I remember very clearly where I was, what I saw and how I felt as the events of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded. I remember the confusion, horror, panic, sadness and anger that came as the day’s events were pieced together.
Each year on the anniversary of that terrible day, I, like many others, organize those memories in my mind and revisit them, sometimes silently or sometimes with someone close to me. It was a harrowing event for everyone — something that was almost impossible to process and yet spurred the instant realization that the country would never be the same.
There was nothing special about my experience. I wasn’t in New York or at the Pentagon. I didn’t have any friends or loved ones on a plane that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after brave passengers fought back against terrorist hijackers.
I know people with more personal ties to that day. For instance, there’s Kenneth and Sharon Ambrose, whose son, Huntington physician Paul Ambrose, was on the plane that hit the Pentagon. In macabre synchronicity, the first military death reported at that crash site was Petty Officer 1st Class Edward Earhart, of Morehead, Kentucky, a close relative of Dr. Robert Thomas, one of my father’s partners at their medical practice until his own death in 2010.
Paul Ambrose had dedicated his blossoming career to fighting obesity, an albatross that hung round the neck of West Virginia — especially in the Huntington area, which, for many years, was labeled the unhealthiest city in the United States.
I never knew Paul, but the loss hurt me in a way that takes some explaining. You see, Paul wasn’t the only child of Kenneth and Sharon Ambrose. They had an older son, Scott, who was an enormous figure in my developmental years and those of some of my closest friends.
Scott was a musical genius. His passion was the guitar, and he loved the odd time signatures and unreal technical ability of progressive rock in the vein of Rush and Yes, along with the genre-bending bluegrass/jazz/funk stylings of bands like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. He also was a master of classical guitar, and could pick out a Fernando Sor piece or translate something from Bach onto the fretboard just as easily and beautifully as running down an Alex Lifeson riff. His playing was transcendent and trance-inducing. When he’d write it out on a piece of paper and expect you to do it, you’d often wonder why you were bothering.
I’d trek up from Ashland every weekend to take lessons from Scott in the music rooms below the sales floor at the Pied Piper in Huntington, now long gone. Eventually, he figured he could make more money giving lessons at his house, so I and a couple of friends starting going there.
Like a lot of geniuses, Scott could be a hard guy to impress. But every once in a while, he’d stop and say, “How’d you figure that out?” or “That’s really close!” which was his way of saying “atta boy.” The ultimate compliment was a side glance with a slightly raised eyebrow. It sounds funny, but we lived for those moments.
I would always go up to Huntington to visit Scott whenever I was home from college. We’d sit around his living room and talk about stuff that didn’t matter, which is what friends do. And it meant a lot to me that we were friends. He had a wife and two daughters. I wasn’t around them very often, but it was always amusing to see the stoic taskmaster fixing a meal for his little girls with such gentleness and care.
When I returned home after graduating from college, one of my best friends, who also had taken lessons from Scott, said he was having trouble finding him. He had gone to the house in Huntington, but there was no answer at the door and it didn’t look like he was living there anymore.
There was a Marshall University flag hanging in the window. Even though Scott and I had watched Marshall’s miracle 1992 comeback against Youngstown State to win the Division I-AA football crown on the multiple screens of the televisions for sale at the Pied Piper, he wasn’t the type of guy who would hang the Herd logo at his house.
A few days later, my friend called me. “Find a place to sit down,” he said, voice breaking over the line. “Scott’s dead.”
The funeral had been a few days prior to us finding out. Scott had died of a blood clot in his lung just after turning 32 years old.
His little brother would die nearly three years later in the worst terrorist attack in American history, also at the age of 32.
I met Kenneth and Sharon in mid-September seven years ago, when I was working as a reporter at The Herald-Dispatch. I was covering the annual Fit Fest, a fundraiser for the trail system bearing Paul’s name. We talked a bit about how difficult this time of year is for them; about losing Paul but honoring him and his mission, and how it was important to them to make an appearance at that local event.
Then, I told them who I was, and how sorry I was about their other son. I wanted them to know what a huge, positive influence Scott had on a group of people from around the region. I wanted them to know how it felt to us to see that eyebrow go up. I wanted them to know how I hoped he was looking down to see that I’d actually gotten fairly proficient on that instrument that was so awkward in younger, less-coordinated hands attached to a person who didn’t practice enough. I wanted them to know that I’d even sometimes look upward when I’d surprised myself, hoping that, wherever Scott was, he had caught that one. But mainly, I wanted them to know we loved him, and we miss him.
Sept. 11 was a terrible day for all of us, whether we were soldiers, first responders, family members of people on a plane or working in New York skyscrapers or just ordinary Americans. But I can’t imagine what it was like for two people who had to say goodbye to a son for a second time. On the 20th anniversary of that horrible day, I’ll be thinking about the Ambrose family. All of them.