A Series of Unusual Events–The Complete Story (originally published in 2010)

I remember.

Part of my initial interest in starting this blog, was to document stories for Charlotte and Beatrix.  I think a lot about how stories are passed down in families and how the facts get confused and distorted over the years as people forget or add their own interpretation.  I suppose because I have kids that are ten years apart, I also want to make sure that Charlotte doesn’t have the responsibility of trying to remember everything for Beatrix, and that Beatrix can hear things straight from the horse’s mouth (in these blogisodes, I will be playing the role of the horse).

Certainly the Thirteen and Three blogisodes are for the kids–Beatrix needs to know that a slick campaign by her 9-year-old politician sister ended with her mother in the birthing room.

I love writing these stories, and the added bonus is that you all like to read them, too.

In thinking about what to write next, I realized that I couldn’t let the anniversary of 9/11 go by without documenting the series of unusual events that surrounded us at that time.  I am especially drawn to it because Beatrix is currently the exact same age Charlotte was in 2001, and looking back to that time, seeing them as the individual people they are, is fun and interesting for me.  I hope you enjoy it as well.

Charlotte in 2001.

I think we all have stories about where we were on September 11, 2001 and heard the devastating and terrible news about those towers getting hit, but going back a month, how many of you can say exactly where you were on AUGUST 11th, 2001.  I can.

I was sitting in my apartment on W. 56th Street, Rob had just walked in the door from playing Les Miserables on Broadway, and 3 1/2 year old Charlotte was asleep in her little toddler bed.  The phone rang.  The time was 11:30pm.

Me:  Hello?

Unintelligible Voice That is Sobbing and Sounds Like My Mother:  (Sobs) Sharon?  Sharon?

Let’s pause for a moment and say, all together, we never want to pick up the phone and hear someone sobbing on the other end.  It’s horrible.  Terrifying.  And when you can’t quite understand what they are saying, it’s that much worse.

Me:  Mom?  Mom is that you?

Mom: (Sobbing and saying words that I can only kind of understand, but sound something like…) Fire.  House.  OH MY GOD.  Terrible. (More sobs).

Me:  (Scared and now standing in the living room, up from the couch, TV off, Rob staring at me like he could use bionic hearing and make out what my mother was saying through the phone.  I use the voice I use on Charlotte when I am trying to get her attention during a meltdown.)  MOTHER, you have to slow down.  I can’t understand you.  TAKE A DEEP BREATH AND TELL ME WHAT IS HAPPENING?

Mom:  (Trying to control herself)  Okay.  (She breathes) Our house is on fire. (She starts to sob again) OUR HOUSE IS BURNING!  (Screaming) OH MY GOD, THE CAR, BE CAREFUL!

Me:  (All hairs on my head and my arms are now standing on end.  It feels like I just chugged ice cold water as I ask)  ARE YOU STILL INSIDE?  ARE YOU OKAY?  WHERE IS DAD?

Mom:  (Sobbing and yelling) THE FIRE ENGINES ARE HERE.  I HAVE TO GO.

Click.

Dial tone.

So back to me–in New York– holding a phone with a dial tone–scared to death that I had just spoken to my mother for the last time.  My mother was somewhere holding a phone, having just pushed the “end” button on her phone, hanging up on me while apparently looking at a fire.  In her house.

Remember that in 2001 we didn’t all have cell phones.  And my parents live in Cincinnati, Ohio, 638 miles away.   I called my sister’s number and my brother’s number, but no one answered.  Obviously they’d already been called and  were driving the 2 miles or so they needed to go to see the fire live and in person, and I–the youngest and the last to get called about everything–was to wait it out, left simultaneously sweating and swearing while I paced.  And worry-cleaned*. (Please see “Don’t F*%& With the Pancreas” for an explanation of “worry-clean”.  But I really should start a worry-clean cleaning service.  Maybe the deal is you tell me bad news and I’ll clean your house.  I’m going to make a million with this idea…and I’ll turn it into a reality TV show….)

They are all watching a fire at “A”. I am “worry-cleaning” at “B”.

Finally, an hour so later, my phone rings again.  It’s my mother.  She’s laughing.

Mom: We had ALL the fire trucks here.  They had to block off the street.

Pause in story.  My mother has a weird fascination with sirens.  When I was a kid she used to try to follow the fire trucks to their destination until we would yell and scream for her to stop.  This time she didn’t have to follow them at all, they came to her, so she was thrilled.  Just to clarify–this is not like other people who have a fascination with the fire MEN.  My mother likes the fire TRUCKS. With sirens.  Which makes her kind of like a 4 year old boy. Unpause.

An excellent Christmas gift for a four year old boy. Or my mother.

After a while and a few “I’ll call you right back” hang ups,  and being passed around from person to person, I finally pieced together what happened.

Yes, in fact, my parents’ house was on fire, and (good news) they were fine.  The story goes like this.

My parents went to see a movie that Saturday night and came out to a pretty severe lightning storm.  They rushed to the car and drove home, and as my mother reports, “Your father wouldn’t even let me stop at the store and I really needed things.”  Or as my father reports, “Hell of a storm.”  They came home and my mother wanted to go to bed, but my Dad said they should go to the basement to play pool. 

Pool. A romantic way to wait out a storm.Pause in the story.  My parents have never played pool together in their lives, so THAT is how bad the storm was.  Unpause.  Just as my father was racking up the balls and my mother was complaining that she hates to play pool and wanted to go to bed, there was a huge lightening strike and the power went out.  Apparently my father said, “Uh oh.  Sounds like it hit a transformer.”  Now, I live in NYC and I don’t worry about things like that, but if you live in the burbs a transformer getting hit is a big concern.  How long will the power be out?  Should you call the electric company?  Maybe the neighbor will call.  Probably, she’s old and likes to make phone calls.  Problem solved, so you sit and wait out the storm and wait for the power to come back on.

So they waited.  For a few minutes.  And then my mother–ever wanting to see what is going on–decided to go upstairs to take a look (and sneak up to put her nightgown on). Half way up the stairs she yelled back down, “Chuck, it smells like smoke up here.”  They ran around the house–the pitch black house–until they found the source; the house was on fire above the garage where the electric came in.  It wasn’t a transformer that was hit, it was their house.

My dad yelled for my Mom to get out and they stood in the pouring rain and lightning, watching their house burn.  Phone calls were made (the fire department, my brother and sister, me) and then a neighbor came over and told my Dad to get the car out of the garage.  Which, by the way, was on fire.  But he did–he ran in there, started the car (all with my mother screaming..this is when she hung up on me)–and pulled it out just in time.

This guy doesn’t wait for a fire truck. He jumps through fire to pull out a car.

All in all, they sustained a lot of damage despite every fire truck in Anderson Township showing up, and it was clear they weren’t going to live there for a long time.

After the fire was out and a crowd of about 15 friends and family members had gathered in the rain (my mother made a lot of driveway-panic phone calls), they sent my Mom and Aunt Nancy in to get a few items to make it through the night.  My mother reports that, “It was pitch black and wet and smelled terrible.  Nancy and I worked our way up the stairs in the dark and when I said I couldn’t see anything, a fireman handed me a flash light through the hole in the wall in the bedroom.  Nancy and I laughed about that for five minutes.  Imagine a huge hole where your wall used to be and a fireman standing on your roof!”  I can’t say a lot of people would choose that moment to laugh, but part of the charm of my parents (and family) is their ability to find humor in stressful situations.  Not that I inherited that.  Not like a just wrote a medical comedy about my husband’s two trips to the hospital with pancreatitis.  That would just be tacky.

These people will walk through a pitch black and smoldering house for a tooth brush and a laugh.

 

My parents set up shop at my sister’s house over night and still managed to make it to a family party the next day.  As my mother said, “We always come in with some kind of a story.  A flat tire, your Dad going low and needing insulin, but this one topped them all.  Our clothes still smelled like smoke!”  My Aunt Barbara sent a picture of my parents from that party that I cropped and it came out a little blurry, but they might have been smelly, but they looked good! As my Aunt Barbara said, “Your parents still came– UNBELIEVABLE!  Your mom was concerned that she didn’t have anything to wear because of the fire!”

My Mom and Dad (pictured with my brother Buzz, his wife and my best friend Maryday, and their daughter Gwendolyn). This is about 14 hours after the fire. Don’t they look good?

The fire took out a portion of their upstairs, and left smoke and water damage everywhere else.  They’d set up shop in a suites hotel–you know the kind–two rooms, a kitchenette and a breakfast buffet–which is fun for two nights, but the word from the insurance company was that they’d be out of their house for four months. Four months?  In a hotel? If you know my father, a hotel would never cut it. My Dad, whose motto is “Some people eat to live, I live to eat!” is a male Paula Deen.  He makes elaborate “stick of butter” meals like Lobster Bisque and Fettuccine Alfredo, which would not prepare well on a hot plate and in a microwave.  My mother, on the other hand, would probably be thrilled with the free fitness room and someone making her bed and her coffee for four months.

My Dad.

After some investigation into their insurance policy, it turned out they could live anywhere within a certain dollar amount and the insurance company would pay for it.  My parents were overwhelmed with going through the house, packing it up, dealing with reconstruction and every other nightmare that comes with a fire, so the idea of finding a place to live other than the suites hotel seemed impossible.  Dum-da-da-dum!  A job for me!  After years of touring the country with various shows, I can find affordable, nice, furnished housing faster than you can say, “Would you like two doubles or a king?”.  It’s a special skill and all of us actor-types have it.  It’s part of our job duties.  Within 24 hours I had my parents moved out of the Free Coffee/No Butter Cooking Suites and set up in a 3 bedroom, fully furnished apartment with a stocked kitchen.  Whew.  Finally, I felt like I’d done something helpful, other than make phone calls to family members saying, “So, uh, how’s it going down there?”  As anyone knows who lives away from family, it is an incredibly frustrating feeling to feel like you can’t help.  Little did I know that moving my parents into that 3 bedroom would ultimately be a huge favor for me as well, but I am getting ahead of myself.  We’ll get there soon.

3 bedrooms, fully furnished, complete kitchen, but no free coffee (sorry Mom).

My parents, weirdly, had a trip scheduled for just a few weeks after the fire.  Why is that weird?  Allow me to take a moment to say that my parents don’t schedule trips.  I mean, you know those parents who are jetting off to Bermuda or have an RV and travel around to the National Parks, or even take trips together to see grandchildren?  These are not my parents.  If and when they travel, they travel alone–as in–not with each other.  When I was a kid, my father would travel around the country for a month every year, always in the winter when his swimming pool business was slow,  and usually to exotic locations like The Everglades or San Diego or Houston.  Maybe that doesn’t sound exotic to you, but trust me, as an 8-year-old in Ohio; California and Texas and alligators sounded like the Wild, Wild West.  My mother would take trips with her best friend Judy and they would go places like Spain and London, coming home with gifts and stories about drinking too much and possible trysts with the law.  But my parents on a trip together?  Never.

My Mother and Judy somewhere tropical.

Until now.  They’d planned and saved for a trip to Africa.  Specifically, a safari in Africa.  In 1978 Dad and his best friend Byron had gone to Africa on safari and I remember picking  up a Jacques Cousteau look alike at the airport.  Far from his normal pants and a golf shirt, Dad walked off the plane in full safari gear—khaki from head to toe—and a canvas hat with a furry zebra stripe at the brim.  At the baggage claim I watched piles and piles of taped packages roll down the carousel; giraffes and elephants and masks carved in ebony wood.  He laid out gifts for me, thick multi-colored beaded necklaces with some kind of animal tail hair, that hooked around my neck and hung in strands to my waist.  I liked them, but I was afraid he expected me to wear them to school; they might look a little out of place against my favorite outfit, a superman t-shirt and gray wrangler cords.

Dad in Africa in 1978

He also took photos—a ton of them—and we sat through hours of slide shows of charging animals and stories about sleeping in tents and hearing the hippos come to the watering hole inches from his head.  My recollection was that my mother, whose fear of snakes and birds is legendary, had no interest in ever visiting Africa, so imagine my surprise (and everyone’s) when the one trip they booked together—the trip of their lives—was to Africa.

Mom was hoping for an African trip with romantic giraffes, not snakes and birds.

After the fire there was a question about whether they should go or reschedule, but  Dad was adamant.  “Why reschedule?  Hell, there’s no better time to go!”  There wasn’t much they could do during the demolition and they’d be back in time to make the renovation decisions.  It was settled, they were going.  Departure date was set for September 9th, 2001.

Meanwhile, up in New York, my phone was ringing and it was Peter Von Mayrhauser, supervisor extraordinaire,  asking me to cover an actress’s vacation in the touring company of The Phantom of the Opera.

Hello Sharon? We’d like you to fly to Atlanta to be scared in the dark and sing high notes.

It was good money and an easy gig—I was the regular *vacation swing* for the tour and the Broadway Company of Phantom.  *A vacation swing is an actor who has usually done the show previously (in my case I’d toured with Phantom for a year in 1996-1997) and the actor is brought back to the show, taught the role of the vacationing actor, and performs for that actor while they are gone.  A lot like a substitute teacher.  Often you get very little notice if it is for a medical leave (Sasha blew out her knee!  Can you be in Tuscon in 12 hours and perform the show tonight?”), but for vacations you get a little more notice.  Peter asked me to fly to Atlanta for two weeks to play a “Wild Woman”.  I’d be put up in a hotel and given good pay.  It was a little stressful, but worth it, I’d done it before, no problem.

Not me as a Wild Woman, but people I might swing in to cover. Check out those wigs-one size fits all.

But for some reason, this time, I inexplicably freaked out.

After some hysterics and soul searching, I realized I couldn’t deal with leaving 3 1/2 year old Charlotte for two weeks.  It seemed too long.  It seemed too far.  This was a surprise to me (and Rob) because I’d gone to Fort Lauderdale for two weeks earlier in the year to do Phantom and I’d been sad, but fine.  This time, I was afraid to get on the plane, I was afraid to sleep alone, I was just inexplicably afraid to be apart.  I told Peter I had to think about it.  I immediately worried I’d be replaced and lose the great vacation swing job jeopardizing my health insurance and funds for a renovation we’d started on our house.

A couple of days later I was in the car with my friend Liz McCartney and Charlotte, driving home from a day at Six Flags Amusement Park in New Jersey, talking about my anxiety-filled  Phantom in Atlanta dilemma when I very quickly lost and regained consciousness–as I was driving.  With Charlotte in the car.  On the New Jersey Turnpike with semis and cars speeding by like we were racing the Indy 500.  The episode was so quick that Liz didn’t even notice, but it flooded me with fear and I pulled over and let Liz drive home.  Here’s what I know to be true: I am a great driver, I drive all the time, I love to drive, I drive in the snow and sleet and on a stick shift or a pick up truck.  I could be a taxi driver I like to drive so much.  I could write millions of blogisodes about how my Dad started me driving at 14 all because he believes women need to be taught not to be afraid behind the wheel of a car; so this shook me to the core.  Something was wrong and I didn’t know what or why.

Not a place to have a small panic attack while driving with your three year old in the car.

 

I had a long conversation with Rob over lunch—a lunch at the Boat House in Central Park, an expensive lunch and an infrequent “date”—which I ruined by crying and gasping for breath at the white table cloth table.

A beautiful place for a break down.

I begged him to help me, and we agreed that I was anxious not only because of the trip to Atlanta, but also because of the fire at my parent’s house.  After talking it though carefully, we decided that taking Charlotte seemed unfair to her because of my extensive rehearsal schedule, but on the other hand, me not going could hurt my relationship with Phantom, so maybe I could do it  with one compromise.  Rob would take a long weekend from his job at Les Miserables on Broadway and fly with Charlotte to see me in Atlanta.

I calmed down.  I could handle that.  I ordered a cobb salad and an iced tea and tried to enjoy the view.  I could do this, despite my heart thumping in my chest.  I called Phantom and agreed to take the job.  My flights were booked–departure date September 3rd, return September 16.

Rob and I started to look into flights for him and Charlotte, and I called two people to help me get through my Atlanta anxiety.  A therapist to help me get to the root of the problem, and my dear friend and Atlanta resident, Hylan Scott to help me get through the time in Atlanta until Rob and Charlotte showed up.  As they say on a ship, all hands on deck.

The night before I left, I did several things to get ready.  First I made an audio tape of all the songs I usually sing to Charlotte when putting her to bed.  Then I made an audio tape of me telling her stories to listen to in the car.  These were not short tapes; I think I took up both sides of a 90 minute tape, and several times I had to pause the tape because I was crying.  Rob would never tell me the truth about this, but I’m guessing maybe they listened to the sappy mother tape for the first 5 minutes on day one, and then popped off the tape and watched the Yankee Game.  I, on the other hand, took a tape of Charlotte talking and playing a long game with her imaginary pals Cookie and Sally, which I just about wore out listening to in my Atlanta rental car.  As if I wasn’t upset enough just by driving–remember I was terrified to drive because of my recent panic attack.  But somehow, listening to that tape and crying while speeding down a highway seemed like a good idea at the time.  I make no excuses.  I was a mess.

Side A–sappy songs. Side B–sappy stories. Play at your own risk

Together Charlotte and I made a little calender in orange construction paper that outlined the number of days I would be gone, so she could keep track and count off the days.  I drew a little airplane with “Mommy” flying to peach trees on September 3rd, a little airplane with Charlotte and Daddy flying to peach trees on September 8th, and then Charlotte and Daddy flying back to the Manhattan skyscrapers on September 11th and Mommy flying back to Manhattan skyscrapers on September 16th.  This is one of those moments that Rob is going to say, “How do you remember that?” so I will tell you.  The stick figure image of Charlotte and Rob on the airplane heading to skyscrapers on September 11, 2001 haunted me for a long time.   But (again) I’m getting ahead of myself.

One final arts and crafts project

The flight to Atlanta was blissfully uneventful,  I deplaned, rented a car and headed straight to my friend Hylan’s house.  A word about Hylan Scott.  I met him in rehearsal for my first professional show in 1986.  We were doing a production of Nine and–in case you don’t know the show or haven’t seen the more recent movie–it is all women and one man.  Hylan was hired as the choreographer for the show–which is an odd thing because traditionally Nine is done with the entire cast sitting on boxes.  Our production was totally choreographed and the female cast was a group of women with body issues, squeezed into miniscule costumes.  Somehow Hylan transformed our anxiety into pride and we paraded around in the skimpy costumes believing we were beautiful dancers.  He’s good that way.  He makes everyone feel wonderful about themselves all the time.  We developed a great friendship from those days, yet we never spent enough time together due to the fact that we have always lived in separate cities.  It seemed perfect to live with him during this anxious time away from home because if anyone can calm me down and make me have fun, it’s Hylan.

Hylan Scott, he’s both soothing and handsome.

It ended up being a great week.  Hylan and I stayed up late and talked, solving all the problems of the world.  I was inspired by his free bootin’ life style and creativity, and he was inspired by my ability to settle down and raise a family, while managing to maintain my career.  We drank cheap beer and talked late into the night.  He played the guitar for me.  I pretended to be bohemian–which I am absolutely not–but Hylan can make you feel like it is something you might seriously consider.

I remember lying on the futon the morning Rob and Charlotte were coming and feeling a great peace.  I was better.  I’d made it through the week intact, I’d rehearsed and gone on, I’d spent time with a friend who was good for the soul, and today my family was coming.  I packed my bags and kissed Hylan goodbye, knowing that my sorrow when Rob and Charlotte went back to New York would be short lived because I was returning to Hylan’s for more fun later in the week.  I drove to the airport, reunited with Rob and Charlotte, and headed to the swanky Georgian Terrace Hotel, across the street from the massive Fox Theater where Phantom was playing.

She’s cute and she’ll eat Jamaican food.

Rob and Charlotte hung out while I went and did the matinee, and then we went for Jamaican food between shows.  This is notable only because Charlotte was a pretty adventurous eater at 3 and we could get away with a “grown up” restaurant and stuff her full of Jerk chicken and plantains while Beatrix at three would have none of that nonsense.  She’s a kid-menu-food-only kind of gal.  Later that night Rob and Charlotte came and saw Phantom, but they left early on because the explosions in the opening number scared her.  I remember we were surprised that she was so scared because she’d been around the show her whole life (even in utero–I performed in Phantom until I was 7 months pregnant) and despite the scary ambiance had never registered fear.  It was sudden and decisive, and I remember thinking she was at the age where we had to be careful about what she saw and watched because she was really starting to notice things she hadn’t before.  Rob took her back to the hotel, tucked her into bed and they watched cartoons until she was sleepy.

The next day was another two show day, and the last two shows of the week.  Monday was the day off.  Sunday matinees tend to be cranky shows because everyone is tiredfrom 2 shows the day before and there are still 2 shows to get through before the day off.  Some people find ways to get around it–I hear Sutton Foster brings bagels and coffee to her casts on Sunday matinees–but all in all you just have to get through it and make it to the giddy and goofy show of the week, the Sunday evening show.

This Sunday evening show was very different in tone, though, because it started with an announcement two minutes before the curtain was about to rise:  “ATTENTION LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WE NEED YOU TO VACATE THE BUILDING IMMEDIATELY.”  It wasn’t a prank, there was a very serious and immediate threat.

We have to evacuate the building completely?  All of us?  In our costumes?  I’d never had anything happen like this in the history of my theater career, especially so close to curtain time.  Of course the first thought was fire.  The company moved out pretty quickly, urged on by stage managers and company managers who weren’t talking any details.  The audience, on the other hand, took a lot longer.  To educate you about the Fox, I should tell you first of all that it has 5,ooo seats.  It might be the largest theater on the normal circuit of theaters the Broadway shows play (anyone feel free to correct me on that, I haven’t been on the road in a while and I forget).  It is so large, it actually has a sky projected on the ceiling with 96 stars and clouds that move. You are getting the picture.  It’s a pain in the ass to evacuate.  And make no mistake, it was sold out (as Phantom always was 10 years ago).

5,000 people on multiple levels and a cloudy sky.

What happened, as I can best remember (feel free to jump in here if you were there that night), is that we stayed out on a side street while the audience flowed out onto the main drag, Peachtree Street.  I don’t think we knew what was happening until we were brought back into the building and we had a small company meeting with Leigh while the audience was ushered back to their seats.  Leigh said something along the lines of, “We were evacuated due to a credible bomb threat, which has been proven to be a false alarm.  It is very normal for a venue as large as this to have an occasional bomb threat, and the bomb team has assured us that the dogs have been through the building and there is no bomb.  It’s just some crazy person trying to get some attention.  The performance will begin as soon as we can restore the audience, so consider this a hold until further notice.”

A nice dress for parading around the Atlanta streets during a bomb threat.

Terrific.

A bomb threat.

You can imagine that we didn’t just get a glass of water and wait for the show to start.  We peppered him with questions, which he answered as best he could and 15 minutes later, the only thing blowing up on stage was the chandelier as the overture played.  I remember being VERY tense the whole show–especially during all the pyro technical moments, and I kept having visions of the opera scene in Foul Playwhen they are trying to kill the pope.  Do you remember that movie?  Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn?  I think it played every Sunday on Channel 19 when I was a kid, in a double header with Private Benjamin and I watched it like it was my job, forever burning the images crime activity during a performance on my impressionable and eager brain.

Not as fun as it seems on TV

Towards the end of the show, I was waiting to make an exit from the travelator (that’s a Phantom word describing the big set piece that moves up and down in the back, making bridges for people to run across.  It is most memorable in Act two when Raoul jumps off it, heading down to the Phantom’s Lair.  It rises up several stories) way up high with a bird’s eye view of the audience thinking, Why are they still here?  I mean, I’m here because it’s my job, but man, if I was an audience member I would have demanded my money back and walked! But they were there, full to the top, trusting that everything was fine and the crazy people were harmless.

I left the theater at the end of the show, walked to the hotel and whispered the whole story to Rob as Charlotte slept on the cot next to our giant and lush bed.  We fell asleep grateful that Monday was a day off and they would have 48 hours to properly sweep that building.

We spent Monday playing with Charlotte and relaxing, trying to eek out every last moment of family time because they were flying home to New York the next morning, Tuesday, September 11th.

So to clarify:  we’re dealing with two primary locations, Nairobi, Kenya and Atlanta Georgia (although all the real action was happening in New York, D.C. and Pennsylvania), and keep in mind that Nairobi is 8 hours ahead of Eastern Standard time.

Let’s get our malaria shot and head over to the wild kingdom first, shall we?

Mom and Dad flew via Brussels and landed in Nairobi on Sunday night.  They had a day of hanging around the famous Stanley Hotel while waiting to meet up with the rest of the group to leave on the scheduled safari stops.  Mom likes to talk about the dinner they ate that night, which was at a restaurant called Carnivore and the waiters, called “Carvers” walked around with grilled meat on sticks.  “Elk and zebra legs–the whole leg!”  She says.  “That’s the night I became a vegetarian.”

A vegetarian’s nightmare.

The next morning–Tuesday 9/11 (still Monday night 9/10, EST)–they met up with their small group, which was a group of six Americans from the west coast.  Mom and dad had their own tour guide, Abraham, who was assigned to them for the entire trip.  He was in charge of their schedule and well being, which was about to become a much bigger job than originally anticipated.

Nice, right?

They traveled 2-3 hours by car to Sweetwaters Tented Camp, which is a private conservancy that has it’s own wildlife collection roaming the grounds.  As you’d expect, they live in tents, but these are not of the L.L. Bean variety, they are….a little fancier.  But as we look at that picture and think, geez, that’s so cushy, I feel compelled to remind you that they are about a half a football field away from this neighbor:

The big event at Sweetwaters is the night safari, which is basically where you climb into a Land Rover with big flashlights and say, “Here kitty, kitty, kitty” while looking for wildlife.  I like to picture the night scenes in the movie Jurassic Park.

Before heading out, they were all gathering for dinner.  Mom and Dad arrived at the main building, which housed the front desk/business office and restaurant, and immediately noticed that no one was to be seen.  They looked around and discovered everyone crowded into a small bar/tv room, watching the TV.  They walked in and went through the confusion of–”What’s happening…what movie are you watching–hey are those the Twin Towers?–a plane???” that we all went through that day.

My mother, who has a memory like a steel trap immediately remembered that Rob and Charlotte were scheduled to fly to New York that morning and freaked out.  Remember that there were no details about what was going on in any capacity–CNN International didn’t know where the planes had come from, who was on them or if there were more.  They sat and watched, waiting for details to emerge from the one English channel available.

My mother, worried and no longer wanting to be anywhere exotic, looked at my father and said, “We’re going home.”

“Forget dinner and the night safari. We’re going home!”

Back on Peachtree Street, we were just waking up, and by “we” I mean me and Rob.  Charlotte, even at three, could sleep like a champion, but we’d have to wake her soon.   They had a flight around 11:30am to get Rob back in plenty of time to get Charlotte set up with the sitter so he could play Les Miserables on Broadway.  Charlotte hadn’t spent a lot time in a hotel and I remember thinking it would be so fun to wake her up with room service, because the Georgian Terrace Hotel still did the old fashioned rolling table with white linens delivery.  I distinctly remember two things.  One: that room service was so outrageously expensive that Rob and I had a small disagreement about it (I won…because…) Two:  I was already weepy that they were leaving.  We ordered pancakes and coffee and flipped on the TV quietly to check the weather report that comes on the Today show at 8:55am. We never got to the weather.

Matt Lauer and Katie Couric were on TV with pictures of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, although the 1993 footage usually had snow in it, and this footage seemed bright and sunny, and why was the building smoking in the middle?  And then, the second plane hit and all of our lives turned upside down.

And Charlotte was waking up.

And there were plane tickets on the bed.

Shit.

Charlotte was still asleep,  and this kid can sleep through anything.  Seriously, she can (still) sleep like Rip Van Winkle, and we were thankful because it gave us about a half an hour to get a decent idea of what was going on and what to do before she woke up and saw the TV.

Rob and I were talking last night, and neither of us can remember if the room service order was ever placed or not.  I don’t have any recollection about any breakfast, because I remember my focus became all about one thing; whether or not Rob was going to insist that he and Charlotte fly home.  Let me explain, because you might be thinking, How could they fly?  All planes were grounded immediately. But they weren’t.  They were grounded quickly–at 9:45am (the New York Airports were closed sooner)–but it took a while for all this information to get out, and it was 9:05 and seemed like Rob was packing to go.  Their flight was in a couple of hours.  It could sound terrible that Rob was still thinking about flying that day, but please remember that we (as a nation) still didn’t know what was going on.  The Pentagon wasn’t hit until 9:37am and Flight 93 didn’t go down until after 10:00.  By the time it was announced that the airports were closed and flights were grounded, it was pretty obvious that this was a day like none other.  But the first hour and 15 minutes was bedlam.

Once we knew the flights were canceled, the question became about our safety.  Buildings around the country were being evacuated, and no one knew if or what the next wave of attack might be.  I was already on high alert because of the bomb threat in the theater, so I didn’t want to be near it (the hotel is across the street), I didn’t want to be in a large hotel in the middle of downtown anywhere (New York or not) and I absolutely did NOT want Charlotte to see even one second of that terrible coverage.  She’s a New Yorker, she flies on planes, she goes in skyscrapers.  At 3 1/2, I knew this event could scar her for life.  I thanked God for the panic attack that had led me to insisting that Charlotte and Rob come down to Atlanta, and I knew our luck was great that we were all together, miles away, while the events unfolded mere blocks from where we lived.

But what to do?  Where to go?  I called Hylan, and he was teaching.  I didn’t have a key to his house.  I also have a dear cousin, Polly, who lives in Atlanta, and I left her a message asking if we could come over.  Then, Rob and I shakily packed Charlotte up and drove to what seemed like the least likely place a terrorist would attack–a suburban Home Depot.

Meanwhile, in Africa, my parents , who as you remember were in a fancy tented wildlife sanctuary, knew Charlotte and Rob were supposed to fly that morning, and were having some problems reaching us to confirm that we were okay.  They called us, but all New York based cell phones were down, so it went straight to voice mail.  Finally, they decided to send an e-mail to Rob from the business office and pray they heard back.  My mother, very rattled, wanted to come home immediately, but my Dad, who is good to have in an emergency, told her that was crazy, they were going to stay where they were and wait for things to calm down.  They ate dinner, and went on the night safari–maybe a little less enthusiastic than they were before–although my Dad can still tell you every animal they saw on that night run and make the appropriate animal noises as a soundtrack.

As worried as my parents were about us, we were more worried for them.  What a time to be in Africa.  I didn’t know a lot, but I knew there was danger in Africa, less from man eating animals, but from jihads.  There had been US embassy bombings in Nairobi, and there was a large Muslim population.  Now, in 2011, we can look back and differentiate between Al Qaeda and Muslim, but we were so uneducated then.  The idea that my parents–Americans–were on foreign turf, and in a place that had shown hatred to Americans in the past, scared me to death.  I called my sister and brother, but no one had heard from them.  We had to wait.

Back to the extremely deserted Home Depot in Atlanta, I (the worry-cleaner) had nothing to clean, so instead I made myself busy by designing, choosing and ordering the entire kitchen for the renovation of our house.  So at least I had the prospect of something to clean.  Rob distracted himself by busying himself with complicated math.  He calculated, selected and ordered the lumber we were going to use in the renovation.   We did the best we could to stay updated with what was going on in the outside world, but I absolutely remember how important it was to us that Charlotte feel nothing, see nothing, and just zoom around on a cart in an empty store.  After an hour or so, my cousin Polly called back, and said we should come over as soon as we were done, she was making lunch and the girls could play (she had a 2-year-old) and we could all be together.  So, that’s what we did, and that is where Rob eventually got the e-mail from my Mom saying they were fine, and we confirmed that we were fine–the airports had closed long before Rob and Charlotte were even out of their pajamas.  We also had a cousin who lived very near the WTC, and we found out that he and his family were shaken, but physically okay. Polly and her husband Jim, Rob and I watched the towers come down on a small TV in Polly’s kitchen while Charlotte and Skye played two rooms away.

My Mom told me that when they returned from the night safari, the staff of the hotel ran out with the e-mail from Rob.  She cried.  Good news was welcome on that day.  And, because of all the airport closures, they couldn’t leave Africa.  The domestic flights opened after a few days on a limited basis, but international flights took much longer to start back up.  They had no choice but to trust Abraham, their guide, and stay on the trip for the duration.  My parents were very moved by their treatment in Africa.  They said, “People everywhere apologized to us.  They sought out any American on the trip and made sure we knew how sorry they were and how furious they were about the attack.  Especially apologetic and protective was Abraham, who was Muslim.  He told us over and over again, ‘We are not all like this.  These are bad, bad men.’”  It turns out that Abraham’s cousins had been killed in the attack by Al Qaeda on the US Embassy in Nairobi, so he had the most direct fury and sorrow of anyone.

About 4:00pm, I got word that Phantom was canceled for the evening and Broadway was canceled until further notice, which was disorienting and scary.  We made dinner, stayed until late, and made our way back to the hotel.  The most immediate threat was a report that the Center For Disease Control, which is in Atlanta, was listed as a potential terrorist target, so were nervous.  Figuring out how to deal with all of this, how to get Rob home, how to get my parent’s home, was next up on the agenda.  All I knew was one thing for sure.  I was NOT going back to New York, and neither was Charlotte.  No way.

P. S. It seemed inappropriate to post “funny” pictures, so instead I’ll give you this I found this video in my Facebook feed, (thanks, Ruth).  It is a wonderful 11 minutes of heroism in an under reported 9/11 story. I had no idea about the magnitude of this, proving we are always learning, even 10 years later. Click on the highlighted link below to view the video.

http://www.tomhanks-online.com/media/video/detail/572/boatlift-9-11-ten-year-anniversary-short-film

I always think of September 11th as the day that changed so many things–but one of the biggest changes was the way the news was delivered.  Pre-9/11, the “news ticker” or “crawl” on the lower third of the TV screen was used sparingly, really only on sports stations to give stats and stocks on the financial network.  What we are all so used to now, started as a norm on September 11th.  And it never went away.  I still refer to it as “scare tape” because all it ever did was scare me.  “Anthrax has been discovered in Dan Rather’s office”  “The terror alert level has been raised to orange.”

Things that stand out in the days just after 9/11:   When you turned on the radio–to any channel–it was all news.  Even top 40 stations.  All TV stations were news, even the kids stations had a news crawl.  There were no airplanes in the sky, not even cargo flights, although it was not uncommon to see a fighter jet.  There were American flags EVERYWHERE.

Everywhere

So how do you protect an impressionable child from all the sadness?  We avoided the TV, although Rob and I found one station at the Georgian Terrace that was blissfully news free–an ARTS station played performing arts music videos 24 hours a day, which we watched all curled up in our king sized bed.  Charlotte in a stroke of good fortune, willingly gave up Dora to watch scenes from operas, movements of symphonies and ballets.  We’d cuddled Charlotte until she’d go to sleep, and then whisper about what the hell we were going to do.  As it was, Broadway (Rob’s job) was closed for an undetermined amount of time, and he didn’t know how he was getting back to New York, because his wife, the writer of this blog, forbade him to get on an airplane. Not that he was really interested, anyway.

No scaretape here

 

Also, people were avoiding large crowds.  It felt too dangerous, especially because people were coming forward and taking credit for the attacks, promising more to come.  At the time, no one knew if it was over or just beginning.  On Wednesday, September 12th, we had a matinee of Phantom, which I was CERTAIN they’d cancel.  Everything was canceled.  Sports events, shows, concerts…the world had come to a screeching halt.  Leigh and his stage management team made calls to tell us, we had a show at 2pm, and another one at 8.  You know that phrase, The Show Must Go On?  Well, it did, although I’m going to tell you, between the bomb scare and being one of the first large groups to meet in the country, we were a very skittish crowd.  I’d say it was the most scared I’d ever been to do a show, but I think it is tied with the night after the Northridge earthquake when we did a performance of Les Miserables in Pasadena.  There were still aftershocks going on, Los Angeles had a dusk to dawn curfew, we had to walk past dumpsters full of debris that had fallen in the theater during the earthquake–but we performed.  I still have a clipping from USA Today with an article about how Cameron Mackintosh’s LES MIZ was to be the first public performance in the LA area after the earthquake.  Are you seeing a trend here?  POP QUIZ!  The producer of The Phantom of the Opera is?  Yup.  Cameron Mackintosh.

So I’m back at work on Wednesday, and we get word that Broadway is raising the curtain on Thursday.  Rob had to get back to work–it was his job, but also we were racking up a sizable bill at the shwanky hotel that was supposed to be a few nights, but now was stretching to a week and a day.  Someone in the cast had a girlfriend or wife who also needed to get back to NYC quickly, and we hatched a plan for Rob to share a rental car with her.  By the way, I just asked Rob who it was, and he has no recollection of this at all–he thought he drove alone (he didn’t) although he said he does remember the exact route they drove (of course he does).  Sixteen hours in a car with someone.  How can you forget that?

If you know the name of the mystery person Rob shared a car with, please step forward.

I digress.  Rental cars, by the way, were another funny thing after 9/11.  You could rent a car one way for a cheap rate, because all the rental car companies were pitching in to help out.  That was the great thing about 9/11, we all became buddies and allies the second those towers came down.  Nothing petty mattered.

Rob and the mystery rider left early on Friday and got back to New York very late.  Rob said he could see the towers burning on the ride in from New Jersey, and could smell it as soon as he got to Manhattan, even from our apartment on 56th street–about 4 miles north.  I’ll never forget the phone call I got from him.  He said, “It’s terrible here.  Don’t bring Charlotte back.”

So I’m in Atlanta with Charlotte with no way to get anywhere, and no where to go because my parents are stuck in Africa, and their house in Cincinnati had burned down.  I had Charlotte registered for her first day in pre-school in New York and she would be a no-show.  Time to do some quick thinking.

I knew Charlotte could not be in New York. It was too sad and stressful.  There were fighter planes going over head, people were full of anxiety, and our buildings were gone.  The skyline looked like it had teeth pulled.  Just huge holes.  Huge smoking holes.

If we didn’t have to be near it, we weren’t going to be.

I knew I didn’t want to take Charlotte back to New York, and I knew I didn’t want to get on a plane, which meant that we had to go somewhere, and we had to drive.  I knew this wasn’t going to be a day or two–at this point (around September 15) I was closing Phantom in Atlanta and not setting a date to return to New York.  Period. Things were too unstable.

As luck would have it, the tour of Phantom was heading to–wait for it–Cincinnati, Ohio for their next stop.  What a crazy coincidence.  My entire family lives in Cincinnati, and despite the fire, my parents had a nifty three bedroom apartment that I’d rented for them!  I got on the phone with my sister to make sure someone had a key to let me in (my brother did) and Charlotte and I loaded into a car heading north (another cast member volunteered to take us in their car) driving to Cincinnati on September 16th.  A Sunday.

Cincinnati. The Queen City and my childhood home. A much better place to be in September of 2001.

I remember a lot about that car trip, mostly because I was so happy to head to family and I was so grateful for the ride.  My biggest memory was at a lunch stop at a Burger King.  We ordered, and they were out of a lot of items because there hadn’t been shipments since before 9/11.  The guy I was with was really mad about it, and when we sat down to eat he said, “Burger King is out of KETCHUP?  I mean I know the attacks were bad, but this is ridiculous!”

Isn’t that the DUMBEST thing you’ve ever heard?  I’ve been holding that in for years.  I feel better now.

We arrived in Cincinnati and I met my brother, Maryday (my best friend who married my brother) and their little daughter Gwendolyn.  It was so good to see them, and we were all so happy to be together, but always hanging over our heads was how Mom and Dad were going to get home.  International flights were just starting back up, but there was a huge wait, as you can imagine.  We caught up on all of this as we drove to the corporate apartment to sleep.  My parents didn’t even know Charlotte and I were in Cincinnati, let alone in their apartment, but I knew they’d be thrilled.  Parents are good that way.  Charlotte and I let ourselves in and walked around the strange and dark apartment, full of my parents possessions and smell, but empty without them.  It was sad and a little scary.

The next morning, I called around and found a preschool that would take Charlotte.  Just like that.  In New York City you have to interview and beg and get letters of recommendation from Oprah and sign a contract in blood if they deem you worthy, but Knox Presbyterian Nursery School said, “Oh, you’re from New York and you don’t know how long you’ll be here?  That’s fine, bring her on over.  Today!”

You want to bring your kid over today and you don’t know how long you’ll stay? No problem! Come on over!

So, by Monday, I had a school for Charlotte, my parents car and apartment to use and groceries.  Everyday I dropped Charlotte off at school, went to a local bookstore (Joseph Beth) and sat and read the New York Times from cover to cover until it was time to pick her up again.

Later that week, my parents made it home.  My entire family waited for them at the newly constructed security gate at the airport, with signs and balloons and smiles.  They cried when they saw us all there, and we cried too.  It was a good day.  They were full of stories about flying and the new security, but mostly they talked about how kind everyone was in Africa.  How people apologized when they saw they were Americans, how sad the world was for us.  My parents did not have the trip they were expecting, but they had the trip of their lives.

Charlotte and I stayed in Cincinnati for a month, almost to the day.  We missed Rob, the apartment was a little small, I had an expensive rental car–it all added up and it was time to stop running away.  We were New Yorkers and it was time to go home.

The grandchildren in the rental apartment the night my parents came home. Charlotte is in the middle.

The smell remained, the sorrow remained, but over time we all recovered.  I regained the ability to drive, and the panic settled down.  We all started flying again. Ground Zero became a main tourist destination.  My parents moved back into their newly renovated house just after Christmas.  Sorrow continued though, a month after 9/11 we lost a cousin’s husband to a sudden and massive heart attack at a young age, and a few months later, Gwendolyn, Buzz and Maryday’s daughter, was diagnosed with Leukemia (she’s fine now).

There are ways 9/11 changed me forever.  I carry a flashlight with me at all times, just in case.  I notice sirens and low flying planes.  I avoid the subway at rush hour if I can possibly do it.  If I see something, I say something (New York City’s motto).  I still love Rudy Giuliani. But mostly, it isn’t 9/11 that changed me, it’s New York City itself.  I love Chinese food.  I love walks on the Upper West Side on a warm night.  I love the city bus.  I love the Pine Grove in Central Park.  I love to drive in New York.  I love Times Square.  I love the Yankees.  I love that my children are native New Yorkers.

But most of all, I love New York.

This aired the day after 9/11/01.  It only aired once.  It’s beautiful.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khgD5Bn1zgA

 

About Sharon Wheatley

Mother of Charlotte and Beatrix. Sometimes an actress. Sometimes a writer. I'm glad you're here.
This entry was posted in A Series Of Unusual Events, First Blogisode of this Story. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Series of Unusual Events–The Complete Story (originally published in 2010)

  1. Aunt Barb says:

    Spellbinding memories for your children, your extended family, and the country. An emotional snippet of history for anyone and everyone. Thank you Sharon, this will be passed on to my children. Love, AB

  2. Ruth says:

    Thanks for posting this again!

  3. Amanda says:

    This is a beautiful memoir that I enjoyed reading today, for the second time. It was one of the blogs that I looked up and read entirely in archive when I first discovered your blog :-)

    I am so relieved to see other people today are still as effected by the 2001 tragedy as before- While I grew up in South Florida, my family is originally from the NorthEastern United States and I've always felt a profound connection to New York. I was still living in Florida 11 years ago, but I have since moved to Pennsylvania and am actively trying to find a job in New York so I can finally move there once and for all. Why am I telling you all this? To further explain how grateful I am for your blog today- you see, I left all of my closest friends behind in Florida and have kept in touch with them (we have a reunion every October for Halloween); however, today I was shocked by their collective actions, as one of them posted an insensitive Facebook status today that even can be said to make fun of 9/11…And then instead of condemning him, all of my friends down there joined in "the fun." (cont)

  4. Amanda says:

    (cont from before)

    (My friend posted "Remember what?" and then everyone offered their own answers in the comments, such as "The Alamo" or "The Dinosaurs."). Once I saw that I was the odd-man out in this discussion, I began to question my own sensitivity to the date – I don't know anyone who died from the events, nor do I know anyone who lost anyone – so I wondered if maybe I was being too serious…It's been 11 years, after all….

    However, as the day has progressed, more and more I'm seeing blogs like yours, as well as others on my Facebook who are pouring out tributes, so I can see the pain is still very much alive. Maybe I don't have any PERSON to mourn today, but I like to just consider myself lucky and am satisfied to acknowledge that today I mourn the pain that my city is feeling…And the bravery that all my current New York friends are showcasing by living in a place where something so horrible happened, even if it was over a decade ago now.

    So in short (too late!) thank you for your blog today.

    I heart New York.

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