It took a few hours, but then I recalled the feeling. That odd sense of being alone even with others around, of being unsure of what the next days would bring, of wondering just how bad things might get.
It was nearly two decades ago that I had those feelings, in September 2001.
I was living in Montana when the Twin Towers collapsed, when the Pentagon was attacked from the air, when heroes armed with little more than raw courage and a rolling cart battled terrorists in the air over Pennsylvania.
I was editing several weekly newspapers in those years and had been driving a lot to fill in when editors quit or were fired. Such was the case that Tuesday morning as I tried to catch up on some sleep after working a long Monday and then driving back to Columbia Falls in the waning hours.
My wife, who rose earlier than me and had to be at her job by 8 a.m., awoke me to say one of the towers had been struck by a plane. An accident, I said, and rolled back over.
A few minutes later, she returned. The second tower had been struck, she said.
“We’ve been attacked!” I said, somehow realizing what was going on.
I rushed to work and we produced stories about what 9/11 meant to northwest Montana.
Our websites were primitive then but we put up as many stories as we could while we planned for earlier print deadlines.
I called Flathead County sheriff Jim DuPont, a good man who always spoke honestly, and asked if the Hungry Horse Dam was in peril. If it had given way, towns would have disappeared beneath the miles of water held behind it.
Jim laughed at me, asked me what kind of question that was, and scoffed at the very idea. Chastened, I ended the call.
I failed to notice he had not answered the question. He later told me that deputies had in fact been assigned to guard the massive dam. It was a reminder to listen closely and to always double-check things.
That Sunday, a friend who worked for the Kalispell radio station called and advised me to go check the rail line passing through Columbia Falls.
Jill and I drove out there. Our marriage was at the end and I would move out in two months, so there was a growing distance between us. But that week, we were close again, quiet and uncertain, but clinging to someone.
When we got to the overpass, there was another couple standing there. We got out of our car and joined them at the rail as we watched a long train pass.
It was loaded with tanks. Dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of tanks on flatbed cars, being shipped from the West Coast to overseas ports and then on to the Middle East.
It was a stunning sight. What signal did it send? Was a major war dawning? Would we attack the enemies who had struck such a painful blow to our country that sunny Tuesday morning?
I thought of that feeling as I drove around Sioux Falls, SD, last week. The mood was somber, or at least it felt that way to me.
I had read a New York Times story that reported that government officials said in a worst-case scenario, millions will get sick and more than a million will die from this virus. If things get really bad, the numbers could rocket upward.
Social media posts debated recent events. Sporting events were being canceled and that angered some fans. Others felt the whole thing was concoction of the liberal media and Democratic Party, seeking to crash the economy and defeat President Donald Trump.
I remembered seeing and hearing wild things in 2001, too. When people are frightened or unsure, they will believe all sorts of nonsense. It’s just innate in man.
I stocked up at Hy-Vee, which wasn’t that unusual. I like to shop early in the morning, when the store is quiet and uncrowded, and staff members are helpful as they fill the shelves.
I asked an employee if they were seeing a rush on the store. He smiled and said yes, but five big trucks had arrived that morning. The shelves weren’t empty.
Well, except for cleaning supplies. They were in short supply, and some things on our list were sold out.
Conversations were muted. Smiles were few.
“It’s a weird time in our country,” I said to the woman as she wrapped up a half pound of turkey for me.
“Yes,” she said, “it is.”
Another employee told her and another staffer that his long-waited trip to San Francisco for some company event had been canceled. Instead, he had been given a $2,000 bonus.
Nice, he said, but his wife was looking forward to that trip.
The deli clerk said he could book his own trip, and I noted that airfares would likely decline.
Yes, she said, they probably would.
We were talking normally and going through the motions of a normal day. But we also were waiting for . . . something.
We don’t know what. We’re not sure when. We are uncertain how bad it will get.
But we are aware that this was unlike most days. It was a vaguely familiar feeling . . .
Tom Lawrence is a former managing editor of The N’West Iowa REVIEW. He lives in Sioux Falls, SD, and may be reached at email@example.com.