Things don’t always work out the way we plan. Thank goodness they don’t.
And this Sept. 11 — 12 years since the terrorist attacks that took the lives of thousands of Americans and set the United States on a path of several wars that would last more than a decade — I learned that lesson again when I jumped on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle only to realize that we had a common bond that couldn’t be broken.
Mitch Hannon was that biker. He saw the confused look on my face as I was scouring Constitution Ave. trying to find the “Million Muslim” marchers that had planned to converge at The Mall in Washington D.C.
I was sitting at a red light in a taxi cab, with a jovial driver, who happened to be Muslim. “I don’t think you will find any Muslim marchers out here today — not today,” he said.
It was hot. I had already been looking for protestors for more than an hour but all I could find were bikers, thousands of bikers.
“Have you seen the Muslim marchers,” I yelled from my taxi-cab window over the rumbling of the motorcycles.
“No, we can’t find them anywhere,” said Hannon, who I had just met. “Why do you ask?”
I told him I was a reporter. The light changed to green and I thought, “here I go again.”
I was about to yell “thank you” when Hannon pulled alongside the taxi and said, “Get out of that taxi and jump on the back of my bike.”
On impulse, I did just that.
It so happens Hannon was a former flight attendant for American Airlines.
On September 11, 2001 his friends Ken and Jennifer Lewis, who were married and flight attendants themselves, were on flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon. He had been friends with Ken for nearly 2o years and Jennifer was one of the “sweetest most lively people I’ve ever known.”
Hannon, who is a Chapter 3 member of Virginia’s Rolling Thunder non-profit motorcycle club, recalled some of his most touching memories with his friends as we drove past some of America’s greatest treasures.
He retold how he and Ken were ski instructors in Colorado and how they later taught sailing in Maine when they moved to the East Coast.
In fact, it was Hannon who helped Ken get a job at American Airlines and “sometimes I think when I’m grumpy, ‘Why wasn’t it me on that flight? Why was it them?’ They were always so happy.”
“Everyone’s life changed that day,” said Hannon as we headed to the nation’s capital, still strangely absent of any Muslim marchers.
“I don’t think there is one person whose life didn’t change in some way that day,” he said. “I’m out here for my friends. I’m out here for every soldier whose given their life, limb and who fights for our country. We want them to know we care. We want them to know they are not forgotten.”
It touched my heart.
I told Hannon 9/11 changed my life as well. My husband, Marty, is one of those soldiers who almost lost his life on the battlefield but instead was blinded by a bombing in Afghanistan on Easter Sunday, 2011.
Hannon and I were connected. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know each other. We weren’t strangers anymore and we have a common bond forged out of tragedy.
We didn’t need to say much as the bike headed down the road, surrounded by thousands of other bikers and American flags waving in the warm September wind.
He recalled how his friend Ken once stopped the car they were driving in to hand remove a Cicada bug, a large tree cricket that comes out of hibernation every 17 years, off his windshield.
“I asked Ken, ‘Why don’t you just remove it with the window washers,’” Hannon recalled. “You know what Ken said: ‘They have so little life — why take the chance that I might kill it after all that hibernation.’”
We stopped at a second light and along side the road was another biker. He had parked his motorcycle and pulled out a large piece of concrete from a compartment on the back of his bike.
The biker, Air Force Master Sergeant Bobby Cazmir, walked over to Hannon and me, held the concrete in his hand, and said, “this is a piece of the Pentagon from September 11.”
“I won’t ever forget,” Cazmir added.
Hannon couldn’t believe it.
“What are the odds that a complete stranger would come up to us, holding a piece of the Pentagon where I lost my closest friends,” Hannon said. “It’s meant to be.”
Again, we were comforted by another stranger’s gesture. We were connected.
We kept riding. Still no marchers.
After a while I realized we weren’t going to find any of the “Million Muslim” marchers everyone had talked about for the past week. In fact, I didn’t really care.
I was happy to be with Hannon. I was satisfied that the story isn’t about controversy or terrorism or the sadness that it brought to so many of us.
The story was about survival.
It was about hope through strength. It was was about the thousands of American’s who lined up their motorcycles on the streets of Washington, D.C. It was about those bikers, some who came as far away as the West Coast, to let the rest of the country know that they will never forget.
Hannon and I decided to grab some lunch. Getting to ride his Harley, which he named Vanessa, was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
During lunch, his youngest daughter Peyton, who attends James Madison University, sent a text to Hannon that made him cry.
“I know today is always a hard day but I will never forget sitting on their benches and you telling me all the stories you had with them (Ken and Jennifer Lewis),” said Peyton to her dad. “I know they’re looking down on you- smiling and laughing at all the stupid stuff you guys did. I love you pops!”
This story has been updated.