A Personal Commentary
I’m a member of the generation now “at bat” – one of the cohorts that remember the very time and place we heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. It is the generation whose weightiest question became, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” It was a mantra of sorts, one supposes, that supplanted, “Where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed?”
A huge chunk of our youthful idealism was chipped away that November in 1963 and in the years that followed, as assassinations nearly doused the flame of our desire to shape a more just world: Medgar Evers, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy.
The assassinations of King and Kennedy cut especially deep. I was watching television while feeding my infant firstborn when both news bulletins – literally just weeks apart – interrupted programming. What kind of world did I birth this little human into?
This was my vivid reflection – that question screaming at me – as I stood with family on September 17, 2001, at Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange. I was viewing the smoke still spewing from the fallen Twin Towers, each having been deliberately struck using commercial passenger airliners.
My daughter – with our first grandchild, an infant, asleep in her arms – and her husband were standing in front of me. What were they thinking? Were they wondering what kind of world they had brought this precious bundle into?
It was hard for me to fathom that these notions might be pervading yet another generation. This historical moment felt infinitely more reprehensible, more wicked, more … evil.
I had not really thought of this tragic generational parallel until that moment. During the days prior, I could only think of getting home …
Aboard Air France 004
On September 11, near the end of a perfectly smooth flight across the Atlantic, the captain of Air France flight 004 interrupted the thoughts, conversations, and light slumber of his passengers. I was one of those slumbering lightly, on my way home from a business trip to Paris and scheduled to arrive in Newark at 10:20 a.m.
Of course, I thought, it was time for the captain’s perfunctory flight update. Most of us were half listening until we heard the word “diverted,” after which a few soft sighs could be heard. The next phrase, however, caught our attention: “because of terrorist threats against the United States.”
The barely audible sounds of soft sighing suddenly became completely perceptible muttering. Okay, so we would be diverted, land, spend some time on the ground until the “threat” was over, refuel, and then continue our flight home. It wasn’t the first time some bomb scare or threat had caused such an inconvenience … right?
During the next several hours, however, a harsh reality unfolded. The passengers of AF 004 learned that the United States had been attacked and all air space around the country was closed. Our flight was being diverted to Gander, Newfoundland.
Gander? Never heard of it. Newfoundland, Canada – sure; Gander – no.
Nevertheless, like thousands of others who were diverted to the little isle of compassion that day, I grew to know Gander well. I became one of the town’s “plane people.” Yes, there were thousands of us who benefited from the caring friendship of our northern neighbors living in one of the smallest and northernmost Canadian communities.
While we sat for hours and hours on the tarmac of the tiny Gander airport, the town readied itself for a deluge of thousands from various cultures and locations worldwide, with a variety of dietary requirements, myriad pharmaceutical needs, and speaking any number of languages. Was there a possibility that terrorists might be aboard one of the nearly 40 planes that had landed at Gander International that day, their plans temporarily foiled by the closure of U.S. airspace? It was an unknown.
Nevertheless, the town opened its arms with hugs of human kindness and benevolence. Little did I know how much I would learn about Gander. Little did I know how much I would grow to love this outpost of human generosity.
And little did I realize while sitting on the tarmac for 11 hours that my thoughts, feelings, impressions, and experiences of that day and those to follow would become indelible in my memory.
Indelible: the panic of not knowing if all members of my family who worked in Manhattan were safe; the joy at hearing my husband’s voice on the other end of my cell phone; the relief in learning that all my loved ones were okay; the sorrow in hearing my husband’s voice wracked with emotion as he told me that the first tower was falling.
Indelible: the confusion of not understanding how the tower could fall; the pain of wondering about colleagues and friends who worked in the two towers; the disbelief that the second tower fell, too.
Indelible: the overwhelming paralysis when I saw for the first time the day’s events as recorded on television. Was this flickering screen portraying a reality that occurred some 12 hours earlier, or was it just another action-packed flick with dynamic, eye-popping stunts and scenes?
Indelible: the sinking feeling of submission in knowing the tragedy was reality; the pain of being separated from my family; the fear of not knowing how long it would be until I saw them again – if I saw them again; the happy memories of family, friends, and colleagues that sustained me during the days of separation.
Indelible: the reverent silence as we flew home and the blessed relief of finally landing in Newark.
Indelible: the incredible warmth, compassion, humanity, and generosity of the citizens of Gander, who shared everything they had with us – including the shirts off their backs. (Is it any wonder I bristle at any negative comments about our northern neighbor?)
Choosing the Memories
When 9/11 approaches each year, I still feel the anxiety of that day. It is something I don’t think I will ever get “over,” if there is such a thing as getting over a life-altering experience. I will listen quietly to the names of those who perished that day 17 years ago and observe the appropriate minutes of silence. I am thankful and feel blessed to be among the lucky ones to come out of 9/11 with mere anxiety.
But on this day, it is the memory of Gander’s kindness that I strive to hang on to and savor. Indeed, the memory of our Canadian neighbors making our worst days endurable sustains me still – knowing that there exists in this world an indelible human kindness even in the face of fear and the potential for danger.
On this day, it is also my strongest prayer that “where were you when the towers fell?” will be the very last generational mantra of its kind … that neither my grandchildren nor yours will ever suffer the type of defining moment experienced by my generation, their parents’ generation, or the greatest generation – one they may never have grown to know.
Editor’s Note: A Tony Award-winning musical describing how Gander rallied on 9/11 and the days following – Come From Away, in the works since 2013 – is now in its second standing-room-only year at the Gerald Schoenfield Theatre on Broadway. The show is described as “a cathartic reminder of the capacity for human kindness in even the darkest hour of times and the triumph of humanity over hate.” There are now several touring productions of the musical appearing throughout the U.S. It is an uplifting experience to see the show.
More can be learned about the Gander experience from a broadcast by the BBC that was recorded during the 9/11 Tenth Anniversary Observance in Gander, Newfoundland: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00jz8v4.