From Lockdown, A Letter To My 11-Year Old Self About Witnessing History

Me, age 11, in Bar Harbor, Maine holding a copy of The Bar Harbor Times, at the age I was when I wrote in a journal that I wished I could be part of a major historical event. 25 years later, I’ve been part of a lifetime’s worth.

I’ve always wanted to be a part of history, and fate intervened to give me what I wanted, good and hard.

When I was a child, I would watch and read the news and see all the historical events happening around the world and wish I was there. In fact, I got my start as a writer by doing just that; opening up a Composition notebook and writing stories about being in the middle of some of these events; wars, natural disasters, celebrations.

On April 9, at the height of New York’s COVID-19 Epidemic, when ambulance sirens blared outside my window, I wrote a letter to my 11-year-old self, warning him that his wish to be in the middle of historical, life-changing events will soon be granted – multiple times – and boy, it would suck. Here’s the letter:

Dear Domenick,

I see you. 

Sitting there in your room in 1994. writing in a black and white Composition notebook; an alternate history you wish was happening now. Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, World War III; and you, the common thread, surviving and witnessing them all.

I know it seems to you like historical, once-in-a-lifetime events are happening far from you; that earthquake in Los Angeles, Hurricane Andrew, the war in Yugoslavia. A wall came down in Berlin and you weren’t there; SCUD missiles darted across the skies over Israel and Kuwait – and you weren’t there. There was a volcano eruption in the Philippines, a tsunami in Papua New Guinea, and a tornado wiped a Kansas town off the map – and you weren’t there. I know it seems to you that all the life changing historical moments are in the past. Your grandparents tell you stories about the Depression and World War II. Your mom remembers when Kennedy was assassinated. And your young life has been filled with, what? Some pitiful snowstorms and couple of Giants Super Bowl wins? Hmph.

Well, I’ve come from a quarter century in the future to tell you; You will be front and center to major historical events, and you’ll wish you weren’t.

Go upstairs to the attic and look out the front window. That’s your favorite place in the house. You know why; because you can see the World Trade Center, the “twin towers.” Go look at it now, they’ll only be there for a few more years.

On your second full day of college, you won’t ever make it to class. You will watch those buildings implode, full of people, in front of your eyes after terrorists hijack passenger planes and fly them, loaded with people and fuel, into each building. Thousands will die. You will know what anxiety and fear really feels like. Your mother was supposed to be shopping in the mall under the towers that day and your father works less than a mile away. 

Don’t worry, they’ll be fine, but in the days and weeks after, you’ll be too afraid to go to school, lest you never make it back home, too afraid to go to restaurants or ride the subway or do anything that attracts a crowd of people. Christmas will be bleak that year. Your first semester GPA will be below 2.0, because you’ll be too unfocused and anxious about when the next attack was coming. “9/11,” as it will be called because it will happen on September 11th, 2001, will become everyone’s obsession and you will be unable to escape it. It will come to define the city and the experience will be the first thing anyone asks about when you say you’re from New York. You will take a class in college, called Sociology of Terrorism, only because the professor will tell you the best times to take public transit or be in crowded spaces. You’ll find out terrorists don’t attack public transit on Thursday and Fridays, because it does more social and economic damage to do it earlier in the week. That’s something you’d never think of considering before. This is how you live now. 

Smoke rising from Ground Zero as seen from the attic of my childhood home in Queens, New York on the evening of September 11, 2001. 9/11 was my first experience being thrust into a global life-altering event, right at my doorstep. It wasn’t my last.

Remember those stories your mom told you about the blackout in 1977 that made you lock yourself in your bedroom late at night, shut all the lights and imagine you were in one? You’ll get the chance. A blackout will trap you at work all night. You will wonder how you will ever get home or when the lights will come back on. You won’t be able to reach your family, the phones are out. You will have to drive all the way home in the pitch dark, unable to see except for your headlights and hint of dawn. It will happen in August, it will be hot out. You’ll swelter in the heat in your bedroom with no A/C. 

The lights will come back on though, but you’ll be left with some rational and irrational fears about it. You’ll walk around with multiple cellular phone chargers, and panic whenever you cell phone battery goes below 50 percent. You will feel anxiety when your laptop isn’t plugged into a power source. You will never again let your gas tank go below half full. 

Remember when your grandmother told you about then bread lines and encampments in Central Park during the Great Depression? What it must to have been like to live through an economic crisis like that? You’ll experience it…perhaps twice as of this writing. You’ll lost your job, along with 750,000 others in the United States, in January 2009. It will eat up your savings and you will lie awake at night wondering if you will ever get a job. You will, but you will work for a decade for low pay and few benefits and no retirement account. 

It will happen again, out of nowhere, eleven years later. More on that later. 

You’ll never get the nerve to be a storm chaser like you see on TV, but you will see a tornado. It will scare the living crap out of you. You will be in your car, on the Long Island Expressway, and you will see the funnel stretch from the sky. It will look like it’s coming for you but it will pass to your left. The wind and rain will then hide the tornado and you will not know where it is or if its about to hit you. With traffic stopped, you will close your eyes and bargain with God to get you out of this safely. The ensuing chaos will force you to abandon your car and walk miles home, avoiding fallen trees and light poles and shattered glass from apartment windows. For years after, you will be afraid to leave the house when severe weather is in the forecast. 

You will live through four of the five worst blizzards in New York history. One of them will trap you at home for weeks, with roads unplowed. Supply lines will get cut and you’ll wonder if supermarkets will remain stocked and food will go into short supply. You will have a job, but you will have to climb over 20-foot snow drifts to get to it. Thankfully snow does melt though…eventually. 

Oh there will be hurricanes too. Hurricane Irene will keep you up all night, as the winds batter your bedroom and you wonder if that tree behind your house will come crashing into your window. You will do the stupid thing of going outside in the eye and get caught walking over a mile into the backside of the storm. You will catch a bad cold from it. The next year will be even more crazy. Hurricane Sandy will do the things you wondered if hurricanes would do if they hit New York – it will flood coastal areas, destroy your beloved boardwalk in Rockaway, and knock power out for many of your friends and family for weeks. There will be gas lines. You will sit on one for over an hour one day. There will be massive power outages that will leave New Yorkers searching the garbage for food. Subway and road tunnels will be flooded, and will take the better part of the next decade to fully repair. The anxiety that came during the blackout nine years earlier will come roaring back and you will become obsessed with making sure your phone, your computer, even your remote control is charged and batteries are plentiful. You will buy them by the dozens, you will hoard candles, twenty or thirty, stocked away in the basement…just in case. 

There will even be an earthquake. It won’t be bad, but it will be scarier than you think. You will run out of your office screaming because you’ll remember you’re in New York and nothing is built to be earthquake proof. You won’t want to be in another one. 

That story there about another Spanish flu-type outbreak, you know the one you stopped writing because you considered it too out of this world to be true? I almost hate to tell you this, but I’m writing this letter to you in quarantine. Don’t worry, it’s not a deadly illness like in the movies, but it will cause economic and social disruption you can’t even consider right now. You will be told to stay home, and not go anywhere. Restaurants and bars will be closed, stores will be closed, you will be trapped in your home.  It will actually be ILLEGAL to see your family and friends. The worst part is you will find a partner, someone you are madly in love with, and you will not be able to see him for perhaps months. You will be forced to face your worst fear – isolation and loneliness – and it will be harder than anything else you’ve ever done. As the crisis develops, the anxiety will be so bad, your middle and index fingers on your left hand will go numb at the tips. You will have nightmares, crazy ones that will make you afraid to go to sleep. 

Millions will lose their jobs and your job will grind to a halt. Again, your savings will get eaten up. The prospect for your financial future is grim. 

I can’t tell you yet how it ends, maybe that’s another letter. But I want to let you know, you will utter these words in partial jest:

“I am tired of living through historical events”

I don’t want to leave you hopeless. There will be good times too. A lot of them. 

You will live to see the millennium, a New Year’s Eve that will be so celebratory, you’ll have no use for any more in the future. A newspaper article will start “the world has seen itself as its best.” The Eiffel Tower will erupt in celebratory fireworks in a way you’ll remember always. You’ll still be searching for videos of it 20 years later just to make you smile. 

“I am tired of living through historical events”

Nick Rafter, march 22, 2020

You know that list you made of places you want to see before you die? You will see many of them before you’re 40. You will see a volcano erupt – sort of – in the form of rivers of lava flowing into the Pacific Ocean on the island of Hawaii. You will visit Pompeii and stare at the majestic Mount Vesuvius and you will go to Martinique and see the ruins of Saint Pierre and the mountain that destroyed it – Mount Pelee. You will look down into the waters of Pearl Harbor and see the rusted remains of the U.S.S. Arizona. It will still be leaking oil sixty years later. 

You will ride a gondola in Venice and you will touch a column in the ruins of the Parthenon in Athens. You will stand on the spot in the Tower of London where Anne Boleyn was beheaded and you will transit the entire Panama Canal – in a small boat too, which will make the effect of the locks even more awesome. That war in Yugoslavia you’re watching, you will see the damage firsthand in the buildings of Dubrovnik, Croatia. You will return to Croatia years later and stay on an old-world island with a friend.

You will stand on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and the British House of Commons, and you will see in the inside of the Supreme Court where no cameras are allowed, and you will not only ride a boat into Niagara Falls, you will get the see the wonder from a cave behind it. You will travel to countries you can’t even fathom you’d visit like Colombia, Turkey and Trinidad and Tobago. You remember that weird looking atom-shaped structure in Brussels that you’re curious about what it looks like inside? It is a gallery space for art installations and you’ll get to go inside.

You will stroll through Amsterdam’s Red Light District; drive across the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys – in a thunderstorm even; play slot machines in Las Vegas, nap on a beach in Barbados and do it again in Aruba and you will walk through the Colosseum in Rome, and you will do it twice. 

So my advice to you, from 25 years in the future, is to put down that notebook and enjoy your boring life. It won’t be boring for long. I can’t tell you when the next forty years from where I am will look like, hopefully more like the latter part of this letter and not the former part. Don’t worry though, you don’t need to create historical events in a fantasy world for you to live though, you will, as they say, live in interesting times. 

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