In the hours and days after, you waited for the sound of a plane coming in low. You did this as subtly as possible, but then the sudden rumble of a patrolling jet would shake the conversation, and you would forget subtlety and bolt up to stare out the window. After that no one would speak for a while. Otherwise, all over the Washington, D.C., area, last week unfolded as a surreal competition between televised horror and fall weather of such crisp beauty that it seemed a mockery. By Friday afternoon, with the horror receding some, D.C. high schools got the go-ahead to play the following day, a few small colleges took to the field, and the Navy football team warmed up for practice at the academy in Annapolis. Now, when players glanced up as a plane passed, it wasn't clear whether they did so out of fear or because the sky looked so damned pretty.
Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie, 1-10 last year and 0-2 this season, was walking between two practice fields last Friday when someone told him that Jonas Panik, a reserve lineman who'd dropped off the team before his senior year in 1997, was still missing, presumed lost with the 188 workers who died in the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into it. Weatherbie winced, then winced again when told that at least 11 Naval Academy graduates were believed to have died in the terrorist attacks. Former players had already begun to ship out. Someone said that Astor Heaven, a star of the 1996 Navy squad (the Academy's last team to go to a bowl game) and now serving on the aircraft carrier USS Stennis, had just been deployed to an undisclosed location.
"He's a heckuva wide receiver," Weatherbie said. Then he added, "I heard from Andy Thompson. He was team captain in '95. He's stationed down in Texas. He said they're all just waiting. They know something's going to happen."
The Naval Academy was like everywhere else in and around D.C. last weekend, only more so. If residents felt swamped by a vague dread, the academy found itself barricaded behind sandbags and Marine guards pointing automatic weapons at all who entered. If business travelers wondered what they'd do if they found themselves on a hijacked plane, the Midshipmen already knew; they had long ago attended antiterrorism seminars. If civilians were feeling bludgeoned by war talk and endless replays and felt they needed escape, the Middies, remember, had been hearing war talk for years. Football practice—even during a week when their game against Northwestern was canceled—"is the relief of our day," said senior linebacker Ryan Hamilton.
His future? " Marine Corps," Hamilton says. "Ground."
"You're here for a purpose," said senior quarterback Ed Malinowski, who wants to be a pilot. "I'm sitting in class and thinking, If we go to war, the guys I was in class with, the guys I played with my sophomore and freshman years, might be firing M-16s somewhere. And if it goes on for the next few years, I could be the one firing. It's kind of scary, and it's kind of exciting—scary because it could be me out there soon, exciting because that's why you sign up: to be a warrior, to go to war. Why have a military if you're not going to use it?"
Before practice last Friday, Weatherbie gathered his players and asked them to put aside the events and the last two days of distracted workouts. For a good hour and 15 minutes, the offense and defenses drilled and scrimmaged. The air filled with grunts and the smack of hard-plastic pads, the sweet stink of grass getting torn up by cleats. Cornerback Matt Furqan hurled his body to break up a short pass, and Weatherbie stomped on the field and yelled, "That's what I'm talkin' about! Way to compete!"
For Hamilton it promised to be a long night; as company duty officer he was scheduled to stand watch throughout the evening, his shift ending at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday. "I take responsibility for the company this evening," Hamilton said. "I think it'll be quiet."
He couldn't be sure, though. No one was sure. No one felt safe. That's why most other Division I-A and I-AA schools canceled their football games, why Virginia and Maryland canceled their Friday slate of high school games and the District pushed all its games back one day, to Saturday. Georgetown, George Washington, American—the recipient of two bomb threats in the three days after the attack—and Howard canceled all their sporting events for the weekend. The Arizona Cardinals-Washington Redskins game at FedExField, like the rest of the NFL schedule, was also canceled.
Only those small colleges whose opponents didn't need to fly to Washington played, and their games turned out to be quiet affairs, none more so than Friday afternoon's soccer match at Gallaudet University, the nation's premier school for the deaf. Gallaudet hosted a Division III game against Lancaster (Pa.) Bible College at its campus in Northeast Washington. The crowd of fewer than three dozen fans bowed for a moment of silence, and that world of quiet grew even more still. As the flag flapped at half-mast, one minute stretched into two, then three. A woman in the crowd began to sing The Star-Spangled Banner, but too softly for even the Lancaster team to hear. She finished the song alone.