Reflections of an Unintentional Observer (9/11/03)
Updated: Sep 7, 2021
For the past two years this document has grown from 3 pages (the first week) to 6 pages (the first month) to 13 pages (the first year). This is my way of documenting my emotional and physical landing after September 11th. I can now say I have landed.
It is interesting for me to understand where I was before September 11th. My family and I were living in a nice house in San Francisco on a typical 25’ by 100’ square foot lot. Our 4-year-old, Daniel, was in pre-kindergarten two block from our house. Our one-year-old twin girls, Sarah and Rachel, at home raising hell and driving my wife Kathy nuts. I was working my standard 60-hour weeks as the CEO of Ventaso, a sales and marketing software company. The company was surviving but it was very tough in a market that was going south on a weekly basis. We had just raised $21M in a difficult investment market and I had told the Board in August that I believed it was necessary to bring on a new CEO that was more of a marketer than I was. I had tinkered and adjusted every position in the company but my own and now it was time to adjust and hopefully upgrade that position. No set timeframe, just a desire to make sure the company had the best possible chance of succeeding. Any one that knows me understands the company comes before personal ego.
On September 10th I boarded a United Airlines 777 for a typical cross country business trip to New York City. I have always enjoyed my visits to New York. The food, the people, the energy are all quite unique to the American experience. Only once was I unsettled in New York and that was in ’93 when my wife and I walked around the World Trade Center around midnight. The next day Arab extremists tried to blow up the towers with a truck bomb parked in the underground parking garage. My wife and I both felt like we dodged a bullet. With regards to this trip my company had been trying to finalize an agreement with Morgan Stanley for months and I felt the need to meet them myself, privately, to see if we could hammer out a path forward.
Prior to boarding the plane, I bought ‘One Day in September’, the story of the 1972 Munich Olympics where the PLO massacred 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team. I am an avid reader of history and love to process how others have dealt with life’s unique situations, or in this case, tragedy. The flight was a success as it was uneventful and the book was more than interesting. Reaching the Embassy Suites across from the World Trade Center I could not sleep….that damn west to east travel thing. My roommate for the night, Nate, a consultant for Ventaso, was working so I decided to catch up on e-mails prior to going to bed. My appointment with Morgan Stanley was at 8:00 am sharp so I would need to wake up by 6:30 or so but if you can’t sleep, you simply can’t sleep. After sending roughly 50 e-mails I retired to my bed and continued to read about the horrid events of Munich almost 40 years earlier. The book was insightful in that it showed how a normal day can turn into the nightmare of nightmares. There were heroes, bystanders and evil. Little did I know that within eight hours I would witness the same.
911 – September 11, 2001
I awoke and made my way to the World Trade Center complex. After coffee and a bagel in the underground mall attached to the World Trade Center, I made my way to security for the South Tower, WTC 2…and what security they had. I provided my license, had my picture taken, and patiently waited to receive clearance from Morgan Stanley above. While waiting, I moved into observer mode and watched the multitudes of workers move through the process, the turnstiles, the elevators. I specifically noticed six guys in their overalls checking in and then proceeding to the 105th floor. They were there to set up cubicles or do other construction and it was quite the contrast to see these good ole boys, laughing and joking, joining the white-collared, button-downed crowd as they made there way up to the upper reaches of Tower Two, as the south tower was called. I was finally given my pass card that allowed me entry to the 64th floor and I made my way to the elevators on the other side of the lobby. The express elevator that we boarded would rent for roughly $500 a month in San Francisco it was so spacious. Everything in the WTC was big it seemed. After reaching a sky lobby I boarded a ‘local elevator’ to bring me to the 64th floor. I was soon escorted to a conference room on the northeast corner of Tower Two and the view was simply amazing. To the north was the skyline of Manhattan with the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, seemingly dwarfed by my present altitude. Tower One, the north tower, was to our left like a brother sentinel. To the east a beautiful view of Brooklyn and the Brooklyn bridge. I stood and enjoyed the sights for over ten minutes and thought how lucky people were to have such a view. We were really on top of the world.
The meeting with Sandy and Liz from Morgan Stanley was collaborative and we quickly defined the path necessary to move the business relationship forward. We talked about the important things such as proof of concepts, taking one step at a time, building trust. The three of us were taking copious notes and my confidence in a win-win agreement increased as we agreed on definitive next steps in our relationship. Everything changed at 8:46 am.
The sound was one of a loud whirling jet engine streaking past our window, impacting and then exploding. Three distinct sounds that lasted approximately one second each: WHIRL, CRASH, BOOM. We looked at each other and Sandy said, ‘What was that?’ I immediately got up and looked north at that amazing view I was admiring an hour before. Everywhere in the air were papers, papers, papers….the sky was full of 8 ½ X 11 paper. It looked like a parade going down 5th Avenue. Looking towards Tower One, about twenty-five floors above us were approximately 20 broken windows with flickering flames protruding from most of them. I sat and watched in amazement not realizing the damage on the north side of Tower One.
‘Everybody out now!’ screamed Sandy. Sandy was outside the conference room now, running around the floor making sure everyone was moving. In hindsight we were lucky that Morgan Stanley had taken the lessons of the ’93 attack very seriously, and Sandy was doing what she was trained to do, react quickly and with determination. I looked around and realized I was alone in the northeast conference room on the 64th floor of Tower Two. My first instinct was to sit and watch the drama being played out before me, a voyeur instinct I inherited from my father. I could have easily pulled up a chair and watched the action from thirty floors below. I had a front row seat to watch whatever the hell was happening next door. But as I continued to hear Sandy prod and incent others to head down the fire escape, I picked up my bag and walked out of the conference room. Not really fearing for my safety but simply not wanting to be alone. On the way out the door I noticed that both Sandy and Liz had left their notes regarding our future business relationship on the conference table. Looking back at those critical decisions now none of us knew that an American Airlines airplane had crashed into the north side of Tower One and we were viewing just a small portion of the real damage. In retrospect, I also realize that if Sandy had not acted with authority and urgency that my own personal outcome could have been very different. I owe her something that I can never repay.
Following Sandy and Liz towards the stairwell was like any other fire drill we have all participated in. We moved through the door and joined the masses making their way down in a methodical fashion. There was much talking as floor by floor we moved towards ground level. Sandy jokingly mentioned that if she survived, I would indeed get their business. Occasionally we would pass someone standing in a doorway watching but everyone was moving in a crisp yet not hurried fashion. At 8:59 the first announcement talking about a fire in Tower One was broadcast. The guy behind me bitched about it taking almost 15 mintues before we heard any news about what was going on. Due to the noise level in the stairwell many of us only overheard that a fire was in Tower One and that no issues existed in Tower Two. That was about to change.
At 9:03 Tower Two was punched with the second plane. Those of us snaking our way down the stairway were immediately thrown to one side and many fell or sat down. The building swayed left and then right with a diminishing frequency that lasted approximately five seconds. The guy with the watch screamed "Let’s go. We have twenty-five floors left people. Let’s move." The urgency multiplied in everyone. The fear in the air and on people’s faces was tangible. The march towards the ground was now faster and a bit more erratic. Two men were helping a woman down and I waited for my turn around this group. That was the last I saw of Sandy and Liz, as they were moving quickly downwards. The guy with the watch was getting impatient behind me but everyone was respectful and did the right thing on the way down. But things were now different, very different. No longer was this an accident. My first attempt at reasoning was that someone was lobbing mortars from the river towards the WTC buildings. We were in a bizarre scenario that no one could truly comprehend.
When we got to the Plaza level I walked towards the windows as we were making our way towards the down escalator to go to the underground mall. I still hadn’t understood the magnitude of what was going on, but the smell of smoke was in the air. Looking out on the Plaza it was a war zone with a pair of shoes, lots of paper and many pieces of insulation that looked very similar to things I had seen at airplane crashes on TV. It seemed like it was snowing. My eyes were drawn towards a large mound of ooze about three feet high. It was the remains of something or somebody. I shut my eyes and quickly headed back towards the escalator. Below on the mall level we were guided by people every fifty feet or so. Port Authority personnel making sure we didn’t run but moved quickly in the right direction. They saved many people including my own by keeping us orderly but in return probably gave their lives. I still remember many of their faces and they were not unlike yours or mine.
Outside people were gathered about 200 yards from the Towers near an old cemetery and City Hall. We were all looking up at the twin candles as they burned. Someone next to me said that she saw an American Airlines plane fly directly above her floor, the 44th, and hit the building. My mortar theory bit the dust. I quickly realized the need to contact my wife. Repeatedly I tried to call with no luck. At the same time people were saying not to use cell phones and to reserve them for the emergency workers. Everywhere I looked someone was trying to call home. I gave up and decided to make my way towards the Village and find a payphone there. I walked fifty feet, stopped and watched once more. A lone F-15 streaked across the sky circling the Towers. The crowd gasped as if to think that plane number three was coming our way. A bit late but it was calming to see a “friendly” in the sky. For some unknown reason I looked down at my phone and noticed that Joe Terry, my VP of Sales, was calling me. Picking up I told him to call my wife now and within ten seconds we were disconnected. Thank God for Joe Terry and for sending the message home that I was ok. I continued to walk north stopping every fifty feet and watching. Then there was a jumper and the crowd groaned. I had enough and did not want those images in my head. I stopped being a voyeur and made my way north. As I walked, I could see on the faces that were looking towards the towers that every few minutes more people were making the fateful decision to jump. Eyes would follow them as they jumped and made their way down to their fateful end. And then another gasp. I kept walking. Walking around City Hall I noticed a throng of people making their way across the Brooklyn Bridge. It was full of people headed toward Brooklyn and no cars could be seen. Just thousands of people desperate to make their way home.
Three blocks north I turned left and headed west towards West St. My foolish thought was that I would head back to my hotel, across the street from WTC One, to retrieve my computer and luggage. Heading west in a counterclockwise circle around the WTC I went into a store and purchased a coke to alleviate my thirst. Inside as I filled my cup with ice cubes the building shook and rumbled. This was not the natural rumble of an earthquake that either rolls or jolts you. No, this was unnatural, chaotic. Running outside I was told WTC Two had fallen. So, in slightly more than an hour I had moved from sitting in a 64th floor conference room in WTC Two to sitting on the street knowing the building, the conference room and many souls no longer existed. At the next intersection I stood with fifty people and looked at the 110 floors that were now a pile of steel and people a hundred feet high. The dust cloud moved primarily south and east as the wind was from the north that day. I thought of Sandy and Liz’s notes grasping for the way things used to be.
I continued in my fantasy world, heading west towards the water, towards my hotel. Reaching West Street I found the staging area for the FDNY, the New York Fire Department. Dressed like warriors, walking single file towards the behemoth of fallen debris from Tower Two and the still standing Tower One. The bravery and image of these men at that time will never leave me. Everyone was running away from the carnage, and they walked forward, determined to do their job. Amazing people showing amazing courage. I continued to stroll southward towards my hotel until the rush of people told me that moving forward anymore was unrealistic and….foolish. Since all the cell phones were not working the lines at the few payphones were long and unmoving. I hopped in one of these phone lines and watched Tower One burn. Then the end began. The antenna on top of the building tilted ever so slightly and the building came down. It was fast, only lasting ten seconds. People were racing past me as I watched. Me, watching as if the action were miles away and MSNBC was on the scene. The panic and fear in people’s faces flashed on me as they ran past me, arms flailing in the air. At one point a sliver of the building was standing above the rubble below like a defiant finger to whoever had done this. This sliver was no more than ten feet across, but it soared twenty-five plus stories above the rubble…and then it fell.
I slowly made my way north hoping to find security and peace in the Village. I walked and walked, stopping only at the occasional car, all doors opened, radio playing loudly. At each car roughly forty people stood and listened. The Pentagon. Gasp. Two planes. Gasp. Another plane missing. Gasp. I finally sat down at a park and just…well, sat. I noticed that the park was commemorative to the Stonewall incident where the gays fought back against the police. I was now in the Village. A disconcerting image in the park was a group of statues, all gray, just staring out towards the mass of people moving slowly north. I anxiously got up and walked east and sat my butt down in a bar named Barney Mac's. I finally had a home with two phones, two televisions, company and as much beer as I could consume. Calling Kathy, I checked in again and asked her to locate Nate, my traveling companion, and inform him of my newfound home. She told me when Tower Two had fallen she had thought I had died. Since cell phones weren’t working, I had been unable to check in with anyone. For a brief period and in their minds, Kathy had no husband, and my children had no father.
The rest of Tuesday was made up of drinking beer trying to forget the day, anxiously locating a hotel room, and finally eating our first meal. Nate and I walked all over Manhattan that night looking for the way things used to be. We ended up being awake till 4:00 am after the owner of a restaurant called Novita took us in, fed us, filled us with alcohol and in essence held us till we could sleep. During the night we mostly talked about work.
The Drive Home
Wednesday morning started at 7:00 am after a restless three hours of sleep. Turning on the television I began to see new videos of the planes hitting the WTC. One specifically, showing the second plane hitting our building around the 75th floor, hit me especially hard. I could have easily stayed on the 64th floor and watched the action….but Sandy had gotten everyone out. I lost it. Like a microwave oven the previous 24 hours had no real impact on the outside but inside I was a mess. Calling Kathy again, we both cried on the phone sharing our mutual desire that I was home and far away from New York City. The next twenty-four hours Nate and I were in survival mode, finding clothes, toiletries, chargers for our cell phones and my credit card I had left at the restaurant. That first night we ate a steak and drank a nice bottle of Silver Oak….trying to appreciate the fact we were still here. Now it was time to get our butts home.
Thursday morning Nate made plans to get to Boston where his family lives. He would take a train to Hartford and his mother would drive him home. I later found out that Nate had the luck of sitting next to a psychologist on the train. He just talked and talked. For myself I needed to get out of the city. Two friends, Karen and Sue in New Jersey, were my next journey. By bus, through the shaking terminal and the erratic driving, I made it to their front door. I had only lost it twice. Most people that would take you in after a disaster would want you to stay, would want to take care of you. Sue and Karen allowed me to do what I needed. I had decided on the drive that I needed to get control of my life again. I needed to make progress towards home. I needed time to process all that had happened in order to get my shit together. After holding their new child and shutting down for a few hours it was time to head west. Sue, Karen and Susan (another friend) supported me and gave me food, blankets, liquids, CDs, toilet paper….everything I would need for the cross country drive. They also procured a brand-new Cadillac from National rental car, no mileage, no drop-off charge. They showed me the love I needed at the right time. Thursday afternoon I was on my way towards home on Interstate 80. That night I drove through a horrendous rainstorm. I felt that the heavens were letting go, crying from all the pain and smoke. Driving through the rain I cried all the way to Toledo.
Friday, I awoke to the morning tears I had become used to. Every morning I cried for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. It started in the shower and would end when my movements were once again towards home. Driving west I noticed the exit for Notre Dame and exited the highway. Asking for directions to the Basilica of Notre Dame I passed by the campus firehouse draped in black. It was a touching moment. I sat in the Basilica and wrote the foundation of this memo as I tried to dump the experience rather than hold it within me. Two ushers came by noticing my tears and sat next to me. They held me as I wrote my story. I wandered outside, spent additional reflective time at the Grotto and finally headed back towards my Cadillac. Passing the firehouse once again I noticed two men jumping into a truck heading out. As I approached, the older man in a strong muscular voice asked, ‘how can we help you’? Looking down I explained what I had seen in New York and the bravery I witnessed among their fellow firefighters. I told them I was in awe of their profession and them. Tears flowed again as I spoke to them. Looking up to walk away I noticed both of these strong firefighters were in tears as well. I wished them good health and continued my journey west. Driving south of Chicago I hopped off I-80 in order to avoid the traffic jams of the big city. I started driving through small towns and was amazed at the spirit of America. Town after town had flags on every pole, in every window and on every Main Street. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone driving home. Everyone was together helping everyone else. North of Omaha I spent hours talking to a convenience store clerk in yet another small town. The simplicity of their lives seemed very attractive to me. I finally slept at 2:30 in the morning.
Saturday I made my way to Wounded Knee. I have always studied the ways of the North American Indians with special interest on the Ghostdance religion. In the 1880s when the Indians were being slowly wiped out, they created this religion based on Ghostdancing. The theory was that if you dance with your Ghostdance shirt on, you would be picked up from the face of the earth and the white man would be wiped clean. Then the green grass, the buffalo and the Indians would be placed back on this ‘new earth’. In essence it was a religion wishing for the way things used to be. While driving home I was wishing for the old days while trying to comprehend the new ways.
Pulling up to Wounded Knee I was amazed at the simplicity of the land, just a few rolling hills with little in the way of historical markers. I conversed with two Indians that just happened to be slightly intoxicated at 8:30 am and very conversational because of it. They explained the abbreviated history of the massacre at Wounded Knee. It seems the Indians were dancing the Ghostdance and the US military did not grasp what was going on. The cavalry got scared and shot many of the Indians. It has ever since been a special place in Indian history. I bought a dream catcher from one of my guides and again started moving west. Driving my Cadillac I now had a dream-catcher on my rear-view mirror, a large American flag on my back windshield, and a tear in my eye thinking about how lucky I was to be experiencing life itself.
That night I ended up in Laramie Wyoming. After a nice meal I decided I wanted to escape a bit. I headed to the movies and sat down to enjoy ‘The Others’ with Nicole Kidman. Holy crap! Little did I know that this was a movie about a person being haunted by dead people and ghosts…only to find out that she is the one that is dead. I couldn’t sleep for three hours after the movie. Wrong movie at the wrong time.
Sunday I made a dash for home. Woke up early and drove through Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California till I hit San Francisco. In Salt Lake City I saw my first airplane, taking off from the airport, and it forced me to pull over and watch. It was a strange feeling and one of utmost trepidation. I continued to drive and finally made it to San Francisco and home that night. Exiting the freeway and driving through my hometown I was saddened by the lack of flags and patriotism. It was the first town across the country where I did not feel an understanding or a caring for what happened in New York. It hurt. The first flag I saw in San Francisco was in my front window as I pulled into my driveway. I was soon standing at my front door with Daniel climbing on top of me, the twins grabbing my legs and my loving wife holding me like she would never let go. I was finally home.
The drive home was a cherished event for me. I had the opportunity to talk to people about the events and attempted to understand and process the events of the last few days. My sister, a Buddhist, shared her view that the reason I was alive was that I had done such good things in my life that the powers that be had given me more time. My brothers, Catholics, shared their view as well; that I had lived such a wretched life that God was giving me a second chance. Life.
I leaned on family and friends equally and had the pleasure of talking to my parents three times a day as I made my way home. I cherished the times I talked to people and sometimes I really needed to talk. But I also needed the time alone. I found the mornings were the hardest. The thought of the number of people and families that were torn apart was agonizing. Why them, why not me? I feel for those people and their families more than I could ever express. I also found solace at Notre Dame and at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. I found both places to be spiritually healing in their own ways. I also found that Jolt cola is equivalent to cocaine in a bottle. It should be outlawed. It took eighty hours for me to drive (and sleep) the 3060 miles to my family and my home. But in those eighty hours I grew and processed years.
The First 90 Days
My first week back was one of adjustment. I wrote my story and shared it with my employees, friends, and family. Little did I know but that simple sharing allowed me to tell my story and discuss my feelings over and over again. I received many unsolicited e-mails and voicemails from strangers thanking me for sharing my experience. I met with my professional coach, and she assured me that I was doing all the right things to settle into my new environment. The fact that I was living in a place where I was an oddity helped me immensely. My friends in New York have much less opportunity to talk it out. In fact, they are still living with the destruction, loss and rebuilding.
Two weeks after being home I had a night of what I would call unsettling dreams. I woke up startled multiple times and, in the morning, felt odd as disconcerting dreams are not the norm for me. I also did not cry that morning. Since that day I have cried many times but for a reason and not uncontrolled. I cried during President Bush’s State of the Union speech. I cried during all of the personal stories of loss or heroism that I have seen on television. I cried as I watched the movie ‘Pearl Harbor’. My uncle Bill died on the USS Arizona after he volunteered to flood the aft powder room (ammunition hold) and went back down into the ship AFTER the Arizona had been hit with a devastating bomb. He never came out. In the eyes of the fireman of the NYPD I saw Bill determined to do his duty and help others.
My immediate goal after New York was to turn September 11th into a positive in my life. The first result of this renewed spirit was an awareness of an impatience to do the right thing. My company had been struggling and I had resisted the deep layoffs that were now needed even more after September 11th and the resulting eroding economy. Within two weeks I had proposed to the Board, outlined the direction to the executive team and performed a 40%+ layoff across the company. It was painful but it was done with empathy, communication, and the right way. There were tears and hugs and we all knew it was the right thing to do.
I had previously discussed with the Board a need to hire a CEO that was a marketer. We were close to succeeding and I did not want to be the cog that slowed the wheel down. I understand that empathy and the title of CEO don’t go hand in hand but that is my style. We found a guy whose resume and presentation seemed to be a great fit for the company. After a month long courtship, the Board hired him with a start date in November.
I had promised my wife six years earlier that we would only stay in San Francisco for three years. What can I say? I got busy and let things slip. Now our son was going to be entering school and I had also promised that he would enter school in the same city where he would graduate from high school. We took a trip to Tucson and within two weeks we had placed an offer on a house that was accepted. We would close the beginning of December. Our San Francisco house was placed on the market and sold within 45 days. The difference in housing markets allowed us to save a significant amount of money from the SF house. At the same time, we lined up our children for school and set up Daniel to start in January and the twins to be in a three-hour toddler program. Things were moving fast and with a purpose.
During these months I was reading every article I could acquire with regard to the World Trade Center and September 11th. I read the New York Times everyday and reviewed their “Nation Challenged” special section. The Times set up a special section where people could write a 3-4 paragraph obituary on their loved ones that were lost. I read every one including the ones about the good ole boys I saw going up the elevator that morning to build cubicles. I read magazine after magazine including who died where and why. I was driven to understand.
The first week of December I flew to New York on a United 777 and stayed in the same Times Square Marriott that Nate and I had after September 11th. My good friend Dave came into the city, and we proceeded to head down to what is now known as Ground Zero. Walking towards the site the first item I saw was a bumper sticker that read “Tucson is with you”. It felt like an omen. We walked around the site and read and observed. The most touching moment was when I read a note from a small boy that said, “I miss you Daddy. Even if you are dead, I hope you are happy. I love you.” That very easily could have been written for me or many other of us lucky survivors.
On December 11th, three months after my Morgan Stanley meeting in New York, Kathy and I and the kids moved into our new house in Tucson. Our three-acre lot and house provide us with all the birds, quail, javelina, coyotes and desert we can handle. In 90 days we had changed my job, our house, our city, our schools, our lives. My impatience to do the right thing moved me to a place I had hoped to be for years.
The Longest Year
The first month in Tucson brought additional pain and struggle. Just before Christmas, Kathy’s mom, who was visiting for the holidays passed away at our new house. For me it was the shock of a family member’s death so close. For Kathy it was the difficult loss of her last parent. She handled it with grace as she handles everything. I sat with Daniel later that day and explained that Grammy Grace was no longer with us but she would be watching him and rooting for him from heaven. After dealing with the WTC and the death of a grandparent I am concerned about my son growing up too fast. Playtime should take a priority for all of us.
The following three months was a time of treating my addiction to work. Since I was 14 I have worked full-time and for the past 15 years I was accustomed to the 60 hour weeks a start-up or a CEO job demands. In many ways I needed the 60 hours to fulfill my needs…to feel that I was succeeding and was fulfilling my duties as a husband and father. What a bunch of bull! The fact is anything in excess destroys the soul and that includes work. The slippery slope I was on ends up in a life focused on business and missing out on what your family, your spouse, your friends, and the world around you can share. Moderation and a nice 35–40 hour week sounds extremely appealing now-a-days.
I slowly grew out of my self-imposed despondency and during the past six months have begun to think of our house as a project, something to work on and to rehabilitate myself. We proceeded to redo the house, and the front yard, and the backyard, and the guest house, etc. I was the super contractor juggling schedules and working with people; whether it be the pool gal, the landscaper, the general contractor, the painter, the gutter guy, the cooler people and on and on. At first I viewed this as me having trouble shutting down but have since realized that my level of activity is just part of me. My mother is the same way. It was during this time that I figured out my true job requirements. As I slowly began to reenter the pool of business it was important that I understood what suit really fits me the best. My job requirements in no specific order; flexibility of time, something different, competitive environment, dealing with people, ownership or income and most of all, balance. No more 60 hour weeks for this boy. I would rather bring my son to swim class.
On the one-year anniversary of September 11th I found myself still unsettled. Not so much the events themselves as I have read and researched more about that day than anyone I know. It had more to do with the path I was on. September 11th awoke something within me that I could not easily control. It would have been so easy to jump back into the rat-race and be somewhat happy working my butt off. But instead, I was unsure of where I would be in a year. I knew I would be successful at whatever I chose but fitting that business into my life, into the life of my family and friends was the challenge now. It seemed my challenge for the coming year would be to accept change and the unknown in all their forms…then relishing in what they brought. For someone as anal as I, continued growth this year is a certainty.
Reflecting on that first year I was stunned by the changes in my life. Everything was different, inside and outside. Still my goal was to turn the events of September 11th into a positive force in my life. Following is some of what I learned during my first year…
Love, hold and always go back to your family.
Anything in excess is destructive to the soul.
We are all in the same boat, make the best of it.
Be proud to be an American.
Do what you want and do it now. Don’t wait.
Educate yourself. Read non-fiction. Read history.
Airports: look for terrorists not for weapons. Profile.
Enjoy the rollercoaster of life as much as possible.
Playtime is critical for mental health.
Be true to yourself.
That last one is a bit tricky. But the way I look at it is that we are each writing a book about our lives. And when we die and go to wherever we go, will we be able to look at our decisions today and say we were true to ourselves? It may be more of a stretch goal with all the outside influences but for each of us it should be our most important goal.
My Professional Landing
I awoke on September 12th 2002 with knowledge and a need to define my professional life. The time away from work was satisfying in many ways but I still felt fragmented. The year after 9-11 had brought us a different home, a different town, a different school, and a different life. The kids were very happy at being able to play with the critters that scamper around our desert and frolic in the pool. They also showed the stability that we made sure they felt after so many changes in their little lives. Kathy, having not been too fond of San Francisco, was very happy with our lives in Tucson. She was focused on initial explorations into being a teacher and having more involvement in school activities. As for me I felt the road was not yet completed.
It wasn’t that the time off or the time spent toiling in the yard was not enjoyed. Those are indeed cherished times for me. But rather I found that I am one of those individuals that need the juice of work flowing through my body. When I am working, I am a better father, a better husband, a better friend and in many ways, a better person. Work provides me with an outlet for my competitiveness as well as satisfying my need to interact with various personalities. So with this new knowledge of myself and with my list of business requirements (flexibility of time, something different, competitive environment, dealing with people, ownership and balance) I stumbled into the market place.
In a town like Tucson I found that my opportunities were limited and it tried my patience. I had more than a few tense conversations with Kathy noting how I had sacrificed my career for the betterment of the family. I guess even this new sensitive and aware Jim could be a butthead at times. My foolish thinking was that everyone was in a better place except me. I was adrift in what I perceived as a jobless market trying to find a job. For a month or so I was not a pleasure to be around as a struggled with this dilemma.
As I took a step back and attempted to define the Tucson market, I saw two distinct data points. The first data point was that two thirds of the people in Tucson do not work. The other third work primarily in services taking care of the two thirds that don’t work. So I figured an opportunity existed to create a service company that provided a one stop shop for all the retirees in Tucson. Anything from plumbing to electrical to landscaping to remodel…call one number and we can handle it. The goal would be to differentiate by upgrading the look (ala professionalism) of the employees as well as building trust and confidence that we would always do the right thing. I had preliminary discussions with the two people (both named Kathy) that handled are remodel, but the timing didn’t work out to make this happen. Disappointed I searched for another path forward.
The other data point I found is that Tucson is growing by roughly 2% a year and growth is forecasted to continue at that pace for the next thirty years. My brother Bill had been doing real estate development for the last year and had been bugging me to partner with him to enter the Tucson market. During the next 60 days I explored, prodded, and talked with anyone I could about the real estate development market. Now this was not a market I was very excited about but a market that was a viable workspace within Tucson. I told Bill that I would dabble with him in real estate through the summer and I figured that I would define my true career path by the fall. But I soon found that I could create passion around what we were doing. In fact I realized that as long as what I was doing addressed my ‘business requirements’ it was easy to become passionate. So after a month or so my brother and I founded OasisTucson Inc. and began to look at small development opportunities. Our goal was to build special developments with sensitivity to open space and to the character of the southwest. We wanted to bring the ‘tucson’ back to Tucson.
For those of you that know the Campbell Brothers it is difficult for us to do anything in a small way. Sure enough within a few weeks we found ourselves on the courthouse steps bidding in a state land auction against the number one developer in Tucson. For some still unknown reason we outbid the competition and ended up with 127 acres where we plan on building 285 houses. The land wraps around a brand-new school, will have almost 50% open space, two parks and we are negotiating now with builders for a southwest look and feel.
So on September 11th 2003 I find my kids happy, healthy, in school and loving Tucson. Kathy is obtaining her teacher’s certification at night while being a teacher’s assistant during the day. In her spare time she continues to be a bird nerd and loves to watch all the wildlife around our house. And me…well I am doing something different in a competitive environment where I meet lots of people and work with my brother. Most of all, I have flexibility of time and I have balance in my life. I have landed.
The Path Forward
I awoke today to a plethora of images, sights and sounds recalling September 11, 2001. As I sat with the tears strolling down my face I realized not only how blessed I am but how sad and smaller this world is without the 3000 fathers, mothers, sons and daughters that we lost two years ago. Their lives were stopped and destroyed with their family and friends left to pick up the pieces that can never truly be picked up. On the other hand September 11th brought me to a place where I am blissful compared to where I was two years ago. I feel guilty that I was allowed to move forward while so many others were not. Yet at the same time I must believe I am here for some reason. Maybe to be a voice, maybe to be a father, maybe to be a friend to someone in need. I hope to be a better person than I have ever been. I have learned, reflected and processed many things in the last two years. Most of all I have learned who I am.
I am insecure to a point that it is my greatest weakness and my greatest strength.
I am a recovering workaholic and know I can create balance if I constantly remind myself of the goal.
I am a child at heart and truly believe that I am still a teenager…mentally if not physically.
I am a nerd in that I could dabble with my computer or my other gadgets for hours.
I am conservative in that I believe there are reasons and beliefs that are worth dying for.
I am passionate and can create passion in anything I do, if I choose to.
I am a current events junkie and need to know everything about what is going on in the world.
I am a desert rat and will live here the rest of my life.
I am an American and am very proud of our nation.
I am a real estate developer trying to make my town greener and a better place to live.
I am a student of history and people.
And most of all I am a father, a husband, a son, a brother and a friend. My family and friends are the most important thing to me and always will be.
So how do I wrap up two years of emotional dumping in a way that completes me? For me this experience has been a rebirth. And birth just like death is a defining moment in our lives where clarity is of the utmost. Warren Zevon, a gifted and talented musician, was diagnosed with cancer a year ago and recently died. Prior to his death he was asked if he knew anything about life and death that he would like to share. He simply said…
“Enjoy every sandwich.”
“Enjoy every bite.”
September 11, 2003