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Who I Am, and Why I Made a 9-11 Pop Culture Site

28 MARCH 1982

I was frightened, exhausted and within a place I did not want to be.

I showed signs of discomfort -- fidgeting hands, frowning, and restlessness. I was upset that my camera was way too cheap, that I was so tired and couldn't go home, and most of all, I was way too high up in the air.
Victoria Mielke, the webmaster
Not at the World Trade Center in this photo, but at Detroit's largest building, the Renaissance Center, in the Wintergarden retail area.

I did not want to be inside one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I did not want to be more than a quarter mile above the earth. Yet there I was, frightened and angry. It was the only time I can recall that a building scared the wits of out of me.

That was in 1982. I was 19 years old.

It frustrates me today, 20 years later, that my mind fractured this memory and blotted out the details and the chronology simply because visiting the WTC observation deck was so unpleasant. I can remember exactly what clothes I wore, but other things have faded with the years.

It also frustrates me because now I can never go back to New York City and visit the World Trade Center and see how I would feel about the overgrown place at the age of 40. Sure, I could go to the Empire State Building's observatory and probably would when I return to NYC, but that beast at the southern tip of Manhattan Island is no more.

The only connection I have to those Twin Towers are rudimentary details. My camera, a 1972 Kodak Instamatic that used 126 cartridge film, was so cheesy and simplistic that I never got any photos out the observation deck windows, or of the WTC or me in or near it. And, after moving a number of times from 1982 to 1993, I lost the color prints I did take on that Big Apple trip. Shot of Chinatown? Gone. Shot of me standing in Times Square a decade before Giuliani glammed it up? Gone.

I felt regret after 11 September 2001. No photos and a faulty recollection of a gargantuan office building.

Many others had regrets, too -- thousands or probably millions of people who either visited the WTC or wished they had when they stopped in New York. If you look long enough on the World Wide Web, you will find these personal sites, talking of the "magnificent" Twin Towers they visited, with pages "in memory" of the structures supplemented by what used to be mundane tourist photos.

All I have left are the memories. Some details began to emerge, the more I "pounded my head" after 11 September 2001. A lot of searching my mind for details and a little amateur detective work.

I was able to pinpoint the exact date of my visit from the one thing I still have from the trip, a curious souvenir three-dimensional card of New York City with "purchased, Rockefeller Center, March 26, 1982," written on it. Since I visited the WTC on the Sunday afternoon, I just needed to look at a calendar for that year.

I determined that it was Sunday, 28 March, 1982. I was ending a half week's stay in New York City for the annual convention of Alpha Epsilon Rho, an honorary society for broadcasting students. In those days, my maiden name was Wood, and I was a broadcasting major at Central Michigan University. I remember the names of two of the girls with whom I roomed at the New York Statler Hotel -- Jennifer "Jeff" Daley, of East Tawas, Michigan, and Janette Minch, who was from metro Detroit. They went to the WTC in our group. The rest is pretty foggy.

From approximately 25 to 28 March, I stayed at the Statler Hotel in Manhattan, attending seminars and meetings at times going sightseeing. Our chapter of AERho (as the group was nicknamed) at Central Michigan won the chapter of the year award, which made us happy. On the average I got four or five hours of sleep a night. By the 28th, I was extremely tired and ready to board our flight from Newark International to Detroit Metro Airport. But since the flight was not due to depart until early evening, someone -- I believe it may have been one of the women who shared my hotel room -- suggested we go visit the World Trade Center.

My only memories of the WTC in 1982 were of the campy 1976 movie King Kong, in which I remember Jeff Bridges running inside the north tower, while the big gorilla is scaling the side of it with Jessica Lange. I also remember reading about it being the world's tallest building around 1973 in either a children's news magazine from Scholastic or in the Detroit Free Press. Until I got there, I had no strong opinions about the WTC.

When I left, I never wanted to go back.

I have had acrophobia (fear of heights) since the age of 15. By my 20s I was also unimpressed and turned off by the International style of architecture with its many right angles and tendency to crank out so many humongous boxes and cartons that architects dared to call "buildings." These two things, along with my fatigue, combined in making the trip to the 107th floor of 2 World Trade Center a big pain.

The line was long, even though it was a chilly early spring day. I found mild interest in the narrow windows of the 10-story lobby, which ended in gothic arches and were framed by aluminum. They reminded me of the stained glass windows in St. Peter's Lutheran, my church back home in suburban Detroit.

The walls were attractive, too, made of white marble, and the mezzanine that wrapped around the lobby and formed a second level looked unique. "It looks just like it did in King Kong," I told myself. Even though I would not know until age 39 when the WTC was built, I already felt it looked dated, that it looked like a 1960s building. (The Twin Towers themselves were under construction from 1966 to 1973.)

The elevator made my ears pop and took some of my last few dollars for its fare. (Probably exactly or a little less than $2.98 for an adult, as Angus Kress Gillespie in Twin Towers says this was the admission in 1984.) The views were great, but I did not like to see that the ground was so far down.

Though acrophobic, I do remember that I tried to take pictures of the vistas and actually bumped the windows with my camera, which means that I had to have gotten pretty close to the outside walls. As for the exhibit on "The History of World Trade"? Forget it -- boring and caused my eyes to glaze over.

For some reason (remember, many details are now fuzzy) we never went up to the roof. Either it was because we did not have the time, or it was too cold and windy to go to the rooftop deck. After spending at least a couple hours in the enclosed observatory, we boarded the elevator and went back to terra firma -- a relief for an acrophobe like me.

Over the years, I never returned to New York. A year after my Big Apple visit, I was so disenchanted with the broadcasting program that I switch to journalism. Three years later (November 1985) I married, moved back to Detroit and started a family. And my husband decided he did not like New York City. So we vacationed in Chicago and Toronto instead.

When I did see photographs of big cities, I always recognized the WTC. I would say to myself, always this way, "I know this is New York, because those are the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center." Always that phrasing.


My memories of what commonly became known as "9-11" (or "9/11") are much more intact. Nineteen and one-half years after my acrophobia had been verified, I was 39 years old.

I remember the big news events of my life pretty well. I can recall when Americans were taken hostage in Iran in 1979, when an assassination attempt was made on Ronald Reagan in 1981, when the Challenger space shuttle blew up in 1986, when the Branch Davidian compound burned in Waco, Texas, in 1993, when the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed (two years to the day of Waco) in 1995, and when two young men went on a rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.

None would be bigger than terrorists assaulting the Pentagon and WTC in 2001.

I had been a journalist for 13 years before moving into technical writing, so news always did interest me. As a tech writer, I soured quickly over the office life. I disliked the cubicles (and was happy to not be in one), the chitchat and small talk, and the backbiting and office politics. On top of that, I loathed the 18-story box in which my employer, a training and consulting firm, was housed.

I was about 1 1/2 years into the culinary arts program at Macomb Community College, since I had decided to change careers and become a chef. It just feels right to be in a kitchen, and I enjoy creating art with food.

I was still an office rat on 9-11. My attitude at the time, I must admit, was deeply cynical. On that Tuesday morning, which was as glorious as it was in New York City, I left the parking structure and walked toward my building in Southfield, Michigan.

I envisioned it imploding and collapsing to the ground.

This vision came to me because of my dislike for office careers. It came right out of the end of Fight Club, David Fincher's dark tale from 1999 about anger among the white collars. At the very end, Tyler Durden's army of rebels has created controlled demolitions in a number of buildings in the downtown of a big city. A few times I imagined the Travelers Tower coming down the same way.

I thought of the gutted form of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. I thought of destruction of butt-ugly buildings that sap the souls from human beings inside enclosed walls. Destroy them when they are empty and pursue better aesthetics in building design, I thought. And get rid of cubicles for the design of offices! Free the souls of men and women from such drudgery!

Do not misread me. I am not a terrorist, nor do I support their methods of persuasion. I meant only the figurative tearing down of impersonal offices. I find it strange, though, that I would imagine my building collapsing on the morning of 9-11.

Two hours after I went to my office (about 9:30 a.m.), RaNae (that's exactly how her mom spelled it on her birth certificate) announced loudly that she had gotten an e-mail that someone had flown a jet into each tower of the World Trade Center.

"You're kidding!" I shouted.

"No, I'm not. It's true."

"It sounds like a movie," I said, shaking my head. Oh, we entertainment-saturated Americans. Many of us said this same thing after witnessing the attacks either in person or, more commonly, on TV.

As the minutes passed, I turned on my radio and tried to find a news broadcast. I finally found a top-40 station receiving a live audio feed from the television division of its parent company, ABC/Disney. We did not have a decent TV in the office, so I would not see the attack videos until the evening.

My husband and I traded e-mails over the shock of the thing. He and my eldest daughter, nearly 15 at the time, both told me later they saw Flight 175 strike 2 World Trade Center on live television (the very tower I had visted in '82, I learned later). My second oldest daughter, 9, said her teacher and principal explained there had been a terrible attack against US citizens.

I listened to the whole awful thing, hearing about the Pentagon being hit by a third jet, the Twin Towers tumbling down, the crash of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, and rumors of more jets smashing into things. Everything from tourist attractions to government offices was shuttered. All commercial flights were grounded. My culinary supervision class was canceled. I heard that the highways around Detroit were under guard, and that General Motors employees at the Renaissance Center in Detroit were unnerved, as that is our tallest building.

I went home feeling ill. It turned out not to be emotional, but a case of stomach flu. I was sick for the rest of the week, and I was afraid to turn on CNN and see the reports. I watched the news a bit in the evening, but I didn't want to deal with it.

In the days to come, I began to see people wearing red, white and blue ribbons. Flags exploded into popularity and people were belting our their patriotism. I watched with disbelief as members of Congress stood on the US Capitol steps and sang "God Bless America," like another scene from a movie! A photo of three firemen raising a flag at the WTC ruins, shot by a photographer from a New Jersey paper, was being endlessly replicated.
The Webmaster with a Ground Zero Spirit poster
This is how an amateur researcher looks before the first cup of coffee in the morning. I discovered this hybrid of commercial and homegrown pop culture in the gift shop of my office building. A local framer took Thomas E. Franklin's nationally-known "Ground Zero Spirit" photograph of the three firemen and flag and framed and matted it for a patriotic wall hanging. This is just one example of the popular culture of 9-11 I have discovered.

I learned that RaNae's first cousin, an Army lieutenant, had died in the Pentagon attacks, and Curtis, a man in the office up the hallway, had lost his cousin in the World Trade Center. My estranged older brother, who had lived in upstate New York since 1982, working as a software engineer and volunteer firefighter, was sent to help at what became known as "Ground Zero." Strange but true stuff -- odd that it came so close to me.

Eventually I began to deal with it. I finally could accept that the World Trade Center had been decimated, that there had been a big hole ripped into the Pentagon, and just over 3,000 had died. I could watch as George W. Bush was no longer treated as some fumble-mouthed doofus and began to be quoted alongside other presidents and get a high approval rating.

I felt myself repeating words I had said at 14 when I truly became aware of the world's complexity and the news it generates: Oh, the times in which we live!

18 MARCH 2002

I launched a Web site, 9/11: Pop Culture and Remembrance, because I have always had an interest in mass entertainment. In the turn of the new century, technology had become so affordable that pop culture was being produced by conglomerates and individuals alike.

There were a ton of "In Memoriam" sites, but none addressing how pop culture was shaped and reflected the first major -- and horrid -- event of 21st century American history. I am not only a writer, but a history buff and amateur researcher. I decided to start compiling graphics, moving images and paper items related to 9-11. While the materials were available, I wanted to find, catalog and analyze them. I wanted to understand this time through which I had passed and was now history.

For me, 2001 always will be "The Year Split Asunder," with nine months of peace and almost carefee living in the USA, with stupid stories about the missing congressional intern and shark attacks, and the last three a time of shock, grimness and the start of war against an amorphous enemy. This is why this site exists.

This, I decided, would be my contribution to the aftermath of the attacks. And while I struggle to remember those vistas I saw out the top of 2 World Trade Center, I remember way too well the day I saw this tower fall.

Victoria Mielke

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