RITUAL OF THE VEILS

camerasIf you would have developed a picture of we stranded passengers at Shearwater Air Force Base – one thousand of us – you would have seen a ridiculously diverse encampment – Scots, English, French, Germans, Americans, Africans; blacks, whites, Asians, Indians; Canadian Air Force and Navy officers; males, females, children, teens, adults, marrieds, singles.

What really stood out to me during our four days together on the base was that our large, diverse flock did not let political persuasion, economic standing, or religious belief prevent us from pulling together to create a degree of flourishing in the crisis. Of course always there seems to be a squeaky wheel. But those days I was aware of only one person who caused a public stink, demanding changes to his situation that everyone agreed were completely unreasonable.

In Christian terms, giving grace to one another became our norm. This began while we were cooped up on the plane for fourteen hours on the tarmac after the emergency landing in Halifax, which I wrote about in the previous post. I also wrote, here, about how generously the Canadian military and the Dartmouth families and schools provided for us at Shearwater. But we passengers also looked after one another as best we could with the limited resources we had to hand. Here are a some vignettes.

For the first two days at Shearwater, giving grace often consisted simply in encouraging the disappointed strandeds. Narratives abounded even between the unlikeliest of persons. A shy 19-year old student from Oxford kneels beside the cot of a lonely 40-year old Kenyan woman, befriending and comforting her. Reverend Matthews and his wife counsel young newlyweds, whose honeymoon had been interrupted by the crisis. A middle-aged man from the States strolls the grounds alongside a twenty-something au pair from France, listening to her worries. A 25-year-old designer from Germany encourages a 60-year-old CEO from England, while they are queuing for dinner. A lone stranded emerges from the cafeteria line carrying a tray of food but can’t find an empty table; two Canadian Navy Lieutenants notice and make room for him at their table.

Everyday, small knots of people from different countries and races could be found sitting together on the lawn outside the gym or one of the barracks, catching some rays, passing time together, sharing their histories, exchanging contact info. Thursday morning I remembered that I knew a pastor who lived in Halifax. We had spent time together in Romania years’ earlier. Somehow I found his phone number. We met later that day at the base and he brought his Norelco – my first shave since Tuesday morning in London.

Individualism, selfish interest, and perceptions of inequality had somehow been transformed into opportunities for the kind of self-denial and cooperation among the different that gives witness to human unity in its diversity. A depth of compassion and caring had been awakened in us that I don’t think we knew was latent within us. Heaven seemed to have had broken in to our little world, collapsing barriers between races, professions, classes, and nationalities. Strangers became good neighbors. As a Christian, I understood that we were being allowed to taste something of the sweet saving grace of God.

Twin Towers smokingThe most stunning symbol of the transformation, to me, appeared on the plane itself during our three-hour flight on Saturday, September 15, when the FAA finally cleared us to fly from Halifax to Atlanta. Now I have flown considerably, and, not long after takeoff, it has always, but always, been the case that those long, dark curtains that separate first class from economy are always pulled closed. “Stay out!” But the dark blue curtains on this flight were left open. “Class” was not in the air with us. What we had gained on the ground was.

For the flight to Atlanta from Halifax, we no-longer-strandeds had not been given assigned seating. We were just left to it. Upon boarding we quite naturally returned to the seats we had been assigned on the flight from London the morning of September 11. On the flight to Atlanta, however, when we reached cruising altitude, we did get the obligatory announcement that we were “now free to move about the plane.” But that now had a completely new meaning. We were free to roam the entire plane. It gave a new take on “classless society.”

Relationships begun on the ground continued in the air as passengers searched out their new friends. The good neighborliness – between the well-heeled and the pedestrian and the flight crew – quite naturally sustained itself in the air. I don’t think that the ritual “pulling of the veils” – symbolic of old barriers – even occurred to the fight attendants. Our new reality needed a symbol: the open curtains.

See me, then, seated in first class peering out through a porthole at another gorgeous morning sky, bright and clear. Captain Williams is flying us down the Atlantic Seaboard and he now lets us know that we are starting to pass over Manhattan. I look closely and see, even now, on the fifth day, long plumes of smoke spiraling toward us from the huge, gray crater. Ground Zero. Nee: the World Trade Center. Time slows to a crawl. I take a photo and then stare at the ascending trails of tears until I could them longer see. So, it really had happened.

Story continued next post…..

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by alexkerhead (permission via Creative Commons)

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