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'I updated people on what was happening in the era before smartphones pushed news to everyone'

By MIKE LEHMAN

Retired historian

I was still an undergrad at the Big U at the time, despite being in my 40s. And a bit of a radio nerd. I would listen to AM 580 news via a headphone before Western Civ class in Foellinger Auditorium and often chat with the professor who would arrive a little early for the 9 a.m. start.

That day, the prof didn't arrive early and I kept listening via my headphone after class started. Stopping a little before the dismissal bell, he asked that I give everyone a report of what was going on, a public speaking assignment on the spot in front of about 900 people.

I needed no amplification for everyone to hear, as they were all unusually quiet as mice as I updated people on what was happening in the era before smartphones pushed news to everyone.

Getting home, I fired up the shortwave and tuned to where I knew I could find some action, 11175 kHz, the primary hailing frequency for military aircraft over long distances. Even they were mostly not flying because of the post-attack shutdown. It soon became apparent that one aircraft, a KC-135 tanker, was flying east.

Onboard was the director of FEMA, who had been at a conference in Wyoming (IIRC) and obviously needed to be back in D.C. Despite the billions spent on survivable comm systems during the Cold War, the guy was having trouble dialing into his D.C. office.

He finally got through on a line that was struggling to be heard. In the process, the phone patch was being shared by the KC-135 pilot, who nervously was trying to figure out with air traffic control how close he'd be allowed to land to D.C. while at the same time seeking reassurance that they wouldn't be shot down trying to do so.

My girlfriend at the time and now wife was trying to get through to her parents. Her mom taught, so had already left the house by the time all this was happening.

She managed to finally get the phone to ring through, but it went dead when it was answered. She was pretty certain this meant her dad was still at home and hadn't gone into work as he was still often doing despite having retired the month before.

A Navy captain, he'd commanded a Pentagon office that monitored the news media for the military. Good thing he didn't drive in that day.

The office had just been relocated into a newly remodeled office suite. Everyone on duty that day perished. It was several days before she was able to confirm he was OK.

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