I was five when President Kennedy died.
I don’t remember the actual event itself, exactly, but I do remember sitting cross legged on the floor of our house in a Chicago suburb, watching the black and white images of the funeral cortege, and later the funeral itself, and thinking that all of this was making my parents very, very sad.
I remember the little boy—his son—who stepped forward and saluted his father’s casket.
And I remember when that little boy died, decades later.
I was in my garage in Calgary on a hot, sunny weekend afternoon, and my phone rang. It was someone from the media, asking me for a comment on his death in a plane crash earlier that day. It was the first I’d heard of it, but I quickly replied that the younger Kennedy was a private citizen and that neither I, nor anyone else in the US government in Calgary, would be responding in any official capacity to this query.
The right answer—the correct one.
Then I went inside and turned on the TV and watched as the story unfolded of how his small plane had lost its way in the fog off Martha’s Vineyard and tumbled into the sea.
July 20, 1969: A hot summer night by the water, windows open to let the humid breeze pass through the house. Holy shit, there’s a guy walking on the moon! A color tv now, but the fuzzy images are in black and white as Neil Armstrong steps off that ladder and onto…molten lava? Fire? Water? Quicksand? Cheese?
And we watched into the night as he hopped around and explored this new world. One small step for man.
December 1980: I was in my loft bed in my dingy little apartment in New York. A Monday night, I was off from work, listening to the radio and reading. The music
stopped and the dj announced that, less than five miles away, John Lennon had been shot and killed in front of his apartment building
on Central Park West.
A week or so later, I was part of the crowd (the numbers reported range from 50-225 thousand) who walked into Central Park to remember him. I’ve never seen so very many people so very quiet.
And I was at Southampton College, coming away from a summer course (“American Experience at Sea in Fiction and Film”–I recall a lot of heavy reading, some movie-watching and a boy with a Corvette whose name I can’t recall) in August 1977 when I heard about Elvis.
Funny how you can remember exactly where you were at certain pivotal times in history.
Like September 11.
I was neither here (home in Calgary) nor there (home in New York). I was in Vienna on the second day of the second week of a training course at the US Embassy (the classes were actually held at an old hospital once use by Sigmund Freud).
It was late morning when we heard that a plane had crashed into the first of the two towers, and, while it seemed odd and hard to imagine, the assumption, I think, was that it was a small plane—because that sort of thing is believable.
But then they called us into a conference room and we saw.
The second tower had just been hit, and both were on fire. We stared at the tv while people scurried around in the background in the old hospital, trying to figure out what was going on and what to do with us.
Leave they said, go back to your hotels. Split up, take different routes, and wait until you hear from us. So we did.
I stopped at a pay phone to call home—Andy was home from school that day and he hadn’t seen the pictures. All I had to say to his dad was “put on the tv”. What channel, he asked. All of them. Any of them.
Once convinced I was safe and that I couldn’t come home if I wanted to, I asked that they share with family and friends that I was ok. I made my way back to the hotel and sat in front of the tv for several hours, watching the images over and over again of those towers coming down, the people running, their faces covered in dust, and the fire.
That night I had a ticket to a concert at Schönbrun, the massive summer palace of Viennese royalty, now owned by the state. My class had gone as a group to a nearby village to sample gluhwein, but I wanted to be alone.
Schönbrun: Hard to believe, on such a beautiful evening, what was happening at home
As I sat and listened to the music and to the chatter of the people around me who had to have known what had happened, but who carried on, perhaps because it didn’t happen to them, it was all so very surreal. I was numb.
I was able to get back to North America on one of the first flights out the following Sunday, but I had no idea what I was heading back to. When the plane—where we were not given the option of following our travel path on the plane’s video monitors (I managed to figure out the edge of Greenland with its icebergs bobbing in the sea off the coast), where we were given plastic knives and forks to eat our lukewarm lunch, and where, when we finally touched down in Chicago, the plane broke out in spontaneous applause.
When I got back to work, I was overwhelmed by the number of cards and letters and flowers that kept coming and coming; every time the mail came in, it brought with it a new pile of letters and a fresh wave of grief. It was very hard to adjust to being back after not being there. It was just hard to adjust to routine again, I guess because it was a new routine.
I got back to New York just over two months later, just before Thanksgiving, which I thought was an important time to go. I spent a night in the city, where hotels were begging for guests—I think I paid $50 for a dingy little place near Lincoln Center.
I struggled with whether I should go to the site; I didn’t want to be a gawker, but I felt compelled to go.
I made my way down, and I was devastated. It was still smoldering, and fire hoses were trained on the rubble in a dozen places or more. As they pulled pieces of it down—identifiable pieces of the main floors’ exterior—the sound was deafening, and the air was filled with the smell of wet cement.
There were piles of dead and dying flowers and stuffed animals—piles four and five feet high, with posters of the missing and tributes to the dead everywhere for blocks. I’ve never felt so heavy.
In Calgary, a year later, I put together a memorial service, and at City Hall, an exhibit of newspaper covers from around the world, as well as a collection/selection of the letters and cards we received. I think I needed to–just to feel connected. And then I tucked it all away—the cards, the posters, the odds and ends—everything that had to do with 9-11.
About 15 years later, I heard about Come From Away.
It’s a musical about September 11, about being stranded and being rescued by the people of a small town in Newfoundland. In the spring of 2017, it had just premiered on Broadway, so I got myself a ticket.
And I wrote about the show right after I saw it, because it made me realize what, for me, has been missing all these years.
“Seeing this play—knowing that people of Vienna were good to us, but knowing how it felt to be not-home (in either place) and knowing how much Canadians did to help-across my amazing adopted country, the pride I feel for their warmth , openness, and the genuine care they gave to people from all over the world doesn’t surprise me, but is
something I wish I could have been a part of…”
Seeing Come From Away gave me the first opportunity to really think deeply about it/deal with it/analyze my emotions over those days and weeks right after. It was emotionally draining, but so freeing once I was able to put words to my feelings.
(It’s a fabulous play, by the way–if you have the chance go see it!)
So I’ve thought about this a lot over the year, and when I decided this would be my decade of travel, I made Newfoundland my first stop.
It didn’t take long to realize what great people there are on this chunk of rock sitting in the North Atlantic. From the city of St. John’s to the tiny towns I passed through, everyone was wonderful.
I even managed to find a group on Facebook that was tracking iceberg sightings—exactly what I needed since I had no idea how to go about finding them.
It seemed a woman named Diane Davis was central to the page, and when I posted some amateurish shots of one of the first bergs the tour boats could reach, she replied right away with enthusiasm and questions about where and when the bergs were spotted, which I’m sure was helpful to others.
Over the days that I was there and travelling around, her name kept popping up, and I was able to figure out that she was from Gander. I thought to myself, “this is great—I’ll send her a note and maybe we can meet up for a coffee in Gander”….but by the time I got there, she had moved north to Fogo Island for a spell.
And then I googled her.
Turns out she has a direct connection to 9-11 and Gander, as she was one of the people who was instrumental in helping all the stranded travelers—some 7000 of them, who were brought to Gander when their planes were ordered to land–this in a city that is only slightly bigger than that.
And she’s also connected to Come From Away, where one of the characters is based on her and another person in town.
It’s funny how she was clearly helpful to all of those people on September 11, and how she is still helping people find their way.
On my trip, I stopped in Gander for a night. I checked into one of the few hotels in the town that runs along the TransCanada Highway in the middle of the island. And then I went to the airport.
I sat in the waiting area for a time, in one of those plastic molded chairs that hugs your butt and makes it hard to get up. I imagined what it would have been like to be one of the those thousands of people, to be there for those few days in 2001, but it was hard to fathom.
Then I drove around town.
It was very quiet, and although I looked for quite a while, I couldn’t seem to find the place I was looking for—the heart of the city.
It was then I realized that it’s not about the place, it’s about the people. And I can’t think of a better place to be if you’ve got to be stranded, because there’s something we could all learn from Newfoundlanders and their sense of hospitality and care for others.
So, as this September 11 comes around, I just wanted to say a thank you to Diane, and to people like her.
They firmly believe that when someone needs help, you respond. It’s just what you do.
Go out and do something nice for someone else this week.