The true story of September 11

or

What I found September 12

 

 

Last Wednesday I came back from a long trip. I had spent a week at my own secret world-place, a lake conveniently cut off from all civilisation yet not far from Ottawa. Eighteen years ago, together with my then 9-year- old Krzys, I had set up our secret campsite on a peninsula jutting into this lake. The only way to reach it is by boat. The 12-km-long gravel access road to the lake itself is a winding, unkempt, rocky, logger’s bush affair, just two meters wide. There are two wooden houses and a telephone line at its beginning. The last two kilometres of the approach to the lake are truly impassable. Only high-suspension 4x4 trucks can make it, and, occasionally, they do. Sometimes such a truck, carrying a canoe, appears during a weekend violating my secret garden. There is no FM radio reception there, on account of the surrounding hills; nor is there cell-phone coverage. I accessed the lake, carrying stuff on my back for the last two kilometres over a new secret trail I had cut through the bush several years ago. First, I carried the inflatable boat for its final, ritual voyage. It leaks so much that it has to be pumped every 25 minutes. Then, I brought the rest of my gear in a second trip. I rowed across to my peninsula, the place where every stone, every place is connected to some past events, bygone thoughts, bygone adventures. I've spent the best days of my life with Krzys out there. If you look at the white spot to the far right of the island

 you will see the most important rock of my life. I walk over it to get my cooking water, I wash there and I sit there at night contemplating the skies.

For years I've spent several hours at a time watching the Universe from this rock. I used to be an astrophysicist, after all.

Now, I don't know if you have ever been in such a situation: totally cut off from the civilised world, encountering nobody, seeing no lights, or even their hue in the sky, and unable to hear any man-made sounds - no music, no rumbling highway. I survive there like Robinson Crusoe. After several days of such existence one develops a strange mind-set. (Occasionally, I bring somebody to this place. They are invariably shocked, never having experienced such total isolation. I even have witnessed my grown-up friends literally in tears, from the shock of being so alone on the island you see on the picture). So, invariably, one has strange thoughts after spending several days in total seclusion. The night sky there is pristine, like in the high mountains in winter. As there is no city-light pollution one can see the whole mad Universe, with its satellites and wishing stars. One can see the same skies our forefathers saw. OK, not quite – as I just said, you do see satellites. Moreover, for an hour each day, around 4 p.m., you can see some two dozen condensation traces made by passenger jets heading South. These flights originate in Scandinavia and Russia, and cross the North Pole on their way to Toronto and further, to the States. Every day human presence materialises in these white traces across the sky. It is just you and these white traces. The rest is pure, unadulterated world.


 At night, the civilisation in the sky becomes more prominent. One can see almost 300 km of airspace, and three passenger corridors are distinguishable. One can see tens of overnight FedEx flights to Europe over the North Pole, carrying mail, silicone wafers and chips. Then there are the scheduled passenger liners and the lower-flying corporate jets, as well as fire-watching government agency planes and small hoppers, on floaters, taking-off from the neighbouring lakes to bring back a new lot of American anglers, or beer, or a carton of milk. In the non-light-polluted, crystal clear night air one can always see several planes at a time, since a blinking light from a small aircraft is visible up to 100 km and a large jet from 200 km. You cannot hear them; you can only see their lights. So in order to have some, albeit minimal, contact with other people I sit on my rock and stare into the night through my binoculars.

Last Tuesday was already my fifth day of solitude. My whole stay was marred by the absurdly un-Canadian weather. Usually Ontario has the best weather under the sun at the beginning of September, similar to that in the Tatras. There is the occasional morning ground frost, but sunshine dominates all day. The air is crisp, the temperature just right and there are no bloody insects. Not this time, however. Last Friday, Sept. 7, at 5 a.m., before sunrise, the temperature was 28o C. (I knew this by observing butter in a jar. I no longer need a thermometer to know the exact temperature). So at night I slept naked on top of my sleeping bag and then spent the day fishing from my inflatable , also completely naked, until I was exhausted by the heat wave and as red-skinned as a lobster, or a German in Mallorca. All the time a strong, desert-like southern wind was blowing, unnervingly. On Tuesday the weather pattern started to change, beginning with the wind diminishing and changing its direction. The skies became less blue, more white in fact, and I somehow missed my 4 p.m. condensation trails. I reached the campsite just before the rapidly setting sun disappeared, barely managing to clean the fish for supper before darkness. I decided to put on my shirt, since it was becoming colder. The reading glasses I had put in one of the pockets fell out as I was dressing and I lost them somewhere near the freshly started bonfire. So I went to the tent for a flashlight, only to find it wasn't working. One of the contacts had come loose. This was easy to fix, if I only had my glasses... Without the flashlight I could not find the glasses. Catch-22. What a fuck. But Robinson Crusoe does not need bleeping glasses; he will survive until the morning without glasses, doesn’t he? With daylight he will find them in no time, and in the meantime the fish-bones fish can be carefully spat out . OK, I put the fish on the grill (Ah, the grill! It used to be a shiny refrigerator shelf that I salvaged 15 years ago from a broken refrigerator dumped in the middle of the bush by some molson yahoo and it always evokes memories of small Krzys preparing virtuoso toasts on it). I grabbed the teapot, went to my rock and sat down to observe the skies and enjoy my fragrant tea.

And then it sank in. There was not a single aeroplane in the sky. Neither passenger, nor courier; no local hoppers or even jet fighters. The world had ended without a whisper while I was fishing for walleyes. I am an old commando. Over the years I have elaborated complex scenarios for dealing with nuclear war, biological war, pestilence and bubonic plague. Let's face it: I'm living in Canada as a result of my contingency plan. I like to play safe and wisely. I have always known that I would fight to the very end of any calamity and I am prepared to be the last Robinson to survive. I have been building my contingency scenarios for almost half a century, ever since I was a tiny kid attending kindergarten in a neo-classical, understatedly elegant stucco building freshly erected among the ruins of downtown Warsaw, but petrified by stories of the Korean War.

I spent two hours glued to the binoculars, trying to spot some warplane, from whatever direction. But gradually it became obvious that the war had been completed in a drastic way, either using a new secret weapon, or by a surgically precise nuclear attack. These hypotheses were marred by the lack of transport planes in the first scenario, or the absence of retaliatory missiles launched from submarines in the second. Finally, I spotted something I'd only read about: a single aeroplane, flying at an altitude of some 20,000 metres and so small that only its lights were visible. Judging from the radial velocity it was travelling at a speed of Mach-3. I could have mistaken it for a satellite if it weren't for the blinking lights. This aircraft was heading towards Alaska and it had to be an SR-71.So at least one pushy guy has survived!

That means the shockwave from Washington will eventually reach my lake. A ground wave travels at 1,500 m/s, while a real atmospheric shockwave travels through the air at the speed of sound, or marginally faster. Thus I will first feel the rock trembling and at that point I will still have plenty of time to work out what to do next. I know all the trees will be uprooted and will fly at great speed, so I must get to the island in the middle of the lake to keep my head intact. But there is no way of digging a shelter in solid rock; even the trees here grow in just half a foot of old needles spread over the sheer Canadian Shield. I have no radio, no cell phone; I won't be able to reach the car without a flashlight. The trail is cut in a dense bush and is marked with a tracer tape hung every five meters at one stretch, just so as not to get lost during the day. Bloody glasses! Anyway, there is nowhere to drive, because the world has already ended. This, finally, is my time of manhood. I have been preparing myself for this moment for 50 years. I already know that this one guy has headed for Alaska. We will see who is smarter. My strategy until dawn is to make more tea and to survive a few shockwaves behind the rock on the island - later I will see, I'm taking one thing at the time. There could be a total firestorm, or heavy fallout, so one thing at time. The water will be undrinkable, but I have enough baked fish for three days; bloody glasses! These shockwaves are going to be an item. I almost died once in a freak and localised hurricane on a similar island - all the forest around the lake was levelled and the trees were flying over the water like projectiles. It was a bloody miracle I survived that hurricane. The odds of surviving a shockwave in a forest are zilch, and they're not much better on a small island. Oh, fuck!

I rowed the 50 meters to the island in total darkness and considered whether to deflate the dinghy and hide it under the largest boulder, or keep it ready in case I need to evacuate to the middle of the lake in the event of a firestorm. I spent until midnight on these deliberations, until all my contingency scenarios were exhausted and I knew that there would be no shockwaves. I rowed back to my tent shore but I did not sleep much. Nor did I conceive any new scenarios. In the morning I found my glasses, caught a few fish, shaved, bathed, swam, folded the tent, loaded the boat, crossed the lake, cleaned the fish. I carried the camping gear to the car, without bothering to turn on the radio. I returned to the lake to fetch the boat, then carried it back to the car: I took off the rubber boots and changed back into sandals. The trusted Honda fired away first time, after being hidden in bushes for a week. Only then did I turn on the radio. Amid the crackling and fading I only managed to get "Ottawa Rock Station" sounding like a broken steam engine. After driving 15 kilometres I was finally able to tune in to a regular station, a normal broadcast. Live on air was a high-ranking comrade, reading slowly, ungrammatically, saying nothing, with words to the effect that those terrorists and warmongers would have their hands cut off. I came back home from a long trip.

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