First You’re Here. Then You’re Gone.

Dr. C. Wolf Nordlinger
13 min readSep 14, 2023

Our Cisco colleague my great friend Suzanne Calley, so beautiful she was, died on what was a lovely Fall day in Washington, D.C. Or more exactly in the Pentagon. Dead center.

No one ever could imagine that James Taylor’s beautifully haunting ballad Fire and Rain could echo so darkly to all of us from Cisco and the larger community that knew and loved Suzanne. The tragic and beautiful ballad that may be one of the most played songs in the world was the soundtrack to our personal loss. It played over the loudspeakers as our CEO John Chambers walked down the aisle at her funeral next to her newly-widowed husband. All of my Cisco colleagues and I had driven down from our main campus in San Jose mere days after her flight from Washington to L.A. crashed into the Pentagon that September day 22 years ago.

Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.

Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

I’ve seen Fire,

And I’ve seen Rain.

I’ve seen sunny days

That I thought would never end.

I’ve seen lonely days when I could not find a friend.

But I always thought that I’d see you again.

It was a surprisingly lovely Fall day when Suzanne Calley and David Rivers died. Not together. They didn’t know each other. But I was so blessed to be called friend by both of them.

Suzanne and David are bound together in my heart still today as we mark that horrible day and the days afterward as an American collective whole.

First you’re here. Then you’re gone.

Suzanne was the greatest friend anyone could have.

In a proverbial heartbeat they were dismissed from this world by 19 despicable excuses for humans who tried to take down America on September 11, 2001. My friends were the always-upbeat, sweet Suzanne Calley on American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon and David Rivers who had the bad luck of leading an investor workshop atop the World Trade Center at the spectacular Windows on the World.

First you’re here. Then you’re gone.

As beautiful, hard-working and intelligent as the freckled all-star was, Suzanne never wore her looks as a badge of exceptionalism. She was the sweet, smart, blonde, natural California gal who loved to travel the world with her husband on the scuba diving trips she used to tell me about so excitedly. I’m a fellow diver and appreciated it immensely when she shared her underwater photos from her latest dive trip in the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos or some other spot we divers relish.

She had been in D.C. with Cisco and Oracle colleagues to expand Cisco’s fruitful alliance with the software giant. The Cisco-Oracle alliance, led by my colleagues Loretta Nelson and my dear friend @LynnTilker took to market jointly-developed products by Oracle and our company, the networking leader that went well beyond its role as the foundational conduit that makes the Internet possible. Cisco’s invention was something so radical it changed the whole game we enjoy today as the Internet. Nothing is more fundamentally vital as the first router. Cisco’s go-go days funded homes and the college tuition bills of so many of us based on its phenomenal stock market rocket to the stars. It was a true march to greatness led by CEO John Chambers and Chairman John Morgridge.

The engineering workshop with Cisco-Oracle alliance professionals went so well the preceding week in D.C that Suzanne and Lynn partied exuberantly at a hard week’s end as they were wont to do. They were exultant in the progress they had won, and the weekend was a over-the-top celebration punctuated by peach liqueur and fine rich cigars. The cigar-chomping Cisco beauties had one hell of a weekend before heading back to Dulles Airport to board their respective flights to California.

Monday morning at Dulles perhaps still feeling the weekend’s play, they tried to get on the same return flight. No luck. Lynn’s plane left an hour before Suzanne’s.

They swore they would call each other when they got home.

That never happened.

Lynn feels a enormous anchor of guilt today and every day since that she didn’t fight harder to get Suzanne on her flight. Survivor’s guilt is nothing you’d wish on anyone as I’ve seen in Lynn these past two decades plus.

Suzanne’s American Airlines Flight 77 to L.A., with what would be a quick hop north to San Jose took off from Dulles in northern Virginia headed west.

All was well as it headed over the Ohio River valley. No doubt an hour later the whole world went sideways. Shouting. Chaos. Violence. Bloodshed. Probably killing as the Saudi perpetrators forced their way into the cockpit.

Soon the plane did a bank to the left, heading back east. Within some minutes the plane was flying low over Tennessee and then Virginia farmland. It descended steadily from 30,000 feet as the passengers knew they were in deep peril heading towards my hometown of Washington, D.C. Soon the plane descended dangerously low over the Potomac River. The White House, Capitol, Washington and Jefferson Monuments off to the left of the passengers’ frightened last views in this one and precious life. so close you could touch them. Moments later the plane slammed directly into the Pentagon killing all aboard and 125 people at work in the building.

She was gone in the proverbial flash.

I can only imagine that David must have loved the view on that splendid midday as he walked through his PowerPoint deck with his potential foreign exchange (FX) investors. His business imbued him with great enthusiasm and afforded him the salary it takes to enjoy the good life in Manhattan. He was a new father and Ricky, his adorable Israeli wife, beamed at him when we met the two of them through mutual friends on the beach near our Martha’s Vineyard home five years earlier.

Just two weeks before he died, we had dinner with Ricky, David, and our dear friends Nina and Paul at the always-great Empire Szechuan on Columbus Avenue.

We often stopped in Manhattan on our 11-hour trip to our home on Martha’s Vineyard from our place in the leafy Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C. In an eerie reflection, I now realize that the morning after our Chinese dinner we took our sons to see the majestic towers of the World Trade Center. My sons, Harry and Nick, 9 and 12 respectively, stared up at the towers soaring above the southern tip of Manhattan a mere 13, yes 13, days before that world came crashing down.

First you’re here.

Then they’re gone.

What America saw that day:

Billowing fire and smoke.

The ginormous clouds of dust and soot that coated terrorized faces and business clothes.

Cascades of documents falling gently to the ground.

The horrified, weeping survivors hustling away from the carnage to salvation uptown or across the Brooklyn Bridge.

And worst of all the jumpers. Their demise can be heard in the terrific documentary 9/11, landing with ghastly loud pops.

Suzanne and David never could have imagined the world after them clearly, but it’s all seared so deeply into our national memory.

September 11th and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq define the Millennial generation so deeply. My younger son, @HarryNordlinger, a working cartoonist, doesn’t draw animals, funnies or political satire. He publishes Vacuum Decay, an anthology of the best horror comic artists in LA. and San Francisco who produce what their robust imaginations spill forth as their brains navigate a world shaped by the events of this week 22 Septembers past.

No finer memorial to my lost friends is found than Suzanne’s name etched in a beautiful wooden bench that sits in the memorial garden John Chambers had built in front of Cisco’s Building 9 as tribute to this sparkling sprite.

Her plans that fateful day were made by these 19 murderers who put an end to her. Indeed, sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.

I have many times eaten breakfast and lunch seated on that bench with friends or alone. Ten of my 14 Cisco years were ironically in Building 9 where her memorial garden was placed.

I drove down to Cisco on the September 11, 2021 during the pandemic shutdown and took pictures with the flowers I’d brought “to Suzanne”. As I’d headed out of my home in Palo Alto, I’d never thought Cisco would be so eerily quiet because everything there was “shut down” as well. No one was on campus.

Not long after I arrived campus security guards pulled up in their truck as I positioned the dozen roses I’d gotten her that day. The two guards were alarmed at this interloper as I sat eating my sushi on Suzanne’s bench. Though the guards were very concerned at first, their humanity shone through when they were convinced I had worked at Cisco and was only interested in taking pictures in her memorial garden. They soon left.

“Girl, you damn near got me in trouble,” I laughed to no one. I’d like to believe she laughed back from somewhere in heaven.

Cliches are born out of common repeated truths, and all David and Suzanne’s friends, family and colleagues said afterward was that it couldn’t have happened to two “nicer people”.

Our boss John Chambers spoke so kindly of Suzanne in his eulogy. The overflow crowd that evening gathered there in Gilroy, “the garlic capital” some 20 miles south of our San Jose campus.

It’s safe to say that when Suzanne’s husband, now a widower, walked down the aisle to “Suzanne the plan they made put an end to you…” there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

The piercing lyrical irony.

First you’re here. Then you’re gone.

David’s still-to-be-shattered morning was no doubt graced by a fabulous sparkling view of the cavern of tall buildings flanked by the Hudson and East Rivers and the Statue of Liberty as the towers looked north from New York Harbor at the southern tip of Manhattan.

I once had dinner at Windows on the World, a very special evening with my great first love lavishly celebrating our third anniversary over New York strips before I headed north to Boston for my freshman year at Tufts.

David’s wife Ricky like thousands of the fallen’s widows, widowers, family and friends, trekked down to Wall Street with her 5 year-old James in the days after September 11.

She taped photocopied photo pleas for someone to find the husband she hoped against hope was not dead. I imagine she wanted to believe he was lost somewhere in the asphalt jungles of New York City.

I was in the city not long after and was amazed by the posters from thousands at Ground Zero that transformed the walls and wrought-iron fence surrounding St. Paul’s Chapel into a spontaneous memorial.

Built in 1766, the chapel survived several fires over the years. This “last remaining colonial structure in NYC” was untouched by the disaster all around it. It sits across the street from the fallen towers and was untouched safe for the cloud of dust in the events of September 11.

Quickly it became a place of rest to thousands of weary recovery workers desperately in need of food, sleep, a break from the driving, dark despair of digging up what was left of the lost souls.

Loved ones left on the walls and fence around the chapel every object of deep remembrance: banners, posters, personalized t-shirts, teddy bears, flags, letters, religious items, and many other mementos that held significant personal meaning. St. Paul’s Chapel took in the weary and hungry first responders on The Pile. New Yorkers trekked down to St. Paul’s to offer their psychiatric, chiropractic and medical services. Thousands brought food and any kind of support they could muster. The city’s spirit grew out of the tragedy.

One month later Ricky was finally accepting that her child’s father was gone. However she looked for any scintilla of evidence of her lost love. Hesitantly she bought a copy of Life Magazine’s special tribute to September 11. Tough as it was, she braced herself to look at the collective horror captured in pictures. Many incredible photographs captured the terror that day. They so powerfully captured the horror that you could almost feel the clouds of dust, the fireball as the planes hit and the people who jumped to their deaths. It was all there as the World Trade Center devolved into something called Ground Zero.

The eeriest shot is taken from a helicopter as it circles the highest points of the towers before they fell. Nothing could have been so devastatingly horrific to Ricky as she turned the page and saw “the picture”. That shot encompassed the absolute terror as business-garbed men and women coughed their lungs out as they hung out of Windows on the World. Nothing could have prepared her at that moment. The photographer in a helicopter captured the last heartbeats of those stranded at the top of their world.

She was caught breathless when there, dead center in photo was David. His arms outstretched to the heavens, his face and open mouth plaintively beseeching God or the helicopter to save him, save them.

So horribly devastated by that desperate image of her great love in his last moments before the towers tumbled down, Ricky packed up her apartment on West 63rd and flew back to Israel with their daughter on the next flight back to Tel Aviv. As far as I know, she’s never returned to the States.

An America united in tragedy and a fight-back resilience propelled us all to soar through this pensive passage of the heart. It’s 22 years ago and so so much has changed. Would a post-tragedy world of America cleaved in two socially and politically be anything Suzanne and David could ever imagine?

Am I hoping against hope that our independent spirits will reclaim what Lincoln called our better angels? No doubt, my two always-better angels would join us praying there is a better America ahead. It was America defined by the great joy and challenge of the 20th century that closed out historically on that day 22 years ago.

From that fiery September day with the significant political and social divisions since, their pleas now might echo that famous line delivered both by Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, and by Ellis “Red” Redding, played by Morgan Freeman, in my favorite film, The Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Echoing that, I close with this one from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver.

WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

-Mary Oliver

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Wolf Nordlinger, PhD

President, WorldInstitute.AI, U.S State Dept. Global Head, Splunk Academy. Global Head, Palo Alto Networks Cybersecurity Academy. Cisco Networking Academy. Head, Development, PSI.org

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Wolf Nordlinger, PhD

President, WorldInstitute.AI and GetVetsJobs.com. U.S State Dept. Global Head,Splunk Academy. Global Head, Palo Alto Networks Cybersecurity Academy. Cisco Networking Academy. Head, Development, PSI.org

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Dr. C. Wolf Nordlinger

PhD, Fulbright Scholar. Writer (Wash. Post,Fortune) Natural Foods. AI-Cybersecuruty Nexus. U.S. State Dep't. Cisco,Splunk,Palo Alto Networks.