.  My cousin, Donald Gene Sutherland, had proposed the trip more than a year before, and eight of us had signed on:  Gene, his daughters Victoria and Heather and Heather's husband, Norbert; Gene's older brother, Guy, and wife Diana; and Tom and me.  On the way out, Tom and I had met Guy and Diana at the Houston airport and flown together to Gatwick, then on to Inverness. Staying together at the Dornoch Castle Hotel near Golspie, we had admired the 97 varieties of single malt scotch above the bar in the hotel pub and vowed that among the eight of us, we would taste every single one.

The highlight of the trip had been a formal dinner dance at Dunrobin Castle, the ancestral seat of the Sutherlands which overlooks the sea a mile north of Golspie.  At the castle a day before the dinner dance, Alistair Sutherland, Lord Strathnaver, son and heir to the Clan Chief, Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, had taken our group on a tour of the castle; he was a gracious host, in that way that the Scottish nobility has, who now depend on tourists for the upkeep of their ancient piles (Dunrobin is the most northerly of Scotland's great houses and is the largest house in the Northern Highlands).  During the days leading up to the dinner dance, Gene's daughter Vicky had attended classes every afternoon in Scottish dancing, learning its intricacies.  In Dunrobin's formal ballroom, with her father beaming on the sidelines, Victoria had danced every single dance.  The trip had been Gene's gift to his daughters, in hopes it would kindle a lifelong interest in all things Scottish.  Done.

Now, our fairy tale journey had ended in tragedy.  As Tom and I settled into our seats on British Airways, it all seemed unreal.  Midway into the flight, as Tom dozed beside me, he was suddenly awakened by a tap on the shoulder.  Hovering over him was the smiling bulk of cousin Guy, who had no business being there.  He and Diana had caught a flight out of Gatwick four days before us -- on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

In midair over the Atlantic, their pilots had been ordered to divert the plane to Halifax, Nova Scotia -- had been told that U.S. airspace was closed.  When the British pilots demurred and asked why, they had been given no explanation.  Enter U.S. airspace and you will be shot down, was the terse response from air traffic controllers.  It was only after they had landed in Halifax, where the passengers were bedded down on cots at a local high school gymnasium, that they were told of the attacks on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon.

So what were Guy and Diana doing on our plane?  Another of the ironies of that iconic week.  When flights to the U.S. were allowed to resume, their British Airways flight was directed not to its original destination of Houston but was sent back to Gatwick, where we all boarded the first flight out.

When we landed in Houston, the first stop for Clan Sutherland was the nearest pub. Single malt all around.

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