New Perspectives: A Senior Moment – ‘Come from Away’

Admittedly, it does sound like I missed the point by flying to Newfoundland/Labrador on five separate occasions, yet failing to visit a quaint fishing outport, picturesque St. John’s, the historic Viking ruins or even to spot an iceberg or a whale. In fact, I never even saw the ocean. My destinations in the 1980s included three trips to Labrador City—stuck in the middle of endless forest and rock on the northern Quebec border— and two journeys to Grand falls-Windsor, a pulp and paper town located inland in the north east of the Island.

On those latter two flights, I landed at Gander, then as now, a tiny airport, whose small town informality vividly contrasted with the cacophony of noise and organized confusion at Toronto’s Pearson, my point of embarkation.

On Wednesday, September 11, our southern neighbours will remember 9/11, that terrorist attack which took 3,100 lives on American soil in 2001. During that infamous day, thousands of USA citizens, along with many other international flight travelers, found themselves suddenly stranded far from home when all air traffic approaching American airports was abruptly diverted by the Federal Aviation Authority. And that’s when Gander and its people suddenly became rediscovered by the outside world.

In some ways, the little town of 13,000 people had seen better days before 9/11. During World War Two, its bustling airport served as a major staging area for Canadian and American planes before they flew to action in Europe. In the post-war era, transatlantic airlines regularly stopped to refuel there. These activities each brought plentiful jobs and money into the community. Then, with the development of more fuel efficient commercial aircraft, the need for stopovers in Gander was reduced and its economy consequently suffered.

On that unforgettable day in 2001, thirty eight planes with approximately 7,000 bewildered commercial passengers and a small number of military personnel found themselves in Gander, a place few had even heard of. Tired and annoyed, they were ordered to remain on the tarmac for many long hours, cut off from outside communication and unaware of what had transpired in New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington. Finally, once the authorities were reassured no terrorists were hiding aboard, the exhausted travelers were allowed to disembark. Stored luggage and all caged pets were still left behind.

Meanwhile, on the ground, frantic efforts began to find food and accommodation for Gander’s unexpected guests. Nearby towns offered to assist. In total, Ganderites hosted more of these “temporary refugees” than any locale except much larger Halifax and Vancouver. School bus drivers who were on strike, immediately offered to abandon picket lines and drive the newcomers to their hastily set-up sleeping places in schools, hockey arenas and churches.

Local residents donated huge piles of clothing, cooked food and then offered their own homes for shelter. The stranded animals were eventually “rescued” after being left without food or water for one and two days.

Stories of individual generosity are plentiful and can be found in the dramatic and poignant HBO documentary: “Come From Away.” Of course, that currently popular musicale by the same name has broken all records for a Broadway Canadian production, being nominated for seven 2017 Tony awards.

After five or six long days, the displaced “come from away” guests systematically began to leave for flights home, their jaded faith in human nature, shocked by 9/11, perhaps somewhat restored.

As a frequent prior “come from away” visitor, albeit under far different circumstances, I was not a bit surprised by the outpouring of love and care the stranded 9/11 passengers received. I had already grown to like Newfoundlanders. Many of them were enrolled as students in Peterborough where I served for many years as faculty member at what is now Master’s College and Seminary. The 1990s collapse of the cod fishing industry increased the percentage of Newfoundlanders to about a quarter of our enrolment.

I especially admired the former fishermen who were now being retrained on Government allowances to be clergy or teachers. I got to visit with many of them and their families at home and sample fish ‘n’ brews, Jigg’s dinner, bottled moose and other culinary delights. Despite having been uprooted by necessity from their Island communities, extended family and the kids’ schools, these were emotionally tough, resilient folks determined to rebuild their lives.

It was during these College years that I made my five visits to their home province. As an invited guest of honour, I was wined and dined like royalty. (Perhaps I should delete “wined” as these were almost all religiously conservative abstainers.) When I led marriage enrichment seminars, we typically would hold the gatherings at nearby rustic retreat locations. Between sessions, participants entertained themselves with hilariously funny skits and jokes. (They alone can tell “Newfie jokes” but still remain politically correct.) Without needing to imbibe in screech to loosen inhibitions, these folks caused me to laugh until my ribs began to ache.

This Wednesday, I shall pause to remember those who died on 9/11 and to give thanks for those Ganderites who cast light into darkness when they welcomed almost 7,000 traumatized “come from away” guests.