9/11 and Screeching-In


One can easily spend a lifetime discussing the divisions and horrors leading to 9/11, the ones that have torn us apart since then, and continue to threaten to destroy us as a people, a nation, and an idea of freedom. Lord knows I’ve got words about this.

Today, though, I want to mention something, someplace else: Gander, Newfoundland, Canada.

US Airspace was closed for the first time in aviation history at 9:45 EST. There were 4,546 civilian aircraft in US air at that moment. Approximately 400 international flights were en route to the US when they were told to turn around or land elsewhere. If they flew over the US, they would be shot down.

Canada, in her graciousness, and fully aware that we were afraid that there were more planes with terrorists on board, permitted hundreds of flights to land in airports from Vancouver to Toronto to Montreal – and to a tiny town of 10,000 people named Gander in Newfoundland.

Gander had a luminous place in the history of aviation before 2001. It was used as a major refueling stop for international travelers before the development of long-range jumbo jets. Strategically, Gander was a critical linchpin for the air forces of the US, Canada, and Britain during WWII. It was also the point of no return for the Space Shuttle, the last place where the Shuttle could land if something went wrong during launch.

Thirty-eight plans carrying 6,595 people were ordered to land in Gander when US airspace closed. It was almost a week before these flights were permitted to either go forward into the US or return to their points of origin. For five days, the people of Gander and surrounding towns provided shelter, comfort, information, showers and their own clothes to the travelers.  Using old-fashioned ingenuity and neighborliness, each resident stopped their lives. Stores opened their doors and gave away their stock to the unexpected guests. As the corporate offices of companies learned that their shelves were going bare, they sent in truckloads of goods from food and diapers to toys for children who had been on their way to Disney World.

The hospitality and kindness of these lovely Newfies inspired hundreds of visitors to endure an initiation rite called “Screeching-In,” the process through which one from away can become an honorary Newfoundlander. An unhealthy amount of local rum (called “screech” due to the reaction its drinkers have as the liquid scorches the throat) is consumed, along with a ceremonial question and answer in local dialect during which the initiate must kiss a freshly caught codfish. As the world stated, “Today, we are all Americans,” the people of Gander affirmed that “Americans” are not bound to boundaries, that those who love America live worldwide. By being “screeched -in,” passengers promised to remember the hospitality and not just the horror of the time.

The worst of humanity tore the Towers down. Monsters tried to destroy the dream of freedom and liberty that is  America. “America” is not just a place, it’s the idea of a life where one can live  according to the choices and actions of one’s own conscience, not the circumstances of birth or mores of society. This idea can be found in many locations on the map; the US isn’t the only place where one can be free. But, the name “America” stirs the passion of dreamers. It is this idea that the terrorists attacked.

After the impact, as the fires went out, the dream didn’t die. In places like Gander, the idea of America was welcomed. The best of humanity volunteered, responding to these acts of hate with the strongest weapon against hatred in the world – kindness.  Quietly and strongly, Gander embodied this strength. To those shaken by the nightmares of 9/11, Gander offers the hope and affirmation that no terror can ever defeat what is good.

On behalf of all of us, all those worldwide who are American by citizenship or by ideology, I give my gratitude to the people of Gander. Because of you, when I remember the devastation, I also remember your response and the promise that eventually nightmares always end.

Thank you.

“The Day the World Came to Town, 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland” by Jim Defede, 2002, ReganBooks

http://www.amazon.com/THE-DAY-WORLD-CAME-TOWN/dp/0060513608

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About Shannon Blue Christensen

Storyteller. Author. Editor. Literary Critic. Director. Teacher. Knitter. nascent Musician. Student. Operations and Quality. Marketing. Historian. Lear's Fool. View all posts by Shannon Blue Christensen

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