Janet Shamlian  /  NBC News
A group of regular customers at the Santa Fe Cafe having breakfast as they did on the morning of 9/11. From left to right: Don Boecker, David Blakey, Sonny Schulte, and Jimmy Becker.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/10/2004 5:57:04 PM ET 2004-09-10T21:57:04

It’s the type of small town that lures motorists from the nearby highway. Dotted with bed and breakfasts and home to the Lone Star State’s famous Blue Bell ice cream factory, Brenham is an hour’s drive from Houston and seemingly a lifetime away from the devastation that was Sept. 11, 2001.

If you’re a local and it’s breakfast, there is only one place to be. 

The Santa Fe Cafe is where hometown meets home cooking: $4.99 daily specials offer up favorites like smothered liver and fried codfish. 

For 50 years, it’s been a city staple — just up against the railroad tracks, which cut through Brenham. With only a few dozen tables, the walls are lined with flyers promoting the demolition derby and turquoise trophies won by local teams.

The cook is the owner, the waitress is her daughter, even the cashier is family. They’ve run it like that for three decades and have seen generations of Brenham babies later graduate from high school.

It’s always full and the regular retirees, city police officers, politicians and families who return to their usual table day after day. It’s the kind of welcoming place where even the occasional newcomer is greeted with a “how y’all doing?”

The old television that sits atop a drink cooler is little more than background noise on most mornings.

But, three years ago, it silenced the room as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon along with the tragedy aboard the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania played out during the morning rush, literally stopping service in its tracks as Brenham watched the world change.

Tragedy walked in
Seventy-four-year-old Sonny Schulte still can’t believe what unfolded. “It’s been with me since the day it happened, kind of like the hurricane of 1961 and Kennedy’s death and this type of thing. I think about it often,” Schulte said.

Schulte’s friend, Don Boecker, remembers that morning like it was three days ago, not three years. He, too, watched it unfold on television.  

Though he knew none of the victims, he says you don’t have to have lived close to the tragedy for it to have touched your heart. “It’s a national disaster. Everyone’s affected.  Even though we’re not personally there, everyone’s affected by it,” said Boecker.

Janet Shamlian  /  NBC News
Linda Meyer, a waitress at the Santa Fe Cafe for 20 years, was working there three years ago.

New York City is about 1,500 miles from Brenham, but 71-year-old Jimmy Becker says distance doesn’t make a difference.

He watched the attacks from the very chair he sits in today. He says life has changed more in the three years since 9/11 than it has in his 68 years that preceded them.

“I think everybody’s life has changed because we look at everything different. We pay more attention to what’s happening around us. It’s scary, compared to what it used to be,” Becker said.

Fears spread home
Neighbors who come here for biscuits and gravy also share concerns on how they might be targeted. Some fear the water supply might be contaminated. Others believe an attack on a Houston-area refinery could have ramifications for them.

They are fears that seem incompatible with the imagined safety and security of a town of just 13,000 people, an hour away from a major metropolitan area. As they finish their eggs and toast and head out for the day ahead, the group wonders if anywhere can ever be safe.

“In my opinion, we’ll be confronted with terrorist activity from now on,” said retiree Schulte, who fears for his grandchild’s future. “We’ll never go back to that feeling that we had of security when we’re subject to this stuff on a large scale and a small scale. I think we’re going to see terrorist activity our entire lives and beyond.”

Waitress Linda Meyer worked the breakfast shift at the Santa Fe Cafe on Sept. 11, 2001. To her, the morning is still unforgettable.

It started like a regular, busy day, and then a moment when everything seemed to stand still. For the next few hours, customers sat motionless, unable to comprehend what they were seeing.  

With two children of her own, she likens her fears to those of mothers everywhere. “I just wonder what life is going to be like when they get older and how safe it will be," Meyer said. 

Brenham remembers
With big observances of the 9/11 anniversary in New York and elsewhere, Brenham remembers in its own way. A small blood drive commemorates the date here, for a community that no longer looks at New York as halfway across the country.

“New York’s not that far anymore. It used to seem like a long way away,” says Sonny Schulte.  “After all that has happened, now it feels like we’re neighbors.”

The restaurant and the regulars may be the same, but the morning diners say they live a different life than three years ago. One, they say, is more cautious and less carefree.

Janet Shamlian is an NBC News Correspondent, based in Dallas.

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