“IF THERE’S REAL WAR HOUSTON WILL BE A TARGET,” a fellow reporter told me matter-of-factly the other day, an opinion that was in direct opposition to my son’s. With the nascent bravado of all preteens, he had spent the first weeks after September 11 proclaiming, “No one would ever want to attack Houston.” It is somewhere between those two reactions that I am now learning to reside—I never thought my adopted hometown was particularly safe, but until September 11, my greatest fear was environmental cancers. Now I’m adjusting to different contingencies. A few weeks ago, for instance, I drove to Austin for a business meeting after seeing my son blanch when I mentioned my plan to fly. I rose before dawn and caught the mist rising over the fields and stretches of the Colorado just past Columbus, and my gratitude for the beauty of that early morning journey was matched only by the security I felt in knowing that I could make it home, under my own power, to be part of any catastrophe.
But neither gratitude nor security is an easy state to maintain these days. The night of the attacks, Air Force jets flew overhead, and as I lay frozen under the covers, I was reminded of my cold war childhood and the paralyzing sound of the noon siren that I always mistook for an air raid. In the days that followed, I found comfort in the familiar faces on the national scene. Hearing Houston pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell’s gravelly baritone at the memorial service in the National Cathedral gave me as much solace as his words. I caught James Baker’s lecture to a packed house at Houston’s Christ Church Cathedral, and the zealous pragmatism that had been so odious last December now seemed oddly bracing. “What do I mean when I say we will have to get our hands dirty?” Baker told the nicely turned-out crowd. “We are going to be fighting some very dirty people and some very bad guys.”
He couldn’t wait, but I could, as Houston’s status as a potential target began to seep into the collective unconscious, mine included. It seemed as if everything the city had prized on September 10—the world-class ambition, the chumminess with the Middle East, the frequent public appearances of the senior Bushes—was suddenly conspiring to make us more vulnerable. The shift was eerie in a place where brazenness had always been the only true religion; Houston was the same, only completely different.
I lost a few nights’ sleep, for instance, when in early October news leaked that seven hundred pounds of dynamite had been stolen from a construction site here. I was subsequently assured that thefts of dynamite are not unusual in Houston. (The apprehended thieves were dismissed by some as “goobers,” and life went on.) Normally shrewd people lapsed into distraction: One friend mistook her blood-pressure pills for her vitamins and swallowed fifteen times the prescribed dose, causing the emergency room doctor she saw to accuse her of attempted suicide. Houston’s cherished melting pot was put to the test: Another woman I know confessed to snapping at her Hispanic housekeeper when the latter said she’d go back to Mexico before she’d allow her son, a naturalized citizen like herself, to fight in “our” war. On the highway, where so many local dramas play out, I found myself trapped behind an SUV. Unnerved by a strange shape in the passenger seat, I pulled up to get a better look. A woman in a chador peered back at me in terror.
I drove out Texas Highway 225 to check on the chemical plants, assuming I’d find armed guards and security checkpoints. Instead I found nothing but the usual moonscape of belching smokestacks and storage tanks. “They’re on heightened security, I assure you,” my companion, an oil company employee, told me, but she sounded like a kid trying to sound like a grown-up. Then, as we drove back toward town, a small plane appeared, flying low on the horizon. Then another dropped from the clouds, and another. They circled the plants, dived lower, and banked sharply, finally falling into formation while we fell into a paralyzed silence, imagining the conflagration to come. Then my friend cracked up. “It’s the Air Show!” she said with relief.
I wanted to speed back home, but of course I was already there.