ONE OF US – 9/11
(PUBLISHED IN BostonGlobe.com on 9/11/2020)
It was mid-afternoon of September 11th, 2001 and Tom Brokaw spoke these words,… We have the first identifications of victims and it is one of us. David Angell, co-creator of NBC’s Frasier, and his wife Lynn were aboard American Airlines Flight 11…..
A picture of my cousin David and Lynn flashed on the screen and my worst fears were confirmed. Our dear David and Lynn, who we had just spent a wonderful weekend with at a family wedding, were gone forever. I collapsed on our living room floor and buried my head in a sofa cushion. My wife Pat, daughter Katy, and son Steve, leaned in to comfort me, but in truth we were all in-consolable.
The emotions were too raw, too new to do anything but spill out.
The day had started out so promising. There was a brilliant blue sky as I drove from my Cumberland home to my office in Milford, Massachusetts. I had an unusual schedule for this Tuesday, a couple of hours of early work then playing with two of my co-workers in a member- guests golf tournament at Kirkbrae Country Club in Lincoln. It was a rare mid-week chance to work on my golf game.
Just before 9:00 o’clock I noticed a few folks gathered in front of a small television set in an adjoining office. This was not a normal occurrence so I walked over to join them. No one was talking all eyes were focused on the screen which was replaying a crude video of an airliner crashing into the 110 story North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
Someone opined, “Must have completely lost power.”
“What a disaster.”, another sighed.
As the broadcast continued we watched in horror as another airliner smashed into the adjoining South Tower. Part of the plane careened off the building and plummeted to the ground. Instantly we, and the rest of the country, knew the United States was being attacked by terrorists. Both towers smoldered, thick grey smoke rose ominously besmirching the cobalt blue sky. It was obvious that the death toll would be large, well beyond those on board the two hijacked planes. Emergency vehicles began arriving, the beginning of heroic, mostly futile, attempts to rescue people from the carnage.
Then one of the newscasters revealed that the first plane was an American Airlines flight which had departed from Boston heading to Los Angeles.
My heart fluttered. My mind involuntarily froze then recalled David and Lynn remarking at the wedding reception that they were heading back to California to attend the Emmy Awards ceremony.
What day did they say? Was it Tuesday or Wednesday?
I watched several minutes more of the disaster while trying to calm myself and decide the best way to get more information. I did not have David or Lynn’s cell phone numbers so I called my older brother, Mike, to see if he had any news. He had called Bishop Kenneth Angell’s office in Vermont. Bishop Angell, David’s brother, was the Auxiliary Bishop of Rhode Island from 1974 to 1992. While unable to speak directly with the Bishop, my brother was told by his
office that although they didn’t know David and Lynn’s exact itinerary the couple usually took later in the day flights to the West Coast.
Although this eased my personal concern for them I still had trouble focusing on work as I returned to my desk. By now reports of a third hijacked plane hitting the Pentagon added to my dread. How long would this last? How many more planes were in peril? Ironically, David had served as an officer at the Pentagon in 1972.
One of my fellow workers who was supposed to play in the golf tournament with me contacted Kirkbrae Country Club to see if the rounds would be canceled.
Amazingly, they had decided to still go forward on the premise that this tournament was a once a year event and that guests, some from great distances, had already arrived. The three of us from my company debated what to do. We had been invited by a business associate and when we called him directly he felt canceling would do no good and it was an important day at the club. We decided to go. I, of course, would never have gone if I hadn’t felt some reassurance that David and Lynn were not included in the hijacked flights.
As I tried to concentrate on my remaining work my mind would steer back to thoughts of David. We were both born in 1946. He grew up in Riverside and West Barrington while I was from Pawtucket. Our mothers were sisters and our families were close. Traditional holiday parties rotated yearly from one home to the other. David and I shared a love of all sports. Sleepovers were common and we lost plenty of sleep talking baseball, basketball and, later, girls. David’s obvious interest in his female classmates and friends meant I was surprised when he entered Our Lady of Providence Seminary for the 9th grade. Surprised, but not shocked as his brother Kenneth was already a youthful Monsignor, a rising star in the Rhode Island church hierarchy. Eventually David decided he would not be following in his brother’s footsteps and he enrolled at Providence College where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in English in 1969.
My coworkers broke my reverie when they came to collect me to head out to Kirkbrae. I was unsettled by the thought of playing golf while this tragedy continued. News of the fourth crash in Pennsylvania did not help.
At the course the pre-round late brunch buffet was muted. Missing was the normal jocular kibitzing at tournaments. A television on low volume hung in the corner of the function room. When the round started things did not go well for our foursome. We had two good golfers and two mediocre talents, but no one was on their game.
As we waited on the seventh tee a Kirkbrae employee rapidly approached in a cart.
“Is there a Mr. Raftus in the group?” he asked.
I raised my hand.
“We have a message from your brother. He said you should head home and call him about your cousin.”
I tried to process this information weighing it against what Bishop Angell’s office had said. I called my brother as we headed back to the clubhouse. He said that despite many efforts no one from the Angell family had been able to reach David and Lynn. Now there were series concerns about their whereabouts. Of course none of us knew at this point that they had booked an earlier than normal flight to make an afternoon appointment in California.
I’ve not often wept in public, but by the time we reached the parking lot I was a wreck. My golfing partners had all driven back to my car with me, their rounds were finished as well. They gently offered to drive me home, but I needed to be alone.
On the drive home I remembered the day I visited David and Lynn in 1976 at their Warwick apartment and I had noticed a few books about script writing for television on their bookshelf. I didn’t say anything, but, lo and behold, a few months later they announced he was leaving his job as a technical writer for a Rhode Island insurance company and moving to California to pursue a career in television!
They set a marker of five years to try and break into the notoriously difficult television industry. During those years David worked many odd jobs and wrote during his time off. Lynn supported his efforts using her librarians degree from Auburn University to keep a steady income flowing.
Half a decade passed and, despite his multiple attempts at writing “spec” scripts and making show pitches, David had garnered only marginal success. In 1981 he and Lynn were literally packing boxes in anticipation of having to move back east. Fortunately at the last minute their perseverance finally paid off as David sold a script which aired on Archie Bunker’s Place in 1982.
David had his foot in the door.
He kicked that door wide open.
My mental reconstruction of David and Lynn’s early life in California kept my mind occupied on the drive home from Kirkbrae. When I reached home I had to face the reality of the moment with my family. Like the rest of the world we sadly watched as first responders clawed their way through the rubble searching for survivors. Rumors of other attacks proved false. Lists of possible leaders of the plot were circulating. One name seemed most probable- Osama bin Laden.
Extended members of our family called each other seeking any new information. There was none.
By now my mind had surrendered to the fact that, were it possible, David and Lynn would surely have let the family know they were safe at home or at a closed Logan airport. Anywhere, but where I dreaded they were.
Then Brokaw made his announcement. It’s not Brokaw’s fault, but even nineteen years later I resent his use of the phrase “… one of us.” A tenuous relationship held together by the thin thread of he and David being part of NBC did not warrant such familiarity.
“One of us”, means you’d shared some stories, laughs and drinks with David and Lynn three days before the tragedy.
“One of us”, means you had played golf with David the prior summer in a charity golf tournament where he went from being your invited guest to the event’s most generous benefactor.
“One of us”, meant you still had a picture of you and David, each six years old, standing with hands folded in supplication on the day of our first communions.
Yes, it is true that we saw each other rarely in the twenty four years after he headed out to chase his dreams. But how those dreams came true and how wonderfully David and Lynn shared their success. He and his creative partners won a total of 24 Emmy Awards for they work on Cheers, Wings and Frasier.
In 1996 David and Lynn created the Angell Foundation to formalize their ever expanding philanthropic efforts. The Foundation now focuses on three agendas; Education as Opportunity, Food Equity, and Transformative Leadership. It supports organizations in Southern California and New England. Amazingly, in 2019, eighteen years after their deaths, David and Lynn’s Foundation still made grants of over $5,000,000 to the chosen causes. Just in Nw England the Foundation made substantial gifts to: Massachusetts School Administrators’ Association, Boston Private Industry Council, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, Farm Fresh R.I., R.I Community Food Bank, Rhode Island School of Design and College Crusade of Rhode Island.
Their earmarking of New England was not surprising because although they had lived primarily in California for over two decades their true loves were Cape Cod and Providence. They had long kept summer homes in Chatham and were just about to move into their newly constructed “forever” waterfront home there after returning from the Emmy Awards. They had also purchased a townhouse on College Hill in Providence which they would have used as their base for many trips into the city for attending cultural events and, definitely, Providence College basketball games. David mentioned at the wedding that he and his creative partners, Peter Casey and David Lee, had devised a new work load sharing schedule for the remaining seasons of Frasier which would allow David and Lynn to make Chatham and Providence their primary residences.
So, perhaps David and Lynn are truly “ours” not just to immediate family, not to colleagues at NBC, but to the thousands of people who have been recipients of their generosity and care.May they continue to rest in peace.