'9/11' redefines family TV hour

Posted: Mar 13, 2002 12:00 AM
This isn't precisely a six-months-after column, though my reflections are inspired by the CBS "9/11" documentary that 39 million Americans watched Sunday night. By now, if you haven't seen it, you've likely read about the film by two French brothers. Originally envisioned as the boy-to-man saga of one rookie firefighter, the film became the insider documentary of the infamous day that exploded into "9/11." What struck me as I watched wasn't so much the film itself - powerful as it was - but the fact and fallout of our watching it. My family, that is, and all the other families who gathered for two hours to remember what happened to us. My husband, son and I had made an appointment with each other to watch the documentary. At 9 p.m. sharp, we would shove aside our other concerns - homework, meal-planning, column-fretting, pre-Monday angst - and meet in the den. Which, at the appointed time, we did. Without discussion, we took our seats. All three of us went straight to the couch and sat three abreast - instead of scattered as usual in chairs around the room - and hunkered under a shared blanket. Yes, it was chillier than usual, but you can correctly assume that we could have adjusted the thermostat. Such moments, I thought, are rare these days with two busy adults and one even-busier teen-ager. Yet, in my own childhood home, we nearly always watched TV together. Like most families, we had only one TV set, around which we gathered to watch "Bonanza," "Perry Mason," Ed Sullivan (The Beatles!), "Gunsmoke." Then there were the special events, such as the annual airing of "The Wizard of Oz," and, of course, "The Bridge on the River Kwai," a veritable family call to arms. There was also a horror movie we always watched, though I can't remember the name, as well as a romantic tear-jerker that ended with the beautiful girl stepping into the volcano. I huddled under a blanket for the horror movie and sobbed myself into a state of dehydration over the girl. Such innocent fear; such privileged sorrow. Today our fears and sorrows are as real as they get, and gathering as a family to watch a terrorist attack on New York City is not of the world we once knew. And yet, sitting there next to my son, John, I thought, no, this
is the world he knows. I have a picture of John when he was 7, standing in the kitchen and watching a small TV with his dad. On the screen is Saddam Hussein. I have another photo of him shortly thereafter, smiling snaggletoothed and waving a small American flag at a parade of soldiers as they returned from the Persian Gulf. Fast forward to the present. Hussein is back in the picture, but this time war has come to us. Thousands of Americans have been reduced to ash. There in our den Sunday night, the "9/11" documentary shows the first tower collapsing yet again. Someone in the room seems to have caught a cold; my son mutters, "Good God." The only comparable television event from my childhood was President Kennedy's assassination. We all watched in disbelief as Jack Ruby sprang from the crowd and plugged a bullet into Oswald's gut. A mere mosquito bite on humanity's forearm compared to watching airplanes dive into tall buildings filled with civilians. The "9/11" documentary was everything it needed to be. Without showing a drop of blood, a charred body part or any of the sensational effects we couldn't help imagining, the filmmakers managed to capture the horror of the day. All they had to do was focus on the firefighters' faces, which reflected amazing fearlessness amid irreducible shock. As the film ended, I suspect we were like most families across the nation - spent and exhausted. I don't think anyone said a word as we all got up from the couch, turned off the lights and headed off to bed. Like any well-made movie, the memory and emotional effect linger. But Sept. 11 was unlike any movie. And family hour ain't what it used to be.