SAN FRANCISCO – In crisp December, the Golden Gate Bridge soars above a sun-spangled San Francisco Bay, sinewy metal shoulders holding up a cerulean sky.
Tourists pause to snap pictures; surfers tumble in the gray-green waters boiling below. And strolling along its wide sidewalks, National Guard Sgt. Maximilliano Vignoli is spending his son’s 7th birthday away from home, on the lookout for enemies foreign or domestic.
Three months after the terrorist attacks, life goes on in California — but differently.
“I can’t say that there’s been anything that has affected so many people ... like this event has,” says pollster Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California. “For Californians, we’re talking about something that occurred on the other side of the continent that affected profoundly not only how they feel about their own safety but how they feel about their lives, their government, the people around them. It’s really pretty amazing.”
A year ago, the big threat to the Golden Gate Bridge was that the energy crisis would zap the necklace of amber lights strung along its elegant curves.
After Sept. 11, the burnt-orange span glowed like a bull’s-eye.
Two words — credible threat — brought the east coast tragedy home to California with a heart-pounding rush when Gov. Gray Davis announced that terrorists might be planning rush-hour attacks against sites such as the Golden Gate and Bay bridges in San Francisco, the Vincent Thomas Bridge at the Port of Los Angeles and San Diego’s Coronado Bridge.
It turned out the warning wasn’t that credible and the major threat appeared to be to Davis’ political career; he was scathingly criticized for going public.
But at year’s end, troops continued to patrol the Golden Gate as well as nearly three dozen airports, at a cost of at least $2.2 million a month.
There were other changes, some more visible than others: lines at airport security checkpoints grew longer, and lines at Disneyland got shorter as tourism and travel took a hit.
Pacifist Berkeley voted to oppose the bombing of Afghanistan; gun-shy Hollywood pulled the Arnold Schwarzenegger terrorism film “Collateral Damage,” and put the Emmys on hold, twice.
Concrete symbols of a suddenly frightened state sprung up overnight, including barriers around Los Angeles City Hall, the soaring landmark that flickered in living rooms of the ’50s as the shadowy building outlined on “Dragnet” Sgt. Joe Friday’s badge No. 714.
Federal authorities threw their own dragnet around San Diego, where two of the hijackers lived, and Oakland, where one of the hijackers briefly studied flying.
A poll taken by the PPIC in December found that more than one in three residents were at least somewhat worried that they or someone in their family would be the victim of a terrorist attack. Seven in 10 said they felt more patriotic.
In mid-December about 1,200 mourners gathered at a grassy hilltop cemetery in Bakersfield to remember Staff Sgt. Brian Prosser, killed when a U.S. bomb missed its target in Afghanistan.
“He was a true soldier’s soldier,” said commanding officer Capt. Jeff Leopold.
Many puzzled over the saga of another Californian in Afghanistan, John Walker Lindh, the young man from proudly tolerant Marin County found fighting with the proudly intolerant Taliban.
“I imagine he lost himself there. Or found himself,” said Neil Lavin, a Marin County musician.
Change came suddenly to California. Three hours behind the east coast, many woke up to a world transformed on Sept. 11.
Vignoli, a forklift operator in Stockton, remembers turning the TV on and staring into chaos.
“I ... right away called to our state headquarters. I told them, ’If you need me go ahead and give me a call.”
All four of the hijacked planes were bound for California; among those killed in the air was David Angell, co-creator and producer of TV’s “Frasier.”
Northern California businessman Tom Burnett Jr., aboard United Airlines Flight 93, called his wife Deena on his cell phone four times, piecing together what was happening and telling her, “a group of us are getting ready to do something.” Shortly thereafter, an apparent passenger revolt brought the plane down in a Pennsylvania field, killing all aboard short of the hijacker’s intended target.
Alice Hoglan, a United Airlines flight attendant in Saratoga, also got a call from Flight 93. It was her son, Mark Bingham, a 31-year-old rugby player and a gay man who had twice got the better of street muggers. They were cut off after a few sentences. Hoglan is sure he was part of the resistance.
Since Sept. 11, Hoglan has become a self-taught activist, finally learning to use the computer Mark gave her as she lobbies for stricter airport safety measures, puts out a newsletter for Flight 93 families and joins the push to let families hear the black box cockpit recording.
Before, she says, “I was aware of general terrorist threats and was complacent and not vocal and my son has lost his life because of complacency and I feel terrible about it.”
Now, she tries to channel her energy. “It helps me to deal with my grief a little better ... if I sit more than five minutes, I
get kind of weepy.”
As 2002 neared, a somewhat subdued California celebrated the holidays in its usual casually polytheistic fashion — Hannukah, Ramadan, Christmas, Kwanzaa, with a nod to the Druids and a sturdy underpinning of secular Santa-ism.
National guardsman Vignoli was scheduled to work the bridge Christmas Eve.
It is “pretty good duty.” Grateful civilians have dropped off fried chicken, pizza, even plates of cookies. On a recent day, a yellow school bus drove slowly by, a row of small hands sticking out of the windows in a friendly wave.
Vignoli couldn’t get home the day son Luciano turned seven. And he didn’t have time to look further than the bridge gift shop for a present.
It turned out all right, though.
The day before his birthday, Luciano got to see his dad and open his presents, a cap and a shirt that read, “Somebody who loves me very much went to San Francisco and got me this T-shirt.”