A dispatch from 2001, in the midst of one of the most horrific events in modern history.
MY HOLIDAY FROM HELL
A summer spent travelling in the US should be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for a university graduate. Unforgettable it was – for all the wrong reasons
Tuesday. Another day, another dollar in the sweltering South.
Look for toys. Ask questions. Beware the dog.
Knock knock. An all too familiar sound. The door opened. There I stood, side on, a few paces back from the entrance just as I had been taught. My smile, although false and contorted with a grimace of desperation, offered a glimmer of hope. "I am a professional educational consultant. I can do this," I thought.
In front of me stood a hulking figure, in ripped denim jeans, sleeveless check shirt, stubbled face and frayed trucker's hat, under which sat two piercing eyes; the kind that meant trouble. It was the look of a man with nothing to lose. Before I could get into my stride and explain why this charred, clipboard-carrying figure was standing on his porch, he reached to his side and pulled out a shotgun. Raising it slowly and pointing it at my midriff with real intent, he hissed these chilling words: "Boy, you got a lotta nerve showing up here right now. Get off my porch."
How had it come to this? Well earlier that year, impulsive and unsuspecting, I had signed up for a business programme selling educational handbooks to families door-to-door. On paper it felt like a raw deal. I would have to raise all the money for flights, two weeks of training in Nashville, accommodation, food and 'office supplies'. Upon arrival in my designated area – Roanoke, Virginia, a sleepy, hilly expanse known as the "Star City of the South" – I would have to go from door to door asking if anyone had a spare room to let that summer. Once I strapped on my book bag and began wrestling with my map I would be working on 100 per cent commission – no guaranteed wage.
So why do it? The thrill-seeker in me, perhaps. Seduced by the road, that rebellious sense of adventure that crackled from every page of Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson that I had read up to that point, there seemed no option but to meet uncertainly head on. But on that particular day several troubles were weighing me down: colleagues who had jumped ship, poor sales figures, the fallout from countless six-day weeks of fourteen-hour toil in 90 per cent humidity and brushes with death while peddling along the freeway though the pitch-black night.
The neighbourhood I was working in seemed quieter than usual: no toddlers playing with their house-bound 'moms', no nannies busying themselves around the garden, no traffic. Greetings at the door were more hostile than usual, accented by a different reaction. A traumatised stare. Confederate and stars and stripes flags were drooping half-mast.
On to the next house. An elderly lady – the church-going type – recoiled from the door. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” she declared. I moped along, confused. Was I missing something here? A public holiday, a hard-line ban on peddlers, the colour of my skin perhaps?
"Keep going," I thought. I turned the corner, surveyed the street and singled out a beautiful white bungalow with a "welcome" mat in front of the door and all manner of flowers delightfully arranged around the garden. Surely I'd be safe from harm at this sanctuary? And thankfully I was right. A compassionate Irish lady ushered me in with worrying urgency. Inside, the television was on full blast. It sounded like an episode of NYPD Blue. “The plane have just crashed into the building.” She paused, looked out at the garden for a moment and continued. "I think my son-in-law’s in there,” she muttered. “I’ll fetch some tea."
The date? 9/11.