A 9/12 Memory

I haven’t been paying attention to all the 9/11 retrospectives because I’m not sure I can handle revisiting those images and feelings yet. I don’t think any of it would be easier to process now than it was then. But I also don’t want to ignore the fact that today marks the tenth anniversary of a life-changing event. So I thought I’d share this memory, and hopefully you’ll find it more inspiring than sad.

The morning after 9/11, drained by grief but tired of feeling helpless, I called the local Red Cross chapter and was asked to come down to help process people arriving en masse to donate blood. I’ve never been able to give blood because I’m underweight and have a paranormal phobia of needles, but I could check people in and escort them to the food station for cookies and juice after they gave.

When I arrived, I saw hundreds of people standing in lines that stretched down the block and around the corner. Some had brought lawn chairs and newspapers and were settled in for the long wait.

I went inside and was instructed to put on a sticker name tag identifying myself and what languages I spoke in case they needed interpreters. I then approached the volunteer coordinator.

“Hi, I’m here to volunteer and was told to check in with you,” I said to an attractive woman in her mid-fifties with coiffed blond hair.

“Yes, I’m Val and welcome. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.” She looked at my name tag and startled me with an exclamation. “Oh, my goodness! Do you really speak Vietnamese?” I had written that beneath my name.

“Yes,” I said, puzzled about her excitement.

“Thank goodness you’re here,” she continued. “We had a Vietnamese man here this morning who desperately wanted to give blood. He had been in line since 7 a.m. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak English well enough to answer all the screening questions. We had to turn him away but he said he’s coming back. Bless his heart. Now that you’re here, you can interpret for him when he returns!”

Val then made a general announcement to all the coordinators and volunteers to keep an eye out for this man and to hook him up with me when he came back. I suddenly felt important. I was needed here even before I arrived!

I busied myself with paperwork, checking in potential donors and maintaining a wait list. Everyone I talked to had the same general feeling: They were eager to do something to ease the sense of powerlessness.

Hours flew by and I finally took a break at the food station, sneaking a couple of peanut butter cookies (maybe a ham sandwich, too) from the table while watching the latest news updates. I soon became aware of someone calling my name.

“I’m over here,” I said.

Val hurried toward me. “That man is back! Could you please come help?”

I brushed off crumbs from the front of my shirt and got up. “Let’s go.”

She led me down to the lobby area where people were crowding in from the street. A gaunt Vietnamese man wearing a dirty T-shirt stood up when he saw me approach. He smelled faintly of sweat.

“Co phai la nguoi Viet khong?” Are you Vietnamese?

“Yes, I am,” I replied in Vietnamese. Again, I was filled with that sense of importance. The way my chest puffed up, you’d think I was an interpreter for the UN. “I’m here to translate and guide you through the screening process so you can give blood.”

“Oh, thank you!” He grasped my hand with both of his. His hands were weathered brown and calloused, probably the result of long years of manual labor. There were crescents of dirt embedded beneath his nails. “I came here this morning but they wouldn’t take me because I couldn’t understand all the questions. Then I had to go to work and was going to come back with an interpreter but I couldn’t find anyone to come with me. I’m so glad you’re here.”

“I’m happy to help.” I led him over to a seat at a long table where other potential donors were filling out their forms. I sat across him, picked up a form, and started reading the questions.

“Your name?”

“Nguyen Van Minh,”* Vietnamese style, last name first.



After we got past the basic information, the questions became more personal but they were necessary to help the Red Cross determine whether or not to accept someone’s blood. I managed to get through “Have you traveled to England or a Third-World country within the last six months?” and “Have you gotten a tattoo within the last year?” Not only did I have to translate them, I had to explain why the questions were being asked. I think the England reference had to do with mad cow disease and the tattoo thing was about possible dirty needles (that, or it was to determine if he belonged to a biker gang). Mr. Nguyen seemed satisfied with my explanations so we continued.

Next question on the form: “Have you had unprotected sex with prostitutes?” Whuh? I have to I ask him that? I’d just met the man.

I sat there, mortified, but he was waiting. Maybe I could phrase it less bluntly. “Do you like…paying for women?” I asked.

“You mean, buy them dinner? Sure.”

“No, I mean, pay for the women.” He looked confused, so I added, “To have sex with them. With no condoms. As in hookers.” So much for the subtle approach.

His eyes went wide. He took a second to recover but then said, “No.”

“OK, it’s a no,” I said, relieved we could move on.

But then I saw the next few queries: “Have you engaged in homosexual activity?” “Do you have any sexually transmitted diseases?” “Have you ever taken heroin or other illegal substances?” “Did you get piercings recently?” (I may be paraphrasing but not exaggerating.) They only stopped short of inquiring if you’ve ever been in a Turkish prison.

“What’s wrong?” Mr. Nguyen asked when he saw my expression.

I wanted to say, You look like my uncle and I don’t want to ask you these things, I also don’t know the Vietnamese word for homosexual or heroin, but instead I said, “The questions are going to get really intrusive from here. I apologize in advance if this makes you uncomfortable but I do need you to answer them before you can give blood. If you want to stop now, I’d understand.”

“What kind of questions?” His shoulders were hunched but his eyes were sharp.

“About your, um, sexual history and any past drug use. And…some other things.”

He thought about it for a moment, staring off into space. I waited.

He finally turned back and looked me straight in the eye. “I want to do my duty as an American citizen. I love this country. I was in the South Vietnamese Army and fought alongside the Americans against the Viet Cong. We lost but I got to start a new life here. I have been fortunate. Now that my new country is in trouble, I have to help. I am too old now to join the army here but I can still do this. Ask whatever you need.”

I gaped at him, speechless. I couldn’t think of a proper response then and don’t have the words now to describe exactly how his words made me feel. I simply nodded, looked down at his form, and started invading his privacy.

A few minutes later, he was cleared by medical personnel to give blood. He waited patiently for another half an hour. When it was his turn, I went with him to the table to translate the instructions from the attending nurse. After the needle was inserted and the pouch started filling with his blood, he looked up at me, gripped my hand and said, “Thank you.”

I held his hand and felt a little less helpless.

*Not his real name



  • Reply
    Janet Rudolph
    September 11, 2011 at 8:02 am

    Powerful and personal memory. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    September 11, 2011 at 8:09 am

    See, it isn’t only what we lost that day that brings tears to my eyes. It’s this sense of community and “What can I do?” that gets to me as well. Well done.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Elyse for this wonderful post! <3

  • Reply
    September 11, 2011 at 8:18 am

    My goodness girl…I love the way you write…I know you are just relating a memory but …so powerful and funny and cringe-worthy and moving…totally brought tears to my eyes.Thank you.

  • Reply
    Natalie ~ the Coffee and a Book Chick
    September 11, 2011 at 8:34 am

    And incredible post. I was choking up as I read to my husband what the man told you about his love of his new country. What an amazing moment.

  • Reply
    September 11, 2011 at 8:53 am

    I have vowed to avoid the crush of 9/11 coverage today, but of course had to read anything from you, Elyse. Incredibly powerful. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Reply
    September 11, 2011 at 11:34 am

    I don’t have words enough to thank you for sharing this with us. I am honored to read it.

  • Reply
    Pop Culture Nerd
    September 11, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Janet—I often wonder when I share something personal if it’d be like a tree falling in the woods with no one to see it or care. Thank you for reading and being a witness.

    Christine—That line of people waiting patiently, some for up to five hours, just to get inside to give blood was incredible. They weren’t talking much to each other but I think everyone knew exactly why everyone else was there.

    Sus—Thanks! It helps to have something/someone amazing to write about. And the adjectives you mentioned—that experience was all those things for me.

    Natalie—How you felt is probably how I felt listening to his speech. I cannot forget him.

    Elizabeth—Wow, it means a lot to me that you made an exception for this. Thank you.

    Erin—I was honored to be in the presence of that man. I’m simply telling his story.

  • Reply
    September 11, 2011 at 11:59 am

    Thank you very much for sharing this memory, Elyse. Things like this I appreciate the most. For too short a period, this country was united in a way that helped us all tremendously through an enormous tragedy. Your action exemplified this. It is good to recall these memories because it brings us closer once again.

  • Reply
    September 11, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Definitely not the usual 9/11 post out there…

    Thanks for making me laugh and get a little choked up during a single post. But, I guess that’s why I subscribe. Keep it coming, PCN!

  • Reply
    jenn aka the picky girl
    September 11, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    This is exactly what I love about this country and all its wildly different citizens. Instead of reviling these differences, I hope with stories like this, we can stand back and be awed by the goodness of human nature.

    What an amazing experience. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Reply
    Sabrina E. Ogden
    September 11, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    This is a wonderful post and a reminder of all the good that can be found. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Reply
    Naomi Johnson
    September 11, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    Our enemies must hate knowing that the terrible deeds of that day yet spawned many small acts of love, kindness, and generosity. That day will always remind me how base humans can be, but also how divine. Thank you for sharing your memory.

  • Reply
    Shell Sherree
    September 11, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    So touching, Elyse. I’m glad you were there to help this man contribute as he was dearly wished to.

  • Reply
    September 12, 2011 at 12:56 am

    Wow! Thank you for sharing this, PCN. Very touching indeed! And powerful, also.

    I don’t think I’ve witnessed in Mexico a tragedy as big and shocking as 9/11 was (the one that might come close is the ’85 quakes, and I was a year and a week old then). But I’ve done my fair share of volunteer work -and I’ll do it again anytime- specially helping with supply handling and such after hurricanes and that stuff, and I do know how immensely fulfilling is to feel useful in some tiny way… and that story has nothing tiny about it. BTW, I’m also unable to donate blood -at least for blood reserves- due to my alergies.

    You made me smile, Elyse. One of those smiles that will not easily erase. Thanks again for sharing.

  • Reply
    Rodney North
    September 12, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Wow – that was really amazing. This probably makes little logical sense, but reading this made me feel that much luckier to have you as a friend.

    And – by the way – Until now I’ve been avoiding all the 9/11 10th anniversary news & rememberances, but felt I had to read yours. And I’m so glad I did.

  • Reply
    Brett Battles
    September 12, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Simply beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply
    Pop Culture Nerd
    September 12, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Sabrina—Sometimes the goodness finds us just when we need it.

    Naomi—Yup. Evil will never win.

    Shell—That’s the thing that moved me the most. He so desperately wanted to give and would not quit until he could.

    Poncho—YOU make me smile. And please don’t ever erase yours.

    Rodney—Thank you for not avoiding me, er, my blog post. I’m forever grateful for our friendship. Here’s to another 30 years.

  • Reply
    Pop Culture Nerd
    September 12, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    le0pard13—The coming together of people after a tragedy never ceases to amaze me. It was the same way after the big quake in ’94. I was three miles from the epicenter and friends and neighbors lost their homes. The whole community pooled resources to help those who needed a place to stay, food, clothes, etc., and I have still fond memories from that time despite the devastation that came before it.

    EIREGO—I’m glad you got a few chuckles out of it. I think the most memorable experiences are those that make you feel a range of emotions.

    jenn—I feel very, very lucky that I get to be awed so often by the goodness of people.

    Brett—That’s huge coming you, who move people and make them cry all over the place with your blog posts. Thank you.

  • Reply
    Travis Richardson
    September 13, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    So touching, wonderfully done, Elyse.

  • Reply
    September 11, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    This touched me. I am weeping quietly as I write. John and I never celebrated Greta Garbo’s birthday on this day because it seemed so wrong. Today, I am missing him and quietly sang Happy Birthday to Greta. I wish he were here to read this as he would have loved it so. Thank you, Elyse.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      September 12, 2015 at 10:18 am

      Oh, Paulette, I’m sending you a virtual hug. Thank you for reading this and for sharing my posts with John while he was here.

Leave a Reply