Desperately Seeking Normal

Firefighters move single file up a steep hill near where homes are threatened in the Warm Springs area of Ketchum, Idaho, Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007. AP

There is no pill to undo evil, no magic word to resurrect the good old days when jetliners didn't turn into bombs and anthrax didn't come in the mail. Since Sept. 11, America has struggled to find a new normal, one that could wrap itself around the sharp edges of terror and war.

We tried a thousand ways to adapt: We flew less and prayed more. We hoisted flags and draped holiday greens in red, white and blue. We canceled trips to Las Vegas and went to grandma's house instead. We gave blood, wrote checks to charity and dusted off atlases to find Kabul and Jalalabad. We cried.

Day by day, we came to realize it wasn't just the world that had changed. So had we.

One day in November, a misdelivered letter showed up in the mailbox of fitness instructor Susan Wallace. The slim envelope had been mailed from a business in Cherry Hill, N.J., to a family-support center in Trenton, N.J.

Nothing very odd there - except that Wallace lives in Olympia, Wash. She became suspicious: How had the letter made it all the way across the country? Why did it come to her? Could this be the work of terrorists?

She searched Internet directories for the addresses on the envelope but came up blank. She called directory assistance in New Jersey, but neither business was listed. Finally, she called the Olympia police, who advised her to throw the letter away.

Donning latex gloves, Wallace sprayed disinfectant on the envelope, gingerly sealed it inside two zip-lock plastic bags, then dropped the whole thing in the trash.

She felt a bit silly. "It's highly unlikely that it was anything," she said. "But still, I wasn't willing to take the chance of getting anthrax. That seemed even sillier."

Given the times, few would fault her reaction. The ruling motto: You can't be too careful.

Americans stocked up on oil lamps, portable generators and survival books that had been gathering dust in warehouses since the Y2K scare. There was a rise in sales of firearms, such as the line of "Homeland Security" shotguns offered by the Ithaca Gun Co. "in our current time of national need."

National Guardsmen with rifles roamed airport corridors. Security officers patrolled oil refineries. Coast Guard cutters escorted cruise ships leaving port.

Public tours were canceled at the White House and Capitol. Visitors to Mount Vernon found a guard at the front gate, searching bags. The wait at airport security points went from long to longer, and the wait at border crossings became interminable.

Not that Americans were in much of a mood to travel, anyway.

It was a time for cocooning, not venturing out. In Hawaii, tourism was off more than 30 percent in October from the year before. Nationwide, extravagant parties were out, and staying home to watch videos was in. People bailed out of diets, seeking comfort in chocolate.

Normal meant paying attention to simple things, like being alive. It meant remembering what is important: friends, family, charity, love.

"I'm hering from my children much more than in the past," said John Crowther, 72, a retiree in Sun City, Fla. "They want to get together more, even though they live up North."

For some, the new normal meant defiantly clinging to old routines. "Live your lives," urged President Bush, and people set about the task with vigor, attending football games and planning business trips as if any deviation from life-as-usual would have been a concession to the terrorists.

Dreams, however, betrayed our hidden fears.

Kelly Bulkeley, a dream researcher in Berkeley, Calif., said he was flooded with reports of nightmares, many of them juxtaposing horrific images with the ordinary: huge jetliners nudging the Earth out of orbit, soldiers marauding through suburbia, office workers unaware that their building is about to be destroyed.

"The attacks tapped into anxieties that people have been dreaming about for years: a fear of airplanes, fear of bombs, fear of tall buildings, fear of terrorist attacks," Bulkeley said. "September 11th literally was a nightmare that came true."

The new normal required new heroes, and there were plenty to be found, chief among them the hundreds of New York firefighters and police who died responding to the World Trade Center attack.

Their courage raised the stock of rescue workers everywhere - even in the little town of New Hope, Pa., where volunteers with the New Hope Eagle Fire Company found a newly appreciative public.

"Out of the blue, people started going up to firefighters there and saying, 'Thank you for what you do,'" said Assistant Chief Craig Forbes. When a truck rushed to a call, motorists were quicker to pull over.

"When people see the fire department insignia, they give us a little more respect and courtesy," Forbes said.

Even in New Hope, the specter of terrorism hovered. Firefighters' names were removed from the fire department's Web site for security reasons, Forbes explained. He paid more attention to locking the firehouse door, worried that someone might hijack a fire truck.

Unlikely? Perhaps, but it was a time for unlikely things to happen. It was normal to feel vulnerable, to catch the flu and wonder if it might be anthrax. Counselors and psychiatrists were booked solid for weeks. Prescriptions for antidepressants and sleeping pills were up.

People called psychiatrist Kathleen McCarty in Tampa, Fla., with all manner of complaints: They couldn't sleep. Crowds made them nervous. The roar of passing jets filled them with dread.

For the most part, she prescribed patience rather than pills.

"Normal does not entail having no reaction to an extremely tragic and overwhelming event," McCarty said. "I've urged people to grapple with this, to look at it as a way of facing issues of good and evil"

You're normal, she told them. It's the world that is strange these days.



By David Foster
© MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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