Guest column: Smoke, and remembering the Towers
It’s 10 a.m. on the morning of July 28, 1945. My birthday was three days ago, and I’m now 6. I’m driving into Manhattan with my parents in our old navy blue Ford. We’ve driven from Los Angeles. On a good day we’d make a few hundred miles before we’d have to add water to the radiator. This is our day of arrival into New York City. The sky is enveloped in fog.
As we enter Manhattan, people are congested on the sidewalks and looking to the top of a building that is so tall it can been seen from anywhere in the city, even through this fog. Some people are running. Others are pointing upward. Lots of cameras. I lean out the open car window and stare.
Black smoke bellows from the 78th and 79th floors of the highest building I’ve ever seen – the Empire State Building. The tail section of a Mitchell B-25 bomber protrudes from the building. At 9:50 a.m. the bomber had slammed into the building. People later said the impact could be heard from a distance of 2 miles.
Wreckage is spilling onto the streets. One engine passes through the skyscraper, exiting on the opposite side and smashing through another building. The second engine and landing gear fall through an elevator shaft. The aircraft explodes. A high floor is engulfed in flames. Fourteen people die, but the 122-story steel skyscraper withstands the shock and remains standing.
This was the first time I ever saw the Empire State Building.
Fast forward forty-five years. It’s now 1990, the last time I was in New York City. My trip was for three days in July. I’m meeting a real estate lawyer who’s going to write some books for my company. At 8:30 in the morning I take the subway to South Park and enter the 5-acre plaza on which stands the building in which he’s located. The plaza is modeled after Saint Mark’s Square in Venice. I’m thinking that this is going to be one fine law firm.
I meet him in his stylish office of the enormous international law firm where he is a partner. The office is located on one of the top floors of what to me was a new addition to the New York skyline. He’s young and affable and has the reputation of being one of the best real estate litigators in the country. Lunchtime arrives. He says “Let me take you to one of the most magnificent restaurants in the world, and I’ve been to the best. It’s a couple of stories right above me. Top of the building. This place you must see.” Lawyers are prone to exaggeration, but not this time. This guy is right.
We take the staircase. The restaurant is on the 107th floor. It is far more than simply a place to eat. The walls are sheets of glass. At one hundred ten stories above the city, the restaurant commands nearly a full view of Manhattan and surrounding area. The sky is clear, the ambience calm. I feel I am dining in a cathedral.
During lunch I tell him how in the fall of 1965, an Army lieutenant first met a young Army nurse named Jeannie on a staircase in a red brick building at Fort Jay on Governors Island where they’re stationed. She’s headed downstairs, he upstairs, and they stop and begin talking. Eight weeks later, they are married at Our Lady Star of the Sea Chapel on this beautiful tiny island in New York Harbor. This 1776 colonial outpost and former First U.S. Army Headquarters, is now a National Park. The chapel, a white wooden structure, stood out against a blue October sky on that day that began a lifetime.
I had two really good friends at Fort Jay on Governors Island. Skip with Special Forces and Joel with AirCav who was so excited about getting to jump out of helicopters he couldn’t believe he was actually getting paid to do it. Some evenings we’d have some drinks at the officers’ club while they awaited orders. We swore we’d keep in touch when “Nam” ended. Their orders came the same week, and a few days later they were gone. The expression at the time was “over the waves.” I never again heard from either.
My table companion tells me he’s never visited Governors Island, just a 10-minute ferry ride from the lower tip of Manhattan and says he’ll take his wife and little girl the following weekend. He’ll visit the chapel and tell his family about the lieutenant and the Army nurse.
Half-way through my cobb salad, I see the Empire State Building below me, and I begin to remember a day in 1945, 45 years earlier (long before my table partner was born), when I saw the smoke rising from the top of that building. I tell him about my Empire State Building experience and say, “How do you keep airplanes from flying into this place? It could ruin a person’s entire lunch.”
“Not to worry,” he says. “Smaller planes stick to the rivers.”
“So it’s safe to have dessert?” I ask.
“Order the creme brulee. It’s fantastic,” he says.
When we depart, I tell him it would be my pleasure for him and his wife to join Jeannie and me for dinner right here the next time we come to New York. We make a date for an indefinite time in the future.
It is to my great sorrow that date was never kept.
The restaurant was Windows on the World.
It was located at the top of Tower One.
Jonathan M. Purver is a writer who lives in South Lake Tahoe. This memoir is adapted from his book Giraffe and Other Short Stories (AuthorHouse, 2009). He is currently writing Apple River, a collection of short fiction.