‘Come From Away’: Thank You, Canada

The Beacon (Gander) - - Editorial -

Dear Editor,

I’ve had a few varied jobs in my life, in­clud­ing postal worker and wa­ter­ski­ing coun­selor, but theater critic never fig­ured among them. Nor do I plan to em­bark on a new ca­reer any­time soon. But I have to say that rarely have I been as moved by a Broad­way play as I was by see­ing the new show, “Come From Away.”

It tells the story of the peo­ple of Gan­der, New­found­land, a rather re­mote town of nine thou­sand in­hab­i­tants in north­east­ern Canada, in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the tragic events of Septem­ber 11, 2001.

Fol­low­ing the four ter­ror­ist at­tacks that killed nearly 3,000 peo­ple, Amer­i­can air space was im­me­di­ately closed to all com­mer­cial flights.

For 39 planes al­ready in the air from over­seas and headed for U.S. air­ports, that meant im­me­di­ate rerout­ing to the large air­port in Gan­der, which had once served as a re­fu­el­ing sta­tion for transat­lantic flights when they couldn’t make the ocean cross­ing on “one tank of gas.”

Within hours, some 7,000 pas­sen­gers on those 39 planes found them­selves in Gan­der, un­cer­tain where they were, what was in store for them, or what the future held.

Any­one who lived through that pe­riod will re­mem­ber the wide­spread fear that more at­tacks were com­ing, that it was only a ques­tion of time, method­ol­ogy, and place.

The play takes a look at what hap­pened to the thou­sands of un­ex­pected ar­rivals who nearly dou­bled the town’s pop­u­la­tion overnight.

It does so in a bril­liantly cre­ative, en­er­giz­ing, and poignant way, im­prob­a­bly us­ing song and dance to tell the story, but with­out ever los­ing sight of the very hu­man ac­tions that in­spired it.

The play of­fers a pow­er­ful counter-nar­ra­tive to the ma­ni­a­cal ha­tred that led 19 ter­ror­ists – and their spon­sors – to kill blindly and vo­ra­ciously.

Ul­ti­mately, “Come From Away” re­veals the hu­man ca­pac­ity for down-to-earth, un­adorned kind­ness and com­pas­sion. And at a time when both traits seem to be in rel­a­tively short sup­ply in our world, it is heart­warm­ing and uplift­ing.

Best of all, it’s true, not an em­bel­lished or sweet­ened ac­count.

The peo­ple of Gan­der and the sur­round­ing towns re­sponded to the thou­sands of pas­sen­gers com­ing from many dif­fer­ent coun­tries, cul­tures, lan­guages, and faith (and culi­nary!) tra­di­tions with an im­me­di­ate out­pour­ing of con­cern, em­pa­thy, and help. Quickly, they or­ga­nized them­selves to find food and shel­ter for the new­com­ers.

Homes were opened, meals were cooked, the hockey rink be­came a food re­frig­er­a­tion space, med­i­cal care was pro­vided, ba­bies were cared for, and even the an­i­mals in the planes’ cargo holds were looked af­ter.

It was an amaz­ing out­pour­ing of hon­est-to-good­ness hu­man­ity. Some of the pas­sen­gers couldn’t be­lieve what their own eyes were telling them. In­stead, they were sus­pi­cious of un­der­ly­ing mo­tives, fear­ful of theft, and wor­ried about hav­ing to pay the bill. But it didn’t take long to fig­ure out that this was the real deal, the Golden Rule be­ing played out as it was meant to be.

Leav­ing the theater, I was on an emo­tional high, tak­ing away three thoughts in par­tic­u­lar.

First, too many Amer­i­cans take our neigh­bor, Canada, for granted. We never should. We’re blessed be­yond words to have this coun­try, now cel­e­brat­ing 150 years since the Con­fed­er­a­tion that brought the na­tion to­gether, on our north­ern bor­der.

What the peo­ple of Gan­der did ex­pressed the high­est ideals of a na­tion that al­ways ranks near the very top on the Hu­man De­vel­op­ment In­dex and on rank­ings of best places in the world in which to live.

Sec­ond, we are rarely given the chance to pre­pare in ad­vance our re­ac­tion to out-of-the-or­di­nary sit­u­a­tions.

The mo­ment ar­rives, it lingers briefly, and then it passes.

But when that mo­ment ar­rived in Gan­der, the res­i­dents re­sponded in a mag­nif­i­cent way.

They could have tried to ig­nore the new­com­ers, or iso­late them, or deny them shared space and food, but they did the ex­act op­po­site.

This is, if you will, true re­li­gion.

Our ul­ti­mate eth­i­cal test is not what we say, but what we do, not how we pray with our words, but how we act with our deeds.

And third, when it was all over and the 7,000 peo­ple boarded planes and headed for their fi­nal des­ti­na­tions, the peo­ple of Gan­der re­sumed their lives just as they had be­fore Septem­ber 11.

They didn’t seek to com­mer­cial­ize or ex­ploit their ran­dom acts of kind­ness, but, thank­fully, they did al­low a play to be shown on Broad­way about them 16 years later – and for per­mit­ting their mag­nif­i­cent story to be shared, I am grate­ful.

David Har­ris is Amer­i­can Jewish Com­mit­tee (AJC) CEO (www.ajc.org)

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