Sixteen years ago today I was in Kamiah, Idaho, at the Flying B Ranch at the 2001 Weatherby Writers Conference. We were getting ready to head out for morning bird hunting, and I had just secured the upper snaps on my Filson chaps as I looked up at the television and saw the first plane slam into the first tower.
It was a moment of incredulity. It was made real by the fact that my friend Anthony Licata was there. Anthony worked on Field & Stream, which of course is based in New York City (he runs the joint now). Anthony had friends and neighbors in that tower. I didn't know it at the time, but so did I.
As we sat around a table nervously drinking coffee right after the second plane hit, the folks from Swanson & Russell, the agency that represented Weatherby, wisely rented cars. And two days later, we set out in those cars.
Early on, I teamed up with Aaron Fraser Pass, a disheveled yet brilliant southern gentleman. We shared a love of guns, hunting, history—and geography. Aaron Pass, who is no longer with us, wrote about shotguns for Ducks Unlimited and other magazines, including this one at times. His thick drawl and unruly mustache caused many to dismiss him, but he was one of the best writers I’ve ever known. Aaron and I were in one of two southern cars, meaning that at some point we would head for somewhere south of Interstate Route 70. The other southern car was piloted and passengered by two other gunwriting greats, John Sundra and Layne Simpson.
And so began our trek across America from the very tip of Idaho to the middle Atlantic and points south, not really sure yet that America was at war as we talked about all things that mattered, and many that didn’t. Me with my cold coffee and Aaron with Coke Classic fortified with a packet of Lance’s salted peanuts. I called it South Georgia Power Aid. Aaron loved, it kept him alert, and it revolted me.
Back then, my wife was the chapter executive for the Arlington County Red Cross. The plane that crashed into the Pentagon cast a shadow on her office. And the people who were killed and maimed in the Pentagon were in her territory, and she and her staff and volunteers were on the ground within hours. That left my four-year-old son without an available parent, or at least one that could pick him up from daycare. A kindly neighbor picked him up and let him play with her son until his grandparents could drive in from Ohio. And thankfully they did. Because my wife didn't come home for days and then, when she did, she would take a shower, sleep for a few hours, put on fresh clothes and head back to her staff and volunteers at the Ground Zero of the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, I was driving with Aaron Pass, desperately trying to get home, with perhaps the most likely man in North America to keep one awake. Aaron was one of the most well-read and intelligent men I've known in my life. I was grateful to call him a friend. And some never got to know Aaron because his unruly mustache, his love of good whiskey combined with his deep Georgia drawl. They never dug deeper, never discussed Thucydides or the Rigby rising-bite action with him.
As I embarked in that rental car for points East with Aaron, I didn't know that Craig Miller, the father of twin less-than-one-year-old autistic boys and the husband of the lady who daily sat outside my door, fielding phone calls and solving problems for NRA members, would never sit there again. Her name is Holly Miller, and she was my editorial assistant. And my friend. And those twin boys are grown now. They grew up without their father, stolen from them by murderous fanatics. Savages we remain at war with to this day.
As we drove for three days across the United States, the nation was in shock. Nothing like this had happened to American civilians. Even the attack on Pearl Harbor, the “date which will live in infamy” was an attack on the United States military. No one had ever attacked the American people like this before, and the American people responded.
Everywhere, we saw American flags hanging from bridge overpasses. We saw hand-painted signs on plywood propped in the fields of Nebraska farms that told us America was united. We saw school children outside of Omaha standing by the side of the road holding signs reading “God Bless America” written in childish scrawl. But it was the flags. I gazed upon flags flying from poles that hadn’t probably seen Old Glory in years. For the first time in my life, I saw an America that wasn't divided by political party, that wasn't divided by the color of your skin, or where you were from. It was an America that was standing together and standing strong. Three days later, I was home. In a different America than I had packed my bird boots in for a few days with my friends from Weatherby.
One of the Navy SEALs—a proud NRA member—who was in the room with Osama Bin Laden when that monster was finally brought to justice with a 5.56 mm, is a man I've met. I even bought him a beer one time. I looked in his eyes and said thank you. I shook his hand, meaningfully. When I did, I remembered Craig Miller.
I never discussed that day in Abbottabad with Aaron. By 2011, I wasn’t going on as many trips, and Aaron was ill. He lost his battle with cancer in 2013. I wish I had been able to talk to Aaron about it, because I would have learned something. I did every time I spoke with him.