Originally published Sept. 11, 2002
We liked to think it couldn't happen, but there it was: America, wounded. Until last Sept. 11, the Land of the Free seemed untouchable. Other nations had been scarred by war. Not us. Not here.
When that changed one year ago today, our presumed security was gone. In its place was an uneasiness somewhere between vague vulnerability and outright fear, directly proportional to our physical distance from ground zero. Now we, too, were scarred.
Or so the sociologists and mass-scale group therapists told us.
In the weeks that followed last Sept. 11, people packed church pews. They lined up to donate blood. They fired off checks to the Red Cross. They saluted the armed forces. This was Pearl Harbor all over again and Americans would respond the way they'd responded 60 years before. Wouldn't they?
Not to the extent many of us expected.
A year later, people are skipping church again. They've stopped slapping bumper stickers on their cars, stocking up on canned food and looking closer at this thing called Islam. National Guardsmen are no longer patrolling Meadows Field. Local blood banks are back in crisis mode.
In many ways Kern County, like the rest of the nation, is back to its old self. The outward signs of sorrow and patriotic defiance have disintegrated with time like the tattered, clip-on flags that for months waved from car windows.
But in some people, strong feelings do remain. Some are still fearful. Some are angrier. Impatient. Apprehensive. Xenophobic.
Others are gentler, more reflective. Appreciative. United. Prayerful.
Some have taken rational, measured steps toward healing -- giving to charity, supporting a cause.
But it's hard to get past the fact that, except for those individuals whose lives were touched personally and dramatically, life is very much like it was Sept. 10 -- our 401(k) statements notwithstanding.
A year later, we are a community both changed and unchanged.
IT WASN'T THE SMELL that did it, though that was certainly a big part. It wasn't the noise, the dust or the street-corner toughs, either, though they'd all begun wearing on her. Jessica Merritt's decision to move from New York City back home to Bakersfield came down to this:
"I had to ask myself, 'If today is the last day of my life, where do I want to spend it?' I had to answer: 'Here, surrounded by my family and friends.'"
Death isn't normally a big concern for 23-year-old women. It certainly wasn't for Merritt, a pretty, outgoing New York University graduate known to many local fans of community theater for her Christmas-break performances at Oildale's Melodrama theater.
All that changed Sept. 11. Merritt was dealing with a classroom full of seventh-graders at Manhattan's Sun Yat Sen Middle School when the World Trade Center, four blocks away, was hit.
Several teachers were gathered at a window at the end of a hallway when the first tower crumbled.
"I can't get the image of it coming down out of my head," Merritt said. "There was just this guttural scream that came out of everyone. We could see people jumping (out of windows). You could feel the heat. It was a weird sensation,like a war zone. I just couldn't live like that anymore."
She was trapped in Manhattan for days. Planes weren't flying, subways weren't running, street traffic was impossible. She began to feel claustrophobic.
Then there was that smell.
"Burning flesh -- you don't think you'd know the smell of burning flesh," she said. "You know it."
On Sept. 30, Merritt took her Shih Tzu, Gatsby, and moved back to California.
"Manhattan is such a target," she said. "Bakersfield is not. That's why I came back. I couldn't even stay in L.A., where I went first. Every time I went by the federal building, this shudder would go through me. To me, it resembles the World Trade Center a little bit. It freaked me out."
She got a job at Fruitvale Junior High, her alma mater, working for John Hefner, her old principal. She's teaching eighth-grade language arts -- literature and a taste of her specialty, drama.
"I'm here, with my support group and my mentors," Merritt said. "Everything is turning out to be comfortable."
She intends to talk to her classes about Manhattan and her experiences last September.
"You see things on the news and it seems distant. By talking about it, you help them feel the weight of what happened. That's important," she said.
"I LOVE YOU LOTS."Cathie Ong-Herrera may have some regrets, but fretting over words left unsaid is not one of them. She and her younger sister Betty conveyed their love for each other every day of their adult lives, in words spoken or written.
Betty Ann Ong, a flight attendant aboard American Airlines Flight 11, is gone now. But she leaves Cathie, a Bakersfield dental hygienist, with a gift -- something Cathie never fathomed she might possess in such measure. Courage.
This is courage: Hijackers have slashed the throat of a passenger, stabbed two flight attendants and taken control of the plane, and Betty Ong is on the phone with an airline reservations agent who's in North Carolina. She's describing the situation from the back of the cabin in hushed tones, but with a matter-of-fact presence that still seems startling, a year later.
Betty, 45, has determined that four hijackers have come from first-class seats: 2A, 2B, 9A and 9B. The wounded passenger -- possibly already dead -- is in seat 10B, she says. The hijackers have hit the cabin with some sort of spray that makes everyone's eyes burn, and Betty says she is having trouble breathing.
"Is the plane descending?" the reservations agent asks.
"We're starting to descend. We're starting to descend," Betty answers in a steady voice.
The plane is flying erratically, the transponder is dead and, oddly, the hijackers have not indicated whether they might have any demands. Now the plane is making a rapid descent; now people in the cabin can see water and buildings. Now the plane is flying sideways. Sideways. "Pray for us," Betty Ong tells the reservations agent.
This is courage: It is the night of Feb. 10, the eve of that awful day's five-month remembrance, and Cathie Ong-Herrera, 51, is in a darkened hotel room in Boston. In a few hours, she will give a speech at historic Fanuiel Hall in front of 500 people, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. John Kerry and Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift.
Cathie is terrified, restless, agitated. Tired of tossing and turning, she gets up and paces the floor. Finally she pulls back the curtain and sits. It's snowing.
"I sat there and watched it," Cathie said. "And I told myself, 'You know what? If Betty can do what she did, you can give a speech.'"
And so she did.
"I've found a lot of strength," Cathie said, "in what Betty did."
What Betty did:
"Her tone was always calm, very professional," Cathie said. "She was in charge. She was in charge (of the cabin), and she acted like she was in charge. She was the first to tell the country we were being attacked."
Cathie had planned to meet Betty in Los Angeles; Betty was going to take her big sister to Hawaii that Thursday. She'd just purchased a boogie board, she'd told Cathie, and she was anxious to use it.
Instead, Cathie was in San Francisco that evening, where the sisters grew up. She was meeting with family members, including their middle sister Gloria, and a minister. Cathie's inconceivable test of strength was about to get underway.
The world will hear about Betty Ann Ong's courage again. Cathie, who moved to Bakersfield in 1990 with her husband, insurance broker Ed Herrera, said she's been notified that a tape of Betty's last phone conversation will be played at the trial of accused Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. The proceedings begin Jan. 6.
"I'm damn proud of her," Cathie said. "It's been a very tough year for all of us. It's difficult to talk about, (because) you've got to open it up and live it again. But it's important."
She resents the fact that some people seem to want to put Sept. 11 behind them.
"People out there in general care about what has happened, but as time goes on, if you weren't directly affected, you're more likely to act like, 'Let's just get on with our lives now,'" Cathie said. "Maybe it's just not possible to understand until you're in this position. It's like being in a club that nobody wants to join.
"You always hear that when God closes one door, he opens another. I keep asking God, how big a door is he going to open? Because the door he closed is so big. It's so big."
Maybe an accumulation of small doors will help. Perhaps a Betty Ong foundation: Something to help children and seniors, people that Betty especially enjoyed. Or justice for the families of the victims: Cathie intends to lend her support to an investigation into the hows and whys of Sept. 11. Or a message to sisters and brothers, parents and children, everywhere: Don't put yourself in the position of having to tell yourself how you wish you'd said this or that, before everything changed. Say it now.
Cathie Ong-Herrera does not have to concern herself with that last thing, because even today she can still hear those words, Betty's signature sign-off on her phone calls and e-mails:
"I love you lots."
WHEN HE GOT word about the attacks last Sept. 11, Louis Cox felt the same shock and horror most other Americans felt, but his shock and horror came from a different place. It came from experience.
Cox, who is Hall Ambulance's operations manager, worked the scene of what was then one of the country's most horrific high-rise accidents. Cox was the director of emergency medical services in Blue Springs, Mo., when on July 17, 1981, he was summoned to the 40-story Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Mo. Two "sky bridges" crowded with people had collapsed into the hotel's six-story lobby, where 1,500 people partied at a Friday-night "tea dance." Some 114 people died; scores were injured, many grievously.
"People would dance on these catwalks, and that night they just came down, one on top of the other," Cox said.
Cox, who was president of the Mid-America Regional Council Emergency Rescue, a multi-jurisdictional cooperative established to deal with tornado disasters, was front and center. The carnage was devastating.
"We had to cut people's legs off with chain saws to save them," he said.
For Cox, the tragedy came with a personal cost: Alcohol, divorce and depression.
"The people I worked for were quick to recognize what was happening, and they got me help," Cox said. "But it stays with you. Time heals, but it can heal pretty slowly."
As a result, Cox, who came to Bakersfield in 1988, has a unique perspective on Sept. 11.
"I just knew what those people (the rescuers) were going through," he said. "I knew what they could expect to go through" in the weeks and months ahead.
On the Friday after last year's terrorist attacks, Cox attended a memorial prayer service at a Bakersfield church. He'd never been much of a church-goer -- not as an adult, anyway -- but he went back that Sunday. The following Sunday, too. And the Sunday after. Fact is, he's only missed a few Sunday services in the last 12 months.
"I'm not a born-again Christian," Cox said. "I still have a drink every night. I only stopped smoking because of my step-kids. But church felt comfortable. I can't say why. It's a quiet time. I'm closer to my God. Maybe a psychiatrist can explain it better."
He, like most Americans, would like the sadness to go away, but he knows better than to expect it to happen anytime soon. "Time will move it from where it is in our minds," he said, "but it's a good thing" to grieve.
"It's like a death in the family: You've got to get over it. You can't stay in one place. That doesn't mean it's easy to do."
IT CAME TO HIM LIKE an angel whispering in his ear. His father, the Rev. Eddie V. McGee, was at the pulpit that Friday night nearly a year ago when the Rev. Kelvin McGee sensed inspiration. He thought it out in his head, then bolted from the sanctuary.
McGee went to the back office of the Saints Memorial Church of God in Christ and telephoned his house. The answering machine picked up, and in his soulful tenor McGee sang the first verse of what would become "We'll Raise Our Flag," his tribute to the victims of Sept. 11.
"Then I just sat there and cried," said McGee, 41, of Bakersfield. "I cried for days afterward. Every time I saw it (television images of the smoking World Trade Center), I cried. I'm like that. I boo-hoo."
He recorded the song and brought a copy to his job at the Career Services Center. He played it for a co-worker, who immediately rounded up a crowd. "Before I knew it, she had 20 to 25 people in there and they were all bawling," McGee said.
He hooked up with a producer and a local label (Eat 'Em Up Records), printed up hundreds of copies and started performing the song before civic groups, politicians -- anyone who was interested.
"I've been singing it year-round," McGee said. "We made $2,000 in a month and gave it all to the Red Cross."
Things have slowed a little, but McGee -- who estimates that he's written more than 500 songs -- knows that the importance of the day will never diminish significantly.
"It's not going away, ever," he said. "I think it's imbedded in America. Sept. 11 will live over and over again, not as an event to haunt us, but as something to keep us strong."
As for his song: "It hit me like a ton of bricks. I give all praise to God."
"We'll Raise Our Flag"
It's time to love one another.
Share with sisters and brothers.
Regardless of the color,
In this nation, of liberty.
Despite the tragedies,
With pride, we stand free.
For the whole world to see,
That they can't tear us down.
Together, we stand.
As we support our fellow man.
With one accord, we'll pray
from our hearts.
As one country, unto God.
No matter what they do,
We'll raise our flag,
Red, white and blue.
It's time to lend a helping hand,
As we make a valiant stand.
Claim to be an American,
We won't be ashamed.
Though they danced in the streets,
We yet hold the victory.
'Cause we live in a country
called the land of the free.
God bless America,
The land that I love.
God bless America,
My home sweet home.
-- Words and music by Kelvin McGee
"IT'S STILL A HUGE LOAD." In an indirect way, Jarudd Prosser is named after two of the men his father most admired. Brian Prosser, a retired Los Angeles city firefighter, took inspiration for the unusual spelling of his youngest son's first name from Paul Ruddick, a former colleague and LAFD medal of valor recipient. Jarudd's middle name, William, gives him the initials J.W., "same as John Wayne, another hero of mine," Brian Prosser said.
Jarudd, 23, has a hero of his own.
The guy alongside whom he slopped pigs and swept out chicken pens. The guy who knocked heads for the Maricopa High School football team. The guy who died Dec. 6 helping to deliver a pay-back for the attacks of Sept. 11. Jarudd's older brother, Cody Prosser.
Staff Sgt. Brian Cody Prosser, who grew up near Frazier Park, was one of the three elite Special Forces soldiers killed in Afghanistan, north of Kandahar, when an off-target U.S. bomb landed about 100 yards away.
"It's still tough, even eight months down the road," said Jarudd, who was six years younger than his brother. "There are still days it doesn't get off my mind all day. I still have a huge feeling of honor and pride. It's had a lasting effect, and it's changed my outlook."
Jarudd was 6 when Cody, then a sixth-grader, moved to the Lockwood Valley to live with their father. "I was good with it, pretty much right away," said Jarudd, whose other three siblings, Reed, Danna and Mike, were already grown and gone, or close to it, when Cody arrived.
"I watched him play sports," Jarudd said. "He was a great athlete, and he made me want to play sports that much more. He was a great role model, even before this event. I always looked up to him, tried to be like him."
On the hill behind their father's five acres, near the place where the boys used to shoot at tin cans with their BB guns, a memorial of sorts was built. The day after Cody died, a close friend gathered up enough stones to spell out "BCP." It's still there.
So is the pain.
Jarudd, who started working for Hall Ambulance this month as an EMT (he hopes to become a paramedic), believes he's a different man.
Cody's death, Jarudd said, "has added to the fire."
"Jarudd has changed for the better," his father said. "He has his hard days, but he's getting his focus. Cody's notoriety struck lots of people -- he did so much in a short time. It hit Jarudd. He's also getting his focus."
YOU CAN ONLY HELP people who want to be helped. That's Myrtie Thoms' attitude. It's the only thing that keeps her sane -- at least where her older sister is concerned.
Leatha Kinser, a 75-year-old widow, moved to Jerusalem six years ago to work as a Christian missionary and Holy Land tour guide. She's now retired. It's just as well: There are no tours these days. "They're under siege," Thoms conceded.
Kinser used to travel by bus everywhere she went, but she recently moved into a downtown apartment so she wouldn't have to ride them anymore. Public transportation is an iffy proposition in the Holy City these days. Kinser, who doesn't drive, walks almost everywhere she goes.
But nothing in Israel seems safe anymore, at least not from this vantage point.
What's a sister to do?
"We get worried," said Thoms, who for the past 17 years has worked for a Bakersfield company that sells manufactured homes. "I just quit watching that Israel news. If she's not concerned herself, why should I be? 'These soldiers take care of me,' she says.
"If you watch the news, you get upset. You call, and then her kids call me. I say, 'Kids, you've got to stop worrying. If it happens, we have to go from there.'"
Thoms and Kinser, two of eight siblings, talk often on the telephone -- but as little as possible about suicide bombers or the war on terrorism.
"She's a firm believer that the Lord has placed her there for a reason," Thoms said. "'If this is what he's planned for me,' she says, 'that's OK for me.'"
Thoms, whose late husband brought their family to Bakersfield to work in the oil fields in 1953, sees her sister once a year, and she issues the same invitation every time.
"I always tell her, 'I really wish you would consider staying here,'" Thoms said. "She says, 'but that's home to me, over there.'"
BUTTONWILLOW IS A CONTINENT AWAY from Manhattan, and not just in geographic terms. But even in Buttonwillow, where you can often drive from one end of town to the other without seeing a soul on the street, the tragedy cut across the vast distance with gripping immediacy.
At Buttonwillow School, they coped by helping others cope.
The school's first-year principal, Debra Marker, learned of the attack on her way to school that morning. She called a staff meeting and, in the school office two hours later, watched New Yorkers dash through the quaking streets of Manhattan, fleeing the billowing destruction.
In the days that followed, Marker, like school principals all across the country, realized 9/11 would be as much a character-building opportunity as a crisis.
She threw herself into constructive, healing activities and brought her K-8 students with her. The kids made 11-by-14-inch flags, and the Buttonwillow Chamber of Commerce had them laminated. They attached the flags to the schoolyard fence -- something for all the farm trucks to salute as they rumbled down desolate McKittrick Highway. The kids collected pennies, sold dill pickles, wrote letters and made a giant flag (with white hand-prints for stars and red footprints for stripes), all in the name of therapy.
"We wanted some avenue for them to be able to express their feelings," said Marker, who got some therapy herself watching 20 kindergartners singing "God Bless the USA" at a flag-raising ceremony in late September.
But there was something unsettling about the quiet: The FAA, fearing a new sort of terrorist attack, had grounded all crop dusters.
"It was eerie not hearing them," Marker said. "In September we usually have a lot of crop dusters. But the sky was empty for a long time. It was weird."
The show of campus unity helped everyone overcome that.
"The school is 70 percent Hispanic," Marker said. "You can pretty much tell which families just came in from Mexico. But there were American flags hanging off all the cars. We really came together."
"ARE YOU AMERICAN?" A year ago Jill Egland and her 7-year-old daughter Amelia set out on a journey of discovery. They traveled to Ireland, intent on studying Celtic music. They learned more than they could have expected.
They arrived the morning of Sept. 11, rented a microscopic Fiat and headed west for County Clare. At the village of Connolly, they stopped at a small grocery store to use the ladies' water closet and rummage for snacks. The owner noticed their accents. "Are you American?" she asked. She guessed, correctly, that they hadn't heard the day's news.
The owner invited mother and daughter to her house. It was in the grocer's living room, on Sky News, that they watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center.
For Egland, the next few days brought about "an epiphany about love of country." A unique sort of love, though.
A love tempered by a concern for the bigger picture.
Egland, a Bakersfield native, worked overseas for a decade, part of the time as an economic consultant to the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia. She lived in Sumatra, West Malaysia, India, Brussels. She saw what the Western economic apparatus can do for, and to, other countries.
"There's no great loss of love for those (U.S.-supported financial) institutions overseas," said Egland, who also lived in New York City for several years. "Our excesses, our zeal to convert the world to our American dream ... fuels our foreign policy ... and has had real consequences.
"Eventually something was bound to happen. We can't continue promoting economic policies that cut local economies off at the knees."
Many Americans, she said, like to believe other countries are envious "of our way of life."
It's not that simple.
"There's a global, political critique (of the world economic structure) that I wish we would let ourselves participate in," Egland said.
She's not condoning the terrorist attacks.
"It's a despicable act and it needs to get addressed," she said. At the same time, though, the issue of economic justice worldwide deserves a public hearing, she said.
People in County Clare were stunned by the attacks -- a number of families lost relatives who were working in the WTC -- but there was also intelligent commentary on the political/cultural/ economic climate that might have led to the tragedy.
The discussion was "compassionate, yet critical," Egland said.
"Amelia was given a great gift -- the opportunity to think about what had happened and articulate her questions without having to worry about seeming unpatriotic," Egland said. "It was a great gift for me, too. I was able to process the event applying my own Green values, grieve, gain some clarity on the issues before returning to all the rabid 'you're either with us or with the terrorists' sentiment of Mainstream USA."
Egland is a playwright, poet and musician (she plays flute and accordion for two Bakersfield bands, Mama's Midlife Crisis and Banshee in the Kitchen), and she's a Green Party organizer. In a sense, therefore, it's her job to say how she really feels. And now, a year later, she is.
"I feel that I'm a patriot," Egland said. "I know I am. And to love your country is to want to see it be all it can be. And there's a gap between our forefathers' vision of ... economic justice and what we are today.
"My criticisms," she said, "come from that place of love."
THE LIST OF PEOPLE killed and missing at the World Trade Center is widely available now. People who suspect they may have lost a friend or associate in the attacks have had the opportunity by now to scan the rolls of the deceased and resolve their questions.
Tom Pasek hasn't. He's certain he knew people at the WTC, and he's certain many of them died. But precisely who, and under what circumstances, he doesn't know. Doesn't want to know.
"I conducted a meeting for a week or so every six weeks" at the World Trade Center, said Pasek, who worked for two Manhattan-based financial service companies -- Calvin Bullock Ltd., then a subsidiary of The Equitable, and Dean Witter -- in the 1980s. "I got to know New York City, and I got to know a tremendous number of people, too."
Commuting from Bakersfield and elsewhere, he maintained offices in the north tower -- on the 44th floor with one company and the 99th floor with the other. In 1988 he quit the business and returned to Bakersfield full time, where his wife, Mary Jo, has a good job. He went to work for himself.
He continued corresponding with two former co-workers who, as far as he knew, still worked at the WTC on Sept. 11. He sent them both Christmas cards last December. His friends did not reciprocate.
He hasn't been able to summon the motivation to find out why.
"I suppose at some point I will sit down and scan the list," Pasek says. "It's just not something I've tried to do. Maybe it's a desire not to be involved."
Neither does he spend time wondering where he'd be today if he'd stayed with the company he left 14 years ago.
"I never play 'what-if' games," Pasek says. "History does not reveal its alternatives. God does not reveal the path not taken. I might have been killed in a cab accident on the way to the World Trade Center that morning. So, why ask?"
WHEN THE PRESIDENT SPEAKS, Howard and Carolyn Mack listen. At least they were listening when George W. Bush made one particular plea to the citizenry last fall:
The economy needs you. Spend.
The Macks don't spend with complete recklessness, of course. There is a theme to their consumerism.
And now, a year after the attacks of Sept. 11, their Rosedale-area home is a gallery of Americana.
The Macks have a red, white and blue bubble gum machine, a red, white and blue shower curtain, a red, white and blue bedspread. Red, white and blue chairs. Red, white and blue tables. Red, white and blue towels. Red, white and blue pillows. There's a flag, rendered in ceramic tile, in the kitchen counter, and a full-on flagpole in the back yard. Patriotic pictures and figurines are everywhere. Carolyn Mack's wardrobe is dominated by all-American colors. Even her hair is red. Well, strawberry blond.
Howard Mack does a fair amount of traveling, and when he comes home there's inevitably something red, white and blue in his suitcase. Unless it won't fit in his suitcase.
"We were married on July 1 (1995) and our colors were red, white and blue, so we were already inclined in that way," Carolyn Mack said. "But then it really took off after Sept. 11. The president said, 'Shop!' And that's what we're trying to do."
Did they go overboard? Consider the stuffed lion and stuffed bear that sit side by side on the living room hearth. Press the right spots and they sing "America the Beautiful" in cartoony, saccharin voices. One also manages the Pledge of Allegiance (not the 9th Circuit Court's version, either).
Carolyn Mack shrugs and laughs.
"You've got to be proud," she says. "It's still hard, but you've got to say, 'This is in your face. You're not going to do this to America. We're not going to lay down and die.' You can't just stay sad. You gotta get PO'd. And you've got to get out there again and live."
IT'S SO MUCH BETTER NOW for Nazar Kooner. Eleven, 12 months ago, he couldn't pump fuel at the gas station without fearing for his life.
Kooner is a Punjabi Sikh, and he stands out in a crowd. He is a tall man with a full, gray-white beard and mustache, and he favors traditional Indian garb: white turban, white pants, white collarless shirt and a white, flowing robe-like overgarment.
On the morning of the attacks, Kooner was in a field off Weedpatch Highway, inspecting his raisin grapes, when he saw that his truck needed diesel. He drove into town, a couple of miles north.
"It was the first time I saw the anger of the people," he said. "They were showing (Osama) bin Laden on TV every 10 minutes. These youngsters were circling me. I was frightened."
He got his fuel and drove back into the raisin vineyard. Forty minutes later, still working in the field, he was spotted again.
"Young men were stopped on the road, yelling, using the f-word," Kooner says. "They were typical, hard-working American people, and if they were coming for me, I could not handle them. I pretended to not hear them and I drove the other way, away from the road, even though that is not the way I would have gone.
"I sat in my truck. (Bakersfield Mayor) Harvey Hall called me on the cell phone while I am hiding in the field. He said, 'Stay home.' I accepted his advice. I did not go out three days. We were so scared. That was a terrible time. For a month or two months, very tough."
Kooner, who moved to Bakersfield from western India's Punjab province in 1980, doesn't blame anyone. He knows that relatively few Americans make the distinction between turban-wearing Punjabis and the Muslims of Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
"The turban is similar, the skin is similar, the languages -- Punjab, Arabic -- Americans don't understand both," he said. "But now people know. The media did so much (to clarify the differences). 'These guys are different' -- people know that now."
Kooner, one of an estimated 12,000 Kern County Sikhs, labored in the fields for two years after he immigrated here. He sold life insurance for a few years, then went into farming full time. Two years ago, he opened People's Pizza on Weedpatch Highway, near his home and his Guru Ram Das Academy for Sikh children.
He says he heard expressions of support often in those first trying weeks after Sept. 11.
"People walk into our place and they ask, 'Are you Sikh?'" he said. "They say, 'We understand.' It started (getting better), day after day. I don't experience anything (negative in) the last four or five months. There is still an element, but they acted that way before Sept. 11.
"American people have big heart. When we came to this country, I was imaginating they were going to kill us all (because there was) no room for anyone different. But we were welcome. And we thank the American people for that."
"DUDE, I HOPE YOU'RE NOT AT WORK TODAY." Jonathan Fleisig's housekeeper had just come running into the room, screaming, and now Fleisig understood the significance of that overhead roar of a few moments before.
He picked up the phone and called his best friend, Jim Gartenberg, a 36-year-old commercial real estate broker. They were both University of Michigan grads, both fanatics for U of M football and basketball. They went to New York Ranger hockey games together, where Gartenberg was no doubt briefed regularly about the minor-league team Fleisig owned in California, the Bakersfield Condors.
"So I called my buddy, couldn't get through," Fleisig said. "Left a message: 'Dude, I hope you're not at work today.' Then I called his home, left a message.
"My apartment on Broadway became a place where friends started to congregate. All of the smoke is starting to come down, and there's a sea of people. Then a couple hours later I get the call from his wife."
Gartenberg had been trapped on the 86th floor of the north tower. He'd spent a few of his final minutes on the phone, calmly describing the situation to ABC News. He'd gotten a chance to talk to his wife and his mother.
He had resigned from his job with Julien J. Studley Inc. several days before, and Sept. 11 was his last day. He and his secretary, Patricia Puma, were cleaning out his desk at 8:45 a.m. Eastern time, when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the tower several floors above them, between the 96th and 103rd floors.
Fleisig, 36, works a couple hundred yards from the WTC, in the World Financial Center, where he trades on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
"I was late getting to work that day," Fleisig said. "I thought, 'I'm tired, I'll go in about 9:30.'"
Gartenberg and Fleisig had met in a sports bar, each having noticed how fervently the other was rooting for Michigan, which was playing in a televised game. They'd been mutually astounded to learn they'd both graduated from the same school in the same year, 1987.
"What I can't deal with is going to Knick games without him, watching Michigan without him," said Fleisig, who'd been going to basketball and hockey games with his friend since 1988. "The only person who hated Michael Jordan more than me was Jim. He was the most obnoxious fan you'll ever want to meet.
"At his funeral his wife told the story of the time Jimmy was walking around the Carrier Dome (at Syracuse University, prior to a Michigan-Syracuse basketball game), saying, 'We're gonna kick your ass,' and he's pushing a baby stroller. His wife says, 'Nobody was too intimidated by that.'"
She gave birth to their second child a few months after her husband's death.
"My head is still spinning," Fleisig said. "I'm looking at ground zero out my window right now. I live there, I see it every day. I have absolutely no perspective. I don't pretend to. It's too close.
"But when you see how nice, how kind some people are, just how New York City reacted ... it's very nice. It's very touching. I'm just awestruck by the goodness of some people. If you're not impressed by New Yorkers now, you never will be."
"I HAVE TO GO." Rebbell Halloway, an Army National Guard reservist and Kern County sheriff's deputy, was deployed four days after the attacks.
He was so eager to serve outside of Bakersfield he took a temporary demotion from lieutenant to sergeant -- and a $20,000 pay cut -- to do it.
"'I have to go,'" he recalled saying right after Sept. 11. "'That's why I joined the armed services.'"
After three weeks guarding Camp San Luis Obispo he spent 11 months helping protect the Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah, where the U.S. government disposes of "nasty" chemical weapons and agents.
It wasn't the 34-year-old's first time serving his country. His Army career included five years searching for POWs and MIAs in the jungles of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
He didn't do much of that in Utah although he said the work "kept us on our toes." Officials tested security, created mock disturbances at check-in gates and otherwise tried to infiltrate the facility grounds.
The hardest part, Halloway said, was being away from his children, ages 11 and 10. He had just one, three-week visit with them during his deployment.
"You can't imagine how hard that is," Halloway said.
Then unexpected rewards came.
While out dancing in February he met a woman, Heidi, and four months later they got married.
Heidi has a 5-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son and the two families have united seamlessly, Heidi said.
Halloway finished his duty and moved back to Kern County with his new wife and stepchildren in August.
The couple live in Tehachapi; Halloway works out of the Sheriff's Department's Mojave substation.
Despite the tragic circumstance behind their meeting, the Halloways are happy.
"I never thought anything good could come out of that," Heidi said of the attacks.