All Americans were hit with some degree of trauma on September 11, 2001, but no place was hit harder than Middletown, New Jersey. Author Gail Sheehy spent the better part of two years walking the journey from grief toward renewal with fifty members of the community that lost more people in the World Trade Center than any other outside New York City. Her subjects are the women, men, and children who remained after the devastation and who are putting their lives back together. She shares their stories in a new book titled, “Middletown, America: One Town’s Passage from Trauma to Hope.” She discusses the book on “Today.” Here's an excerpt:
SIGNS AND WONDERS
KRISTEN AND THE RAVEN
When the glossy black bird dropped onto the lawn outside her kitchen window that August, Kristen felt a shudder go through her body. She called out to her husband.
“Oh my God, there’s a raven.”
“A what?” he said. Ron didn’t know much about birds.
“A raven,” she repeated impatiently.
“You don’t understand, that’s a bad omen. The raven is the harbinger of death.”
Kristen clutched her breast. She had a tumor there, waiting for biopsy. It was in the same place where her mother had found a tumor at the age of thirty-eight. Kristen had lost her mother to cancer a few years earlier. It was a horrible death.
“I’m scared,” she told her husband. “I think that’s me. I think it’s a symbol that I’m going to die.”
“You’re crazy,” her husband said. “It’s just a crow.”
“I don’t want that bird in our yard,” she said. Kristen was not usually one to worry. Not this surfer girl from the Jersey shore. This was a tall blonde tomboy who grew up with all guy friends. A natural beauty who still had age on her side, being thirty; she didn’t give a thought to taming her flyaway hair or painting makeup on her smooth Swedish skin. She was headstrong to the point that she sometimes got in her own way. For instance, she almost missed marrying Ron. Kristen thought she never wanted to be tied down to one man. No interest in marriage. Zero. Hated children.
Her first date with Ron Breitweiser was on his birthday, August 4, 1996. It was the summer of her bar exam, but she found herself far more attracted to this handsome money manager than to the practice of law. Less than six months later they eloped to a Caribbean island. “And I wasn’t even pregnant!” Kristen likes to say. “But why waste time?”
The Breitweisers settled in the pleasant land of Middletown, New Jersey, a lush green oasis in the backyard of New York City. Their house was hidden in woods. The two of them became inseparable. She had no hobbies and he had no hobbies because their hobbies were each other. They would watch TV together, read books together; if Kristen got up to take a shower, Ron would follow her into the bathroom so he could keep talking to her. When Kristen brushed her teeth, she would squeeze out the toothpaste onto Ron’s toothbrush. They were crazy about their dog, Sam, a golden retriever, whose discombobulated bulk somehow found its way into their bed every night.
They weren’t planning to have children. But when Caroline arrived in March 1999, they turned the conversation pit of their living room into a playroom just for her. In late August 2001, when Kristen and her husband went to a cocktail party, they joked that it was the first time in two and a half years they had been out alone, without their daughter. And it was true. They didn’t need a social life. They didn’t even see much of their own families. In fact, Ron wasn’t speaking to his family. They’d had a huge falling-out.
The Sunday before September 11, for some reason, Kristen stopped to read the obituary section. She said to her husband, “Honey, you know, life is so short. Your dad’s older. Are you sure you don’t want to call them and just suck it up and make peace?” He said no. He just wanted to break with his family.
Kristen had it good, and she knew it. She had graduated from Seton Hall Law School in 1996 and, as she liked to say, left the law at the top of her game — after practicing all of three days. She hated it. Took a leave of absence to care for her mother, but when that duty was done, Kristen showed no enthusiasm for resuming her aborted law career. Her husband told her she didn’t have to go back, he could make enough money. He was a whiz at investing. So good, he had been hired at thirty-eight as a vice president by Fiduciary Trust, an investment-management firm for high-net-worth clients. The president, William Yun, had even asked Ron to manage his father’s personal money.
But the minute Ron got home from his office in the South Tower at the World Trade Center, he would change into hiking clothes and walk with Kristen and the baby and the dog up the nature trail behind their house. They would gaze across at mountain ridges and muse, “It could be Wyoming.” Kristen wasn’t a religious person, but as she would reflect later, “We’d notice the birds and we’d notice the deer and we’d notice the beauty in everything. We knew we were blessed. You almost think that’s insurance against bad things happening.”
On Saturday, August 25, the first day of Ron’s two-week vacation, the two were lazing by the living room window with coffee and newspapers. “Look, that bird’s back,” Kristen said. Again her husband dismissed it. She left the room to look through her English-lit books to try to find the Poe poem. She found a quote in Shakespeare about the raven bringing “warnings, and portents and evils imminent.” When she returned, she saw her husband poring over their Audubon birding book.
“You’re right,” he said, “it’s a raven.” The book said the predator was nearly extinct in the Northeast. That made the dumb fear crawl in her stomach. That damn growth in her breast. That damn bird.
ANNA AND THE TROPHY HOUSE
The Egan family had just entered the green and blessed land of Middletown — refugees from Connecticut — so that Michael could be closer to the World Trade Center. The commute from Middletown was a breeze; a luxury commuter bus stopped five minutes from his door and delivered him across the Hudson to the door of the South Tower on the tip of Manhattan Island. With two elevator rides he would emerge to the astonishing views on the 104th floor, where Michael Egan commanded his division as director and manager of the multinational insurance giant AON.
Anna Egan was not happy about the move to Middletown. Or the house. She called it a trophy house. Grand in scale and coldly formal with its glass walls and two-story center hall and spiral staircase. Michael intended it to entertain clients and boost staff morale. It was not for Anna that he bought the house, she knew that; he bought it for AON.
But it turned out to be the best of summers for Anna, the first summer she had had her husband to herself in how many years? Not since her firstborn son, Jon, who was already flapping his wings in preparation for his flight from the nest to start college in California. Certainly not since the birth of her second son, Matthew, who was sixteen on paper but with Down’s syndrome, who could really say? Matthew was away, too, at a special needs camp.
“So here we were in this huge house, just the two of us, no kids, nothing but boxes, and we’re like teenagers again,” as Anna remembered — cherished — those last seven weeks of the summer of 2001. “We did nothing but spoil each other. It was so long since he’d taken any time off. We’d stay late in bed. He’d go out to lunch and not go back to work. Silly little things, like he bought us both walkie-talkies. ‘We need to connect more,’ he said. I’d get beeped all the time, even when I was in the shower.”
They played chase — and — tickle around the patio, this fifty-one-year-old Englishman and his wife, who, at forty-seven, was petite but voluptuous. To this proper Brit, Anna with her Sicilian background and slight accent stirred erotic fantasies of Anna Magnani. “You’re still sexy after all these years,” he would say, looking into her large, dark Mediterranean eyes. Over and over he would tell her, “I love you, darling.”
But there was a little flutter in Anna’s stomach that wouldn’t go away. “I was scared and I didn’t know why.” It wasn’t the move. She had moved so often, she was a pro. She always dove right into the community and made friends and opened their home to her sons’ friends.
When she thought back on it, there was an eerie element about her husband’s behavior that summer. He bought her a PalmPilot and beamed into it the phone numbers of all his associates, even old ones. “Why, Michael? I don’t need this,” she’d protest. “You never know,” he’d say. He always carried in his briefcase the keys to the family house in England, but one day he entrusted them to her. “Why?” “Just in case I might lose them,” he said. He called her all the time: from the office, from the train, even from watering holes in the city when he was out entertaining clients. “Let’s get this straight,” he’d tell the clients. “She’s not Italian. She’s Sicilian. She’s the best. Say hello, Anna.”
Then there was the freakish conversation on the night of September 10. Michael’s sister Christine had come down from Canada, at Anna’s urging, to stay with Matthew, so the couple could get away to Bermuda to combine a business trip with a celebration of their twentieth anniversary. Christine Egan had never been to the World Trade Center; she was excited about seeing Michael’s office way up on the 104th floor.
It was warm for the weekend after Labor Day. Still felt like high summer. Michael grilled kebabs. Anna lit the pool and uncorked the Chardonnay. They all three took a last dip after supper. Playing, ducking each other under the waterfall, Michael was such a Peter Pan. He could always make Anna feel young and carefree. They sat at the table, sipping a little more wine against the incipient shivers of deepening evening. Michael propped his bare feet on the table and wrapped his arms around his big chest. It was exactly a year since he and Christine had mourned the death of their mother. They talked about the wonderful memorial they had held for her after her death on September 10, 2000. Then out of the blue Mike turned around to his sister and said this thing that Anna will never forget:
“Christine, if you were to go puff” — he snapped his fingers — “if you were to go puff, up in smoke, where do you want to be buried?”
Anna and Christine both laughed. “God, Michael, of all things to say,” Anna chided gently. But that was Michael with his zany sense of humor. Christine, who was pretty deft with comebacks for her brother, said, “Well, it’s going to be cheap — there won’t be anything to be buried!”
They all laughed again. Then Michael said, “No, seriously, if something happened to you, where do you want to be buried?” Christine debated aloud between Canada, where she had spent most of her life, and Hull, England, where their parents were buried. “We do have one more spot there,” she said. “Now it’s going to be a fight between you and I who gets there first!”
The next morning Anna waved Michael off in his Jag, laughing with his sister on the way to the commuter bus. As they disappeared from sight and left Anna alone in the trophy house, her mind was free to think of the small things she needed to do that day.
KENNY THE FIREFIGHTER
Kenny Tietjen always had to be first at the fire. He was unbeatable, even by grown men. As a kid coming up in a proud blue-collar section of Middletown, he kept a scanner in his bedroom. The minute he heard a report of a fire, he’d streak out of the house and jump on his moped and race to the address. Whereas the firefighters, who boasted of belonging to the largest all-volunteer fire department in the world, would be delayed by the necessities of getting to the firehouse, climbing into their turnout gear, taking their places on the truck, and traveling to the scene. Little Kenny was always there first, waiting for them — a damn fourteen-year-old.
“That kid!” the grown men would growl.
They groused that Kenny’s moped was blocking their fire truck. They threatened that if he didn’t back off their fires, he would be kicked out of the Fire Explorers, Post 911, where he became a charter member at the age of sixteen. They chased him away from the firehouse: “Get outta here, you’re too young! Pain in the ass.” But it was really the ego wound that hurt; Kenny always beat the firefighters to the fire.
The funny thing was, Kenny had been scared of sirens as a very little boy. “Petrified,” recalled his sister Laurie. “Firecrackers, any loud noises, but especially fire and police sirens terrified him.” And as a child he was on the runty side, short and skinny and shy. He had to content himself with “torturing” his younger sister. For example, the “spit torture.” Laurie giggled. “He would tackle me on the ground, sit on top of me, and - -this is so disgusting, I can’t believe I’m telling you this — he would spit into drool, so it was hanging just over my nose, and then he’d suck it back up.”
“Don’t tell Mom,” he would order. Their mother, Janice Tietjen, was a devout Catholic, a pillar of St. Mary’s Church.
The way Kenny Tietjen dealt with fear was to go toward the very thing that scared him. “He was just so gung ho,” said Janice. “He had to be the first one in.” As soon as he came of age, he became a volunteer in Engine Company Number 1 in Belford, a briny section of Middletown where the fish factory was and where firefighting was one of the noblest occupations. Kenny moved closer to the firehouse. His mother was shocked upon reading a newspaper account of her son’s participation in his first fire. It was a propane tank that might have exploded, but who was the first one on the hose? Kenny.
Within his first few years in the company, Kenny Tietjen bulked up and more than proved himself. At a large electrical fire in a lumberyard, one young firefighter opened a door and was knocked unconscious by a flash. Kenny ran in behind him and with another volunteer dragged the man out of the smoke-filled shack; saved his life. Kenny’s helmet melted, but he suffered no injuries.
“When my brother wound up being a fireman and then a police officer, the whole family, we couldn’t believe it,” said Laurie. As a member of the Port Authority police force, Kenny wore a smile almost all the time. He loved his job, blossomed in it. “We called ourselves the Regulators,” said Mike Ashton, who worked with Kenny in a sector car at the Holland Tunnel. “We were both active cops, we went out looking for it. We called it ‘playing.’ ” The two spent every working night together, ate their meals together, shaved their heads together. Ashton saw more of Kenny than he saw of his own wife. They backed each other up.
Excerpted from “Middletown, America” by Gail Sheehy. Copyright© 2003 by Gail Sheehy. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.