John Michael Pendley

In mid-September 1968, fifty years ago, a plant, “Philodendron,” arrived at my family’s home in southern California, unexpectedly. It was donated to our family from a community of “strangers.” “Anonymous” the card read; we’d otherwise have never come to know if it wasn’t for that particular September, that year. Family members and their green thumbs have kept it and its propagations alive all the years since, as a remembrance for the gracious outpourings and kindness some felt after the  loss of our loved one.

A person whose life came to an abrupt and unexpected end just a few yards or stone’s throw away from any one of their humble homes, doorsteps; from those who witnessed the events of that day in real time – as the tragedy occurred, yet who caringly felt for us, “strangers” as well to them, and our unfortunate and immediate loss.

The plant still survives to this day, 50 years later. It truly is a token of love and consideration my family has never forgotten, despite those dim months shortly after it arriving and the years ahead we faced and endured. To that end, that act of kindness lives on in our hearts, along with their green token of sympathy and condolences.

September is always a very tough month for me. It’s the month of my mother’s birthday, my favorite time of year – early pre-fall in both southern California and New York – yet coupled with two other days in the month, it has proved to significantly be a challenge for myself and others.

On the morning of September 12, 1968, my brothers and I were awoken at approximately 6 am by our father. As always, he’d flash our bedroom lights “on and off” several times, with the ‘ole “rise and shine” to get us up and moving and ready for school. An hour or so later, approximately 7:45 am, a family friend’s carpool station-wagon arrived and 10 crammed-in kids were ferried across town approximately one and a half miles to our elementary school, St. Columbans.

At approximately 10:30 am that fateful morning, I was called out of class and asked to report the principal’s office. I was shocked, as I couldn’t understand nor thought I’d done anything wrong – yet. The attention was unexpected. I was even escorted from my classroom to the principal’s office by a nurse from the nurse’s office. They led me out into the parking lot of the school where I was met by my brother.

We were then greeted by our carpool host-driver, Ms. Adams. We were both puzzled by the reception and couldn’t imagine what was going on. We entered the car and were driven back to our house on Erin Road. We speculated our cousin Jim (James Gavin) might be taking us on an unexpected “helicopter ride.” Gavin was a second unit-director helicopter pilot in Hollywood and trained my father to aviate helicopters.

Surprisingly, when we arrived home that day, our oldest brother greeted us. As w entered the house, Gavin’s wife unexpectedly arrived with her son. Instantly, both my brother and I thought an unexpected “copter ride” was in play that day.

As an in-between job, our father worked as a civilian for the military and delivered helicopters from Palomar airport, now McClellan-Palomar airport, in north San Diego to Point Mugu in Ventura County. That job had been facilitated by Gavin, given his relationship with US DOD and other entities with whom he was acquainted. (Previously, in the early 1960s, Gavin had personally transported JFK during his California election campaigns.) From Point Magu on the California coast, the airships our father delivered from Palomar were then boarded and transported to Vietnam for the war effort. Prior to these transport missions our father made, these airships arrived at the aviation service center in San Diego for various testing and operational corrections and were then delivered for shipment to South Asia from US Naval ports.

On the morning of September 12, 1968, my father was assigned to fly his designated Huey airship, aka “Bubble Copters” to then enlistees, to Pt. Magu; usually a 2-hour flight. While en-route to Ventura that morning, his airship’s fuel injection system malfunctioned which rendered the aircraft inoperable, yet attempts were made to land it without incident. Unable to do so effectively while both top and rear prop systems were completely inoperable – out of sync, it caused the aircraft to spin incessantly and render flight control mechanics useless. Regardless, it was reported by witnesses, that the pilot did manage to navigate the aircraft further and further away from residents and housing communities, averting further calamity, despite the distress at hand from the engine’s malfunctions. The perilous aircraft’s rate of speed and descent resulted in the inevitable, and luckily only one casualty occurred. That morning’s “wake up call” and departing “wave” of his hand while all departed to school in that carpool station-wagon was last time I ever saw my father.

Over the years, that morning in September ‘68 had always been a slightly anxious and unnerving day for me. The anticipation and memory of that fateful day, September 12, were hard to shake, release. It was also a substantial turning point for our mom and her raising of us five kids in the years ahead. Even more disconcerting, it was soon learned our father’s life insurance policy had been caught in the cross-hairs of agency missteps and administrative errors abounded.

Years later.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was living at 41 W 86th Street, New York, apartment “9K,” between Columbus and Central Park West. I awoke that morning to a blissful, beautiful, clear September morning in Manhattan. There were perfectly blue skies, no clouds, when I turned on the TV. Nothing remarkable was on the news; it was early and I prepared to go to work across town. I took my dog for a walk, said hello to the doorman, proceeded around the corner up Columbus to do the regular morning duties for my shaggy loved one, and then returned to my building.

When I arrived back to the building and the doorman’s podium, several people were gathered around watching the TV. As I passed by, I asked what was going on. All eyes were glued to the screen. They mentioned there was a fire in one of the towers at World Trade Center. We all looked on in amazement as smoke spewed from the side of one tower.

When I arrived back up to 9K, (the letter K being of some interest in years that followed – the 11th letter of the alphabet) news on all the TV stations reported that there was a fire in one of the towers. Live feed of the incident from the circling aircraft was streaming in on every station. Every network was covering the disaster that was unfolding. CNN was speculating that perhaps a radar malfunction occurred at Newark airport, or “perhaps” a small plane may have received bad air traffic control instructions. I thought that was odd given how pristine the weather conditions were that morning.

Meanwhile, smoke was billowing up from the tower as I watched on. The clock was inching up towards the 9 o’clock hour when I saw the next event, in real time. The second plane was filmed, live, crashing into the other tower and the plume of smoke and flying debris vaulted out the other side of the building. A fire-ball plume of flames and debris blew out into the lower Manhattan skylines. Mayhem ensued throughout the city that day, while Navy F-16 fighter jets buzzed back and forth across the Manhattan sky, shaking windows, fraying nerves. One would think we were under imminent attack, war – an invasion was at hand.

All these years later I still find it hard to realize that within that split second and that plane’s fateful end, that strike, hundreds of lives were instantly lost in a cloud of smoke. I’m not even sure to this day if I still fully appreciate how instantaneous that was, and how immediately I felt for so many lives, those “strangers” I will never meet, that lost loved ones that day. I was instantly and incessantly transported back in my mind in time to the event, and particularly to that difficult time I went through in September ’68, as networks mindlessly streamed the crash.

Previously, in 1997, I was assigned a temporary position in the World Trade Center, at the Port Authority Legal affairs office, located on the 86th floor. One of their clerks was taking maternity leave and I was to fill in for a few weeks. Thank God that only lasted a few months.

Being from the West coast, I found it fascinating how the Port Authority operated. The PA is like a little “sovereign” country in and of itself, overseen by the US government and a board of commissioners of equal number appointed by both New Jersey’s and New York’s governor’s offices.

In one room, a very “large room” on the other side of the floor from where I sat, were hundreds of somewhat large TV screen monitors that were posted across several walls. All these screens were running in real time, showing every aircraft runway and taxi lane at JFK, La Guardia and Newark airports, at various railroad junctions for the Path trains, entrance lanes and tunnels to all entry points for the George Washington Bridge, Verrazano, Lincoln Tunnel, Holland tunnel, inner Path train stations, shipping ports and docks to so much more. It truly was a mission control center unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

My job at the PA involved my administrating hundreds of court-ordered “wage garnishment orders”. Many arrived daily from countless counties in the NY and NJ area. These were wage garnishments involving child support, tax liens, alimony, DUI’s – you name it. If you worked for the PA you were of the “Goldman Sachs” bar level, standard, debtor – the best catch for any and all conceivable or aspiring collection agencies seeking to recover whatever they were legally entitled. Working for the PA is a coveted job with the best union between both of the states.

While on that job assignment, other lawyers on that floor were involved with the ongoing legal prosecution cases at the SDNY regarding the terrorist that attempted to bomb the WTC back in ’93. An attempt I came to learn was, that had the terrorist not misjudged their calculations and got it right, they could have compromised sub-level structural key points where both Towers were slightly vulnerable, and both Towers could have imploded in on themselves. Part of this structural engineering I came to know then, involved how the buildings slightly “sway” in high winds and are connected to each other via various mechanism down in the infrastructures sub-basements.   I’ll never forget how I witnessed this phenomenon while working on the very high floors, and you could literally feel the “sway,” then hear the “cracking” of the infrastructure – moving, pivoting during high winds. My instant mental note was, should I ever obtain a “fulltime job” any one of these towers, I’d most certainly have kept a compact parachute beneath my desk, on the ready. Shame I didn’t promote that notion.

Another factor I had to come to terms with while working at WTC, was that descending from the upper floors to the ground floor in an elevator, took some time. Descending from the 86th floor required taking one elevator to the 42nd floor, where the cafeteria was, then crossing over to another – an express ride to the ground floor. Then there were one or two escalators and finally, you were at street level and the tall circular glass revolving exit doors. In all, it took approximately 18 to 25 minutes, possibly more depending on the time of day, security line, and so forth. Security after the ’93 bombings was not forgiving.  So in total, if I were to want to go outside to have a cigarette, it could well take me approximately 40 minutes to an hour, round-trip. Realizing that that amount of time loss wouldn’t be feasible for steady work, I researched the situation and its alternatives. Soon after, someone suggested an alternative I might give a try.

Via stairway, I began to explore various floors beneath my office on the 86th, to the 85, 84, 83 and so forth. What I found surprised me. Many of the alternating floors below the one I worked, were complete “raw” open commercial space areas, stripped to the structural beams of the building infrastructure – walls of wires, ventilation systems exposed and no ceilings. I walked further on one of the floors, to the window and looked down. It was very impressive, breath taking. Yet that view, and for me at that moment, my parachute back up plans were fortified, should the “right” employment options be on the table. I then noticed something odd about the cement floor. Cigarette butts were littered everywhere. What’s more, as I was en-route to leave my newly found space, I was greeted by two other employees walking in. Suddenly, Bics were clicking and my break timeline crisis case resolved.

Another fascination to me then was how at street level, with one’s body flush to the very side of one of the towers, you could look up the “straight line” of aluminum structural siding that went perfectly straight, all the way to the very top. Then too, I wondered how if this magnificent structure were to be “decommissioned,” plans for it to be taken down and demolished for another building, the sheer structural engineering genius such a feat would require. I just couldn’t imagine how they could do it.

In 2002, I was working for a law firm directly across the street from where the 9/11 massacre took place. Employees there had witnessed all of the events that unfolded that fateful day. Surprisingly, one of the clients of this law firm was none other than Larry Silverstein. Silverstein was the managing agent for all the commercial properties of the WTC towers. In fact, Silverstein’s son, a law student and aspiring lawyer then, was working at the firm. We became acquainted and spoke often.

In chatting, he mentioned to me that another “law firm” that personally represented his father, had been slated to move into one of the WTC towers some months before 9/11, but stalled in doing so for months, followed by their deciding to put their move off “indefinitely” for certain reasons not clear. It was common knowledge to many then, and for me personally given my proximity to the PA and the 1993 SDNY terrorist case, that trial transcripts and testimony of the suspects on trial did mention “they were going to come back,” and “ultimately” finish their job – consummate the “Jihad.”

More interestingly, I came to learn that after the ’93 bombings, lease and occupancy demands in the WTC dropped precipitously. It was mentioned that Silverstein was offering lease deals that otherwise, anywhere else would have been quite attractive, if not unheard of. WTC management was offering 20-year leases to prospective tenants, with the option of the first 10 years completely free, and their first month rent payment would not come due until year 11, else perhaps they paid during the first 10 years, and years 11 – 20 were free. I can’t be sure. Yet, what a deal. One would think. Yet nothing worked for Silverstein. It’s been suggested those buildings at the most, were only 50 percent occupied.

I’d always thought the amalgamation of these events worth revisiting, the relevance of connecting the dots, but first and foremost now – the 50-year remembrance and celebration anniversary of our father’s service to us kids and our family. That combined with the crazy coincidence of apartment 9K, and the juxtaposed days of a month that impacted so many “strangers,” family, far and wide with a common sympathy and interest.

That our “Philodendron” lives on to this day, 50 years later, I believe is a testament to “something,” hard to describe. A sign of “hope” that, perhaps, “We (All) Shall Overcome” someday, whatever one’s circumstances might be that they are facing.

John Michael Pendley ©2018

JMP is a free-lance writer, singer-songwriter