Strangers As Good Neighbors

A word about the following essay
The succor and largesse being given to those whose lives have been devastated by Hurricane Harvey turned my thoughts to five remarkable days when I was unexpectedly on the receiving end of it, with thousands of others. I share the following essay with you at this time in the hope that it inspires some good thoughts about what it means to be humans beings bearing witness to the image of God in us.

Strangers As Good Neighbors

Three hours out of London and flying uneventfully through florescent blue sky six miles above the Atlantic, the passengers aboard Delta Flight 59 were digesting their lunches, quietly absorbed in laptops, or reading novels. Others fell drowsily captive to that vespertine atmosphere created on planes when the movies are running. Other than departing Gatwick 30 minutes late, at Noon (7 a.m. EDT), the only bother aboard the plane so far could now be heard in hushed buzz of passengers asking why all the video screens had suddenly gone blank. “The movies should be back on in a few minutes,” an air hostess said over the intercom. “A computer needs re-booting. It happens. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Yawn. Passengers stretched, ordered drinks, queued for toilets. Someone across the aisle from me lifted his porthole shade and broke the spell of counterfeit evening. My eyes adjusting to the blinding light, I was overwhelmed. The bright blue evanescence, which I once heard a pilot call “severe clear,” stretched out into forever. It hurt your eyes to gaze at that way for too long and I turned away. Twenty minutes passed. The Boeing 777 droned on. Still no movies. People fidgeted. Five hours to go before touchdown in Atlanta.

Suddenly everyone’s attention locked on to the Texas drawl coming from the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention.” The dreaded words. Your nightmare sprang from wherever you had stowed it before boarding. No one spoke. No one dared. We’re going down. Afterward, it seemed to me that a holy moment spread throughout the cabin.

It also seemed much longer than the actually millisecond it took before Captain William’s steady but troubled Texas drawl continued: “There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the nation has been closed. All planes in the air in the United States are being directed to land at the nearest airports, and all international flights into the U.S. are being diverted. We are okay. I repeat. We are okay. But we cannot land in the U.S. We will be landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia in about two hours. We can’t give you any more information at this time. Please be patient and bear with us. We will have more details for you when we get on the ground in Halifax. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Like synchronized swimmers on cue, passengers turned to face their seat-neighbors. Whispers arose. What do you think it is? Who knows? Maybe that announcement was just a ploy and we’re really going down? Must have been a huge earthquake? No, a nuclear bomb. Maybe the air traffic control system has failed? Does the captain even know what’s going on?

None of that made any sense to me. The important question was: why had the FAA closed all the airports? I had to find out. Knowing would help me beat back worst-case-scenario self-talk. I quickly calculated to Eastern Daylight Time and realized that my wife would be in class with her first-graders. But how could I even be sure of that? Was she safe? That became an even more important question. What had happened, anyway?! And where? And who had been effected? Was I even going to get home? Someone must know.

inside delta planeAhh. Walking down the aisle toward me was the hostess whom I had befriended on the plane. I was traveling alone and no passengers were seated near me. I decided to try to take advantage of that privacy. From my aisle seat our eyes met and I motioned inconspicuously to flag her down, hoping she would stop. She did, and she crouched to listen. “I know you can’t tell me what happened, even if you know,” I whispered, “and I’m not asking you to. But can you at least tell me, does the crew know what’s happened?” She nodded discreetly, stood, and then continued on her errand at the back of the plane. It was something, a least. A kindness. The first of many that was to come.

Delta Flight 59 became the penultimate of 42 planeloads of international air travelers permitted safe harbor at Halifax International before the tarmac ran out of wing space. As we circled before landing, I was surprised to see the long, asphalt service road jammed with cars, vans, and pick-ups filled with on-lookers. Like bystanders congregating to stare at a blazing warehouse fire, they had queued to watch the emergency landings. Later I realized it was more than that. It wasn’t just the stunning sight of landing dozens of huge commercial jets one after another after another that had brought them out of their homes and businesses that sunny afternoon. They knew what had happened. We were still in the dark.

Taxiing to our place at the end of the long queue of planes, far from the terminal, we slowly eased along past the staring congregation of on-lookers until Captain Williams brought the 777 to a gentle halt. We heard the mic cue. Captain Williams immediately thanked us for our patient cooperation and then provided what details he had been given of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. “Hopefully,” he concluded, “they’ll re-open U.S. airspace to get these international flights to their destinations. Hopefully we’ll get out of here in a few hours.”

We asked a thousand questions of the crew, but the only information they had was what Captain Williams had been given, and those details were sketchy. Cell phone service had been turned off as we flew to Halifax, and there were no televisions aboard. Later I realized that during the first couple of hours on the plane in Halifax we were living way behind the historic news curve. The pilots had tuned to an AM radio in the cockpit, a source of constant news about the attacks, ninety percent of it still rumor. “Another attack may be imminent.” “A plane may have crashed in Pennsylvania.” “Who had launched the attack?” It would be nearly 24 hours before our own imaginations would be seared by television images of flying machines, twisted I-beams, and charred bodies crashing, falling, and billowing in the explosive chemistry of terror, dust, and loss.

9/11: 42 commercial passenger jets parked on Halifax International runwayTwo long and perfectly executed lines of 747s, 767s, 777s, Air Buses, and L1011s were now parked side-by-side along the tarmac. None would be flying anywhere for the foreseeable future. Ten thousand stranded passengers – a small town, and all the problems that come with it – had suddenly arrived – a scene repeated across Canada, from Newfoundland to Vancouver. Many trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights had been ordered back to their departure cities.

That the extreme and unprecedented workout demanded of thousands of air traffic controllers across America went without incident is astonishing. The FAA had ordered some 5,000 civilian planes to be landed immediately so that the military could isolate any rogue planes still in the air. Within four minutes, 700 planes had been landed. Nearly 3,000 within the next hour. All 5,000 had been safely guided to the ground in under two hours. An impressive impromptu performance, never once rehearsed in aviation history.

Now free to mill about the entire plane – a gracious gesture itself – I found a spot to stand unobtrusively near the open cockpit door to listen to the scratchy, AM radio signal coming out of Halifax. But there were stories in this cockpit. I decided to put on my journalist’s hat, informally however. I listened closely as flight attendants came to the cockpit with reports from the cabin and as the two pilots and their navigator talked. And I chatted them up when they were free to do so. Personally for me, it was a akin to therapy to have the freedom to do this, and I think the pilots seemed glad to talk.

“Why did you make that kind of announcement over the Atlantic?” I asked Captain Williams during a break in the activity. “Why not just tell us what had happened?” He didn’t hedge. “We’ve got almost sixty years’ experience between us,” he told me. “Personally, we’ve never been in this kind of a situation, but colleagues who have been have told us that, in the air, some passengers may panic when they hear the words ‘terrorist attack’ or ‘hijacking.’ So we talked for a long time about the wisest language to use to describe the urgency but not panic anyone.”

As the hours passed, snacks and water ran low, it was getting stuffy in the cabin, a couple infants needed baby formula, the crew reported, and some passengers wanted a smoke. The main theme was the need for fresh air. Passengers were being deplaned and taken to stay overnight in Halifax in the order of their arrival. It would be many hours, we learned, before those of at the end of the queue would be breathing in fresh air.

Still squeezed into my spot near the cockpit, I listened to nearly sixty years of experience process each problem as it arose wisely resolve it. The Halifax ground crew was notified about our need snacks, bottled water, and infant formula. The rear starboard door would be opened for smokers. “But for those of you who need to smoke,” Captain Williams announced, “please take turns and don’t crowd the area. And try to keep the smoke from filtering into the cabin.”

The want of fresh air was solved when the front starboard door was opened to admit supplies. And then left open. Such gestures, including access to the pilots, made a world of difference in the social microcosm that had begun forming, and that would gain in largess, for the passengers of Flight 59. These seemingly small grace gifts defused the building tensions and made the confines bearable. I later learned that passengers on some of the other carriers had fared as favorably.

gobsmackedThe matter of reaching my wife was pressing in on me, so I surrendered my post near the cockpit and looked for someone who might lend me a phone. But getting as signal was still nearly impossible. Those with phones had been wearing down their fingerprints since landing, punching numbers robotically every few minutes gambling against a busy signal. Few won during those first hours. When the hostess I had befriended told me the battery in her phone had died, I stopped asking anyone for a try and instead struck up a conversation – not about phoning – with a friendly couple who, apparently, had no phone. They introduced themselves as Robert and Georgia Matthews, from Memphis. A Christian minister, he explained that he had been in London for the opening ceremonies of a colleague’s church. As I was explaining that I’d been traveling in England on a book tour, we heard the mic suddenly cue – everyone had become acutely attuned to that sound. Captain Williams announced that the FAA had decided not to reopen U.S. airspace today. “We might be here for a day or two,” he said.

The Matthews and I were digesting this development when Robert’s trouser pocket suddenly began beeping. His daughter in Memphis had been playing phone robotics herself and had finally beat the odds. Voilà! A connection with the outside world. Passengers around us were astounded. After he finished talking to his daughter, he handed me the phone and I gave her my wife’s name and number. An hour or two later she beat the odds again, to say that she had got hold of Linda and explained where I was and that I was okay.

Blessedly, our flight was only half full, which made the seventeen hours we spent on board more tolerable. Around midnight I copped three empty side-by-side seats at the rear of the cabin and stretched out as best I could and entered a fitful sleep. Around 3am, we were quickly deplaned on to the runway, shuttled to the terminal, and sped through customs. Outside the terminal we were immediately escorted through the street-lamp atmosphere to a yellow school bus where, after we had boarded, a local politician jumped in and, standing in the doorway, gave us a warm Canadian welcome to “our friends from the south.” He then announced that we were being taken to Shearwater Air Force Base in Dartmouth, ten miles away, where, “You will be well looked after as guests of Canada,” he concluded, promising with many promises. The persistent question of how long we would be there was met with, “We’re taking it a day at a time.”

Legends in their own time, forty-two winged ghost towns now awaited repopulation on the tarmac, the topic of talk radio, news coverage, and hourly conversations in every Halifax and Dartmouth home. The Shearwater encampment rose to about 750 stranded passengers – two Delta flights besides ours, two British Air, and one Air Tours group from Scotland filled with partying vacationers to Florida. The remaining ten thousand strandeds, we discovered, had been housed across the area in houses, school gyms, and in what remained available of hotel rooms (it was the area’s busy tourist season). Some families who had queued in their cars and vans along the access road had not been there just to gawk but to receive us into their homes. Our time as guests of Canada would become the subject of the PBS documentary “Stranded Yanks,” which aired during the one-year anniversary of 9/11.

I awoke at 7am amid dim lighting and much snoring. My back ached from the stiff cot after only three hours of (broken) sleep. I slipped out from under the blue blanket, sat on the edge of the cot, bent over to touch my toes, stood to loosen other muscles, and then took in the unfamiliar surroundings of the massive gymnasium. From the cot I had procured near a hallway door, before me from wall-to-wall stretched the serried ranks of two hundred others curled up on cots or mattresses in various stages of sleep. A few military personnel and Canadian Red Cross workers were in the hallway, where I also saw two of the stranded carrying large white bath towels, evidently returning from the showers.

Where would I eat? How long would I be here? What would I do for clothes, underwear, a tooth brush, tooth paste, deodorant, a hair brush, my Norelco electric shaver? We had only been permitted to bring our carry-on bags to the Base. My contained a couple books, a yellow pad, pens, folders with the paperwork for my three-week UK itinerary, my phone book, and suchlike.

I grabbed a large white towel and asked directions to the showers. In the long hallway I heard a television blaring in the distance and remembered my wife cautioning me, when we were finally able to connect by phone, about the images I’d be seeing. “You’re going to be shocked.” I was. It was unbelievable. September 12, I realized, had dawned.

What do strangers stuck in crisis do? Although the choice is a simple one, the effect differs as markedly as day from night. They can make their situation worse or they can try to improve it. Somehow we went for the latter. Later I realized, to use a Christian image, that we gave grace to onhelping hande another. It began aboard the 777 with the gestures of the pilots and crew and it spread exponentially at Shearwater. Military personnel had worked for hours to set up the cots, mattresses, and bedding. There were the hot showers, and even earplugs! We were given free roam of the huge Base and use of it televisions, recreational facilities, and movie hall. They fed us three superb meals a day from a large buffet-style restaurant. On our second day there some kind officer opened the officers’ mess to us, where chefs grilled steaks and barbecued chicken outside in a terraced courtyard.

Not to be outdone by the military, the Red Cross workers, teachers, and schoolchildren and their parents from the Tallahassee Community School of Dartmouth joined forces. Throughout the night and into the morning of September 12 – in what I was sure was a combined effort to blow our minds – they had been arriving at the Base carrying many dozens of very large cardboard boxes, which were now arranged on long table in a huge lobby. Toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shampoo, underwear, hair brushes, mousse, razors. You name it. “Take what you need. It’s our gift to you.” This neighborly grace to strangers really got to me. I was going to write that it made life more normal. But it wasn’t that. Something else was taking place. Life in this world was enjoying a taste heaven.

Navy personnel, brought in just to open up more of the Base and help run it during our stay, gave lifts into town when they went off-duty to those stranded who wanted it. I copped a ride to WalMart to buy some tennis shoes when my feet began aching terribly from meandering around the large Base for hours a day. Even the weather was a grace to us. With the exception of a couple hours one afternoon, blue skies and delightful temperatures helped keep our spirits up. I remember someone joking that “the service” here was so good that, if we were now offered a hotel room, we’d decline it and stay put.

We may have been strangers, but we were also good neighbors. Kathy _____from Salt Lake City told me: “It reminds me of Jesus saying, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in and fed me and clothed me.’” I thought about a time described in the Book of Acts, when communal Christian living was one of “great grace” because everything was shared and so no one lacked any needed thing. And Jesus’ Good Samaritan no longer seemed a mere story to me.

On Wednesday, I remembered that I had the phone number for Leslie McCurdy, a pastor in Halifax whom I had met a year earlier in Romania. I wondered if he was in town. He was. He asked if I needed anything. Are you kidding, I said, this place is like a four star hotel. The next day we met at the Base. He brought his Norelco electric shaver. Bless you, brother.

Afterward I had to admit that there had been a givingness among us that seemed so normal that it judged the way I did “normal” life back home. The community of Halifx-Dartmouth had expressed to us strandeds something durable of the image of God in human beings: the ability to give grace to defeat the deeds even of great evil. Well, we strandeds did our small bit as well. It may have only been to run some errand or carry some message, but we helped each other as we were able. And we struck up friendships with the officers. You may think I’m lying when I add that during our days on the Base, only one of the strandeds raised a stink. He did it so often, and for what most of us considered superficial reasons, that he failed to be taken seriously.

Halifax Nova Scotia AirportI also noticed that we seemed to have entered a curious new relationship to time. I’m tempted to say that time had stopped for us, but that’s too clichéd, besides being inaccurate. Time had not stopped but had somehow been altered. Yesterday, we were busy westerners on tight schedules. Deadlines to meet. Places to be. Lives to lead. Today we had time. Humanly speaking we could thank the FAA for part of this, as the days of our departure kept getting pushed into the future – each new day we were informed that “they” (the FAA) would not be flying us out “today,” or if we would fly “tomorrow.” There was no future beyond the present. There was just today. And within that novel existential period time seemed quite remarkable.

Here’s a for-instance. When people’s paths would cross on the Base, as repeatedly they did, we had time for one another. And you never knew who you were going to run into again, or when, or where. It might be in or outside the gym, in the mess hall or at a barbeque, in a lounge or by a shower locker, or on a path to and from the barracks. Wherever and whenever it occurred, there was time to stop and say with smile,“Oh, hello, again,” and then pick up a previous conversation as if we had all the time in the world. After all, what else was there to do but to get to know each other?

In this new relationship that we had been given with time, narrative abounded, often 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 her. A 25-year-old designer from Germany gets into an animated discussion with a 60-year-old CEO from England in the lunch queue. A middle-aged man from the States strolls the grounds alongside a twentysomething from France and learns what it’s like to be an au pair. Reverend Matthews and his wife comfort young newlyweds from England whose honeymoon had been interrupted. A knot of strangers from different nations and races share their histories with one another while seated on uncomfortable gray plastic chairs in the sun outside the gym. A lone stranded emerges from the cafeteria line carrying a tray of food, but he’s been late to the queue and can’t spot an empty table; two Canadian Navy Lieutenants notice and invite him over. Far beyond any powers of the FAA, however, was the power of heaven, which, I later concluded, must have been the giver of the new relationship with time that I had experienced.

Full disclosure: I noticed a mental habit that was at first hostile to the new time. It revealed itself this way. I would find myself pleasantly absorbed into someone a stranger-turned-neighbor narrative when I would suddenly think I’ve got to go now. But then it would hit me. I don’t have anyplace to go, nowhere to be, I’ve got time. Here was time to get to know the other. Where are you from? Where were you headed? How are you getting on here? Need anything? No? Okay. At the very least, heaven must be like this, as much time as you want to get to know all sorts of people. “Oh, there you are again. Remember when we were talking about….”

At Shearwater, selfish interest, disappointment, and alienation were transformed into opportunities for self-denial, mutual support, and common good among the different. A depth of compassion and caring had been awakened in us that I don’t think we knew we were capable of expressing. It kicked out fear and renewed our faith in the better angels of our nature. When heaven broke in, walls broke down between races, professions, classes, nationalities and human suffering tasted something sweet of the saving grace of God as strangers became neighbors.

There was no more stunning awareness of the transformation than the one that occurred when the FAA finally green-lighted Flight 59 to fly to Atlanta on September 15. During our three-hour flight that Saturday morning, the dark blue curtains that separate the economy seats from business and first class were never pulled. They remained opened for the entire flight.

Twin Towers smokingThe no-longer-strandeds had boarded to their previously assigned seats, but once the Fasten Seat Belt signs were clicked off, the neighborliness that had matured on the ground between people of all classes effortlessly continued in the air. People rose and moved about the plane. Without hint of reproof regarding status or class, people from economy walked into first class and picked up conversations that had been left hanging in the hustle from the Base to the airport. I watched the suits and the blue-jeaned exchanging phone numbers. I’m a frequent flyer and I’ve never seen the ritual “pulling of the veils” suspended before. I really believe that it just never occurred to anyone to revive the old barriers.

And so there I. Having slipped from economy to first class to talk to someone, I eventually sat down by myself and stared out a porthole. It was another gorgeous morning, bright and clear. Captain Williams took us down the Atlantic Coast. Time slowed to a crawl as we flew over New York City and saw, even five days on, plumes of smoke spiraling up toward us from the huge gray crater. Ground Zero; nee: the World Trade Center. I snapped a photo and then stared until I could no longer see the ascending trails of tears. So, it really had happened.

(Shorter versions of this essay were published for the first anniversary of 9/11 in Third Way, September, 2002, and in Crosspoint, Fall 2002, 9/11.)

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images in order of appearance: Getty Images. Creative Commons. N/C. CBC News. Magdalena Roeseler. Creative Commons. Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

The Kindness of Strangers in a World of Pain

Twin Towers laser memorialIt began this way, 35,000 feet above the Atlantic, flying from London to Atlanta:

“The Boeing 777 droned on. Five hours to go before touchdown in Atlanta. Suddenly everyone’s attention locked on to the Texas drawl coming from the intercom. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention.’ The dreaded words. Worst nightmares sprung from the fuselage, the overhead compartment, the unconscious –  wherever you had stowed them before boarding. A kind of holy moment spread through cabin. No one spoke. No one dared. It seemed much longer than the millisecond it took before Captain William’s steady but troubled Texas drawl continued: ‘There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the nation has been closed….’”

With all the reporting of criminal behavior, hate, violence, and terrorist acts that get dished out to us by the media everyday, I thought it would be good to take a break today, on September 11, and reflect on what is possible when we rely on the better angels of our nature to rule our actions. I was blessed to experience this in a hugely moving and inspiring way fifteen years ago over a five-day period that began the morning of another September 11. An essay I wrote about it was later published in magazines in the US and the UK for the one year anniversary of 9/11.

The above quote is from the beginning of that essay, which soon moves from the shocking and frightful to what is redemptively possible from the milk of human kindness in the face of great evil. For five days, I and hundreds of other “strandeds” were cared for by strangers where “selfish interest and alienation were transformed into opportunities for self-denial, cooperation among the different, unity in our diversity. A depth of compassion and caring had been awakened in us that I don’t think we knew we carried within, amid our wood, hay, and stubble. Heaven broke in and walls broke down between races, professions, classes, nationalities. Human suffering tasted something sweet of the saving grace of God as strangers became neighbors.”

If pain and murder is just a click away, why not grace and healing? Just click here to read the full essay.

Image courtesy Creative Commons.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

THE OPPOSITE OF 9/11

Twin Towers laser memorialEvery week of September 11 since 2001, I remember where I was on that fateful day. Even today, fourteen years later, I still find it eerie to have been one of the last persons on the planet to hear the news. More importantly, however, I think about how opposite of the terrorist attackers was the spirit of thousands of stranded passengers and their unexpecting hosts across Canada and the U.S., who chose to build community together during those unpredictable days instead of being at each other’s throats – despite their many and varied personal, ideological, and religious differences.

“Selfish interest and alienation were transformed into opportunities for self-denial, cooperation among the different, and unity in diversity,” I wrote in an essay that was published for the one-year anniversary of 9/11. “A depth of compassion and caring had been awakened in us that I don’t think we knew we carried within, amid our wood, hay, and stubble. Heaven broke in and walls broke down between races, professions, classes, nationalities. Human suffering tasted something sweet of the saving grace of God as strangers became neighbors.”

I called that spirit “the kindness of strangers,” which arose within these completely impromptu and highly diverse communities across the U.S. and Canada. If you would like to read the full essay about this “opposite spirit” and the amazing fruit it produced, and why I was one of the last persons on the planet to hear the news, here it is.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Image: laser memorial of the Twin Towers (credit lost).

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

The Last Person to Hear about 9/11

Twin Towers smoking2.30 p.m. GMT.  Three hours out of London, the passengers aboard Delta Flight 59 were digesting their lunches, quietly absorbed in their laptops or reading novels. Others fell drowsily captive to that vespertine atmosphere created on planes when the movies are running. Other than departing Gatwick 30 minutes late, at Noon (7 a.m. EDT), so far the only bother was that all of the video screens had suddenly gone dark.

“The movies should be back on in a few minutes,” an air hostess replied over the intercom to the hushed buzz of passengers. “A computer needs re-booting. It happens. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Yawn. Passengers stretched, ordered drinks, queued for toilets. Someone across the aisle from me lifted his porthole shade and broke the spell of counterfeit evening. I was overwhelmed. The bright blue evanescence, which I once heard a pilot call “severe clear,” stretched out into forever. It hurt your eyes to gaze at the boundless brightness. I turned away. Twenty more minutes passed. Still no movies. People fidgeted. The Boeing 777 droned on. Five hours to go before touchdown in Atlanta.

3.15 p.m. GMT. Suddenly everyone’s attention locked on to the Texas drawl coming from the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention.” The dreaded words. Worst nightmares sprung from the fuselage, the overhead compartment, the unconscious — wherever you had stowed them before boarding. A kind of holy moment spread through cabin. No one spoke. No one dared. We’re going down.

It seemed much longer than the millisecond it took before Captain William’s steady but troubled Texas drawl continued: “There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the nation has been closed. All planes in the air in the United States are being directed to land at the nearest airports, and all international flights into the U.S. are being diverted. We are okay. I repeat. We are okay. But we cannot land in the U.S. We will be landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia in about two hours. We can’t give you any more information at this time. Please be patient and bear with us. We will have more details for you when we get on the ground in Halifax. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Like synchronized swimmers on cue, passengers turned to face their seat-neighbors. Whispers arose. What do you think it is? Who knows? Maybe that announcement was just a ploy and we’re going down? Must have been a huge earthquake? What would they close all the airports for that? A nuclear bomb, then? Maybe the air traffic control system has failed? Does the captain even know what’s going on?

9/11: 42 commercial passenger jets parked on Halifax International runwayNothing made any sense to me. Why had the FAA closed all the airports? I had to know. Knowing would help me beat back worst-case-scenario self-talk. I quickly calculated to Eastern Time and realized that my wife would be in class with her first-graders. But how could I even be sure of that? Was she safe? What had happened? And where? Who had been effected? Was I even going to get home?

Someone must know. Ahh. Coming down the aisle toward me was a hostess whom I had spoken with earlier and had made a connection. I was traveling alone and there were no passengers near me. I decided to take advantage of that privacy. Our eyes met but I deliberately remained seated, hoping she would stop when I sought inconspicuously to flag her down. She stopped and crouched to listen. “I know you can’t tell me what happened, even if you know,” I whispered, “and I’m not asking you to. But can you at least tell me, does the crew know what’s happened?” She nodded discreetly, stood, and then continued on her errand. Well, it was something. A kindness. The first of many to come during the next four days.

5.45 p.m. GMT/12.45 p.m. EDT. Delta Flight 59 became the penultimate of 42 planeloads of international air travelers permitted safe harbor at Halifax International before the tarmac ran out of wing space. As we circled before landing, I was surprised to see the asphalt service road filled with on-lookers in cars, vans, and pickups; like bystanders congregating to stare at a blazing house fire, they had queued to watch the emergency landings. Well, more than that. It wasn’t just the striking sight of landing these huge commercial jets that had brought them out of their homes and businesses that sunny day. They knew what had happened. Who did not? We still did not.

1 p.m. EDT. Taxiing to our place at the end of the long queue of planes, far from the terminal, we eased past the staring congregation of on-lookers until Captain Williams brought the 777 to a gentle halt. We heard the mic cue. Williams immediately thanked us for our patient cooperation and then provided what details he had of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. “Hopefully,” he concluded, “they’ll re-open U.S. airspace to get these international flights to their destinations. So maybe we’ll get out of here in a few hours.”

We now asked a thousand questions of the crew, but they only knew Captain Williams knew. Cell phone service had been turned off as we flew to Halifax, and there were no televisions. The details available to us upon landing were still very sketchy and rumors still ran wild in the media about “more possible attacks.” There was a rumor about “a plane crashing in Pennsylvania.”

It would be nearly 24 hours after the attack before our imaginations would be seared by television images of flying machines, twisted I-beams, and charred bodies crashing, falling, and billowing in the explosive chemistry of terror, dust, and loss.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Note from Charles: Every week of September 11 since 2001, I remember where I was on that fateful day. I still find it eerie – given the immediate, ubiquitous, and lengthy worldwide media coverage of the attack – to have been one of the last persons on the planet to hear the news. More importantly, I think about how opposite of the terrorist attackers was the spirit of thousands of stranded passengers and our Canadian hosts as we built community in and around Halifax those days. I called that spirit “the kindness of strangers,” and it was duplicated for many thousands of stranded others across the U.S. and Canada. If you would like to read the full essay of my account, first published for the one-year anniversary of 9/11, here it is.

Top image: smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, taken from the international space station (image by NASA/Bryan Allen/Corbis). Bottom: the 42 huge international passenger jets parked wingtip to wingtip on a runway of Halifax International (image by CBS News).

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

THE BIG PICTURE

jigsaw big picture“Thank you!” to all who replied to my informal poll, which asked you to name one or two post-9/11 issues and events that you would like to this blog take on during the months ahead. Some sent email, others replied in the Comments area. Thanks also to those I spoke to in person. The replies were thoughtful and identified significant areas of concern, although no consensus emerged. But now that I think about it, I should have known that would be the case.

Our post-9/11 world presents us with a wide array of consequential issues, events, and policies that we need to come to grips with, both in America and in the Middle East. And the reality continues to change dramatically, and at times dangerously. There are so many decisive areas of the post-9/11 big picture to tackle that it would be hard to find agreement any one or two. That was certainly true of my small poll, in which no two people expressed an interest about the same area.

There were also significant aspects of the big picture that were not mentioned by the responders. That was an interesting omission to me, because I thought these areas would certainly be mentioned. What the poll did for me, then, was to remind me that the post-9/11 big picture has many crucial pieces of different shapes and sizes. This was on my mind as I wrote the pool, and one of the email responders picked up on that. So in the next post I want to summarize the salient pieces of the post-9/11 big picture.

Following that post, we will begin to consider some of these areas in depth. I will take you behind the scenes, on a kind of crash course, to understand where are at (really at) and how we got here, and, importantly, to consider what some wiser ways ahead might be. What I have to say is not going to be some rehash of you have learned from the evening news or talk radio or the blogosphere.

We live in a dangerous period. If we do not know why that is, really why, then wiser ways ahead cannot be formulated and implemented.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Lynette Cook & NASA

JOURNEY TO CLARITY

vision glassesThe monstrous dose of reality that would soon become known by the iconic shorthand “9/11” plunged America and its leadership into a collective worldview crisis, and many individuals and families suffered terribly as well. Although I did not suffer like many people did, my own experience of 9/11 was so unusual that I felt as if I had experienced it too much but missed it completely. Strange inner dissonance, that. The attack had taken place but I did not know that for many hours. I must have been one of the last people on the planet to learn about it. And when I finally did learn about it, the startling way that happened, and the next four days encamped at Shearwater Air Force Base, made 9/11 seem too much to me.

Despite being well-cared-for at Shearwater, I found it difficult to think, and though I consider myself a person of faith, I found it hard to pray. I often found myself with barely a thought in my head. I was pensive and, back home, became disoriented and could not concentrate to work. I had to postpone a speaking engagement and push two article deadlines further into the future.

But knowing myself, I knew that my only way out of the molasses – my back to “normal” – would be by gaining a good understanding of what had occurred and what responses would be wisest. I had too many questions that I needed answered. To ignore getting the answers would be, for me, like trying to live as if 9/11 had not occurred. And I could not go there. I had to understand. And I wanted to get it right. That would take time, but that path, I knew, would deliver me from the dissonance.

So I set out. I suppose this was quite a natural direction for me to go, given that I am a writer and that writers research their subjects. As well, the timing could not have been better. My seventh book had just come out, a co-author job with John Peck, and I had been wondering what the subject of my next book would be. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I should say that I felt more than a natural compulsion. For this new research and writing project I felt a very strong drive.

I should also say that, at the time, I had little interest in international relations and foreign policy. And I will embarrassingly admit to believing that it would only take several months, perhaps a year, to conduct the necessary research. I was foolishly mistaken about that. The most frequent question I get asked is: What’s going on in the Middle East? Unfortunately, many who ask are impatient. They want sound bites, as if sound bites could faithfully answer the persistent questions that have arisen. It takes time to understand how we got here, and why, and what are some wiser ways ahead. Most people reading this blog don’t have time for that amount of study, so I have done the homework for you, and want to offer it to you here.

Today we do not live in a time such as during the Cold War status quo, during decades when, although the United States and the Soviet Union made life interesting at times, international relations between the two super powers were nevertheless static enough. You pretty much knew what was what. Today, the “war on terrorism,” the war in Afghanistan, and the war about Iraq have not – to put it mildly – fulfilled anything even close to either Western or Middle Eastern expectations.

War is a wretchedly incompetent and perverse agent of change. No West – Middle East status quo has emerged. Instead, unexpected major events continue to surprise, and new violent realities emerge so often that it is impossible to put your finger in the script and conclude, “Ahh, this is where we are at. This is the reality. Now here’s what we can do.” So many analysts talk about “the long war.”

And you can forget about what you have heard on the evening news, or talk radio, or the blogosphere. You are not going to get three minutes of “in depth coverage” in the following posts, or sound bites, or cliches, or stereotypical or polemical answers.

We live in a dangerous period. If we do not know why, really why, and if we do not learn from the missteps, then we cannot formulate wiser ways ahead. I don’t claim infallible answers, but over the course of the next several months I am going to be sharing with you on this blog what I have learned from more than a decade of research, including taking you behind the scenes to hear from key people I have talked with on my travels. The unlearning and relearning has been a surprising journey to clarity. I hope it becomes that for you too.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by katerha (permissions via Creative Commons)

“A LITTLE BIT OF SYMPATHY”

map readingToday we have considerable understanding about what occurred on September 11, 2001, and why. We forget that at the time we all grappled in the dark for answers. The irony was palpable. What was being called a defining moment lacked clarity. Why was that? The jumble of mixed messages about the “attack on America” that was coming from Washington and the media those days, and from political analysts and religious leaders, indicated a terrible collective worldview crisis into which the nation had been plunged.

In our more humble moments today, we might be able to remember that America had suddenly been forced to deal with problems so revolutionary and intractable that there was a shaking of the foundations. National life had been going along fairly well for a pretty long period. The Cold War had ended in 1991 and we all hoped for a more durable peace. But suddenly life was no longer normal. Things that had been taken for granted were now being seriously questioned, even by the “experts.”

Although it was refreshing to hear such humility expressed by many political analysts, the hard truth of it was that answers those days were few and far between. A terrible unknown had knocked America off its stride and the nation was scrambling to make sense of what had occurred. The nation was processing one of those (fortunately) rare phenomenon called a national worldview crisis.

In recent posts we have been discussing how deeply the crisis effected our personal lives and worldviews, as individuals. But it was, of course, a collective worldview crisis as well, one that deeply effected Washington as a political entity, despite the public image it put forward as being in control. Washington’s treasured and basic ideas for understanding and responding to such a national emergency had suddenly been called into question, for there had never been one like this one.

It was, in my opinion, worse than that of another attack from the air sixty years earlier – on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese air force. Although that surprised the country and plunged it into a terrible national crisis, it was nevertheless understandable an act of war by one state, Japan, against another state, America. And as such Washington could immediately process what had taken place and lean on the traditional way of response: the war system.

In other words, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor emerged from the modern way of thinking about war – state versus state. It was easy for that generation both to understand what had occurred and to recognize the kind of response in kind that would follow. America would go to war and was able to do so. Everyone got this. The nation could be mobilized. Washington could be confident that America could effectively meet the challenge.

The attack on the United States from the air sixty years later was not a Pearl Harbor kind of surprise. It came not from a state but from a group of non-state actors called al Qaeda, led by the religious militant Osama bin Laden. It struck the nation with fundamental unknowns on both preparedness and response. This left the President and everyone else uncertain about why it had occurred and how to respond. Significant books have been written about this early period of ambiguity in the White House. It was amid this kind of national worldview crisis that Washington had to try to identify where the rough ride had landed the nation, and what the response should be.

Sans a reliable map by which sense could be made of the attack, or what the wisest response to it should be, I hasten to add that I had some sympathy for the White House, its advisers, and the Congressional committees responsible for America’s national security.

Story continued next post…..

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Ed Yourdon (permission via Creative Commons)

“TURN AND FACE THE STRANGE CHANGES”

going shoppingIn this current series of posts, begun here, I am trying to recall for us, as individuals and as a nation, what we were thinking on September 11, 2001 and in the days and weeks immediately following. As I have been writing this I have been wondering about how many people can actually recall how “the apocalyptic acts of fury” (Kanan Makiya) impacted them as individuals, and I have been thinking about the jumble of mixed messages that we were getting as a nation.

Further still were the selective ways that the White House and Congress chose to deal with the crisis. We are experiencing the ramifications of many of those decisions today, 12 years later, and I want us to consider the wisdom of these decisions in future posts. But here I want to talk about the jumble of mixed messages, which were pulling us is all sorts of different directions.

As individuals, we would never be the same – or so we said. Suddenly life was fragile and personal problems trivial. We would change – or so we promised ourselves, if not others. Such humility even from many talking heads was as refreshing as it was astounding. Those days, you could hardly watch seasoned journalists or foreign policy experts being interviewed and not hear them stop to recount an epiphany about why they would now be more caring toward family and others. Even interviewers would stop to say this about themselves. Not a few were even heard questioning cherished beliefs they held about God and the human race. The same was heard among us lesser mortals. We would no longer be selfish, or rude, or frivolous, or materialistic, or decadent. We would be warm not cold, real not pretentious, loving not ill-willed. We had changed.

Another message was that of war. The nation was at war, President George W. Bush announced to us and the world, a war on terrorism. “Our enemy,” the president explained, “is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them…. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.  Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Well, then, here was another way in which life would be different. But how, precisely?

globe above waterFurther, many thoughtful people were arguing that to describe the terrorist acts of 9/11 as an act of war might be a category mistake, and so we should be very careful, here, because the attacks were not carried out by a nation but by a militant group of non-state actors known as al Qaeda and led by Osama bin Laden, a terrorist and not the leader of a nation. As this argument went, a more useful metaphor than war is crime and, despite the enormity of the attack and the damage and loss of life, dealing with bin Laden and al Qaeda should be a police matter for the international community.

What was it, then, an act of war or a heinous crime? Deciding between the two would determine what response was just and what kind of sacrifices the nations would need to make. Either way, we all knew, carried with it some clearly dreadful implications about buckling up for the abnormal life that seemed sure to lie just ahead for us. Yet there was another message still. This message not only contradicted that of any sacrifices we were sure were now going to demanded of us by our leaders; it also subtly communicated that collective introspection and conversation about American itself, which had been slowly and cautiously emerging, should end.

President George W. Bush, who, in the days immediately following the attacks said and did some smart things, was also saying that America was “open for business” and asking for everyone’s “continued participation and confidence in the American economy.” At most other times, such rhetoric would go down well enough. But when heard during those days it was interpreted by many people, rightly or wrongly, as a call to “get back to normal” and “go shopping.” Pardon? The Times of London called the attack The Day that Changed the World. Yet we are to get back to normal? Are we being told to ignore the “war on terrorism” that had suddenly been declared and go shopping?

Thoughtful religious and non-religious commentators saw through that rhetoric. Here are just two poignant examples. Brian Walsh, Christian Reformed chaplain of the university of Toronto, in an editorial in re-generation, put it this way:

“America is open for business. Does this sounds like a callous and irrelevant comment under such circumstances? Not at all. You see, the forces of chaos will not triumph because the forces of salvation are stronger. And salvation is found in an ever expanding global economy…. The president knows, his cabinet knows, the guy on the street knows, and we all know, deep down, that things will never be the same again.”

The writer Susan Sontag penned this in The New Yorker:

“Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K…. But everything is not O.K…. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a nature democracy…. Let’s by all mean grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. ‘Our country is strong,’ we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts America is strong. But  but that’s not all America has to be.”

Story continue next post….

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by r.nial.bradshaw (permission via Creative Commons)