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)


helping handWhat do strangers stuck in crisis do? They can make their situation worse or pull together to try to make it better. During our days as guests of Canada, the Nova Scotians generously pooled their resources to create a relatively flourishing reality for us, truly remarkable given the crisis. The story of how the Nova Scotians opened their lives to their 10,000 unexpected guests was made into a moving, PBS documentary called “Stranded Yanks,” which aired on the one-year anniversary of 9/11.

For those of us now encamped at Shearwater Air Force Base – one thousand of us – countless gestures of kindness were being extended, as I began to discover in the lobby of the base’s huge gymnasium. While we had been cooped up in the 777 on the tarmac the previous day, and unbeknownst to us, parents, teachers, and schoolchildren from the Tallahassee Community School of Dartmouth were arriving at the base with large boxes full of goodies: toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, deodorant, shampoo, underwear, hair brushes, mousse, razors, bottled water.

The provisions seemed endless. Even ear plugs! Boxes were still arriving when I investigated the lobby at 8 a.m. after showering. “Take what you need,” a Red Cross worker told me. “It’s our gift to you.” Our hosts, to use a Christian expression, were giving grace. I was alone and disoriented but many of my concerns dissolved before the precise generosity.

We were given free roam of most of the huge base, including use of its recreational facilities and movie hall. We were fed three good meals a day from a wide-ranging menu in the large buffet restaurant. Wednesday evening, the officers’ mess was opened to us, where chefs grilled steaks and barbecued chicken in a terraced courtyard that included a well-stocked bar.

When they were off-duty, Navy personnel brought in to help run the base during our stay gave us lifts into town if we needed anything. That was a godsend because by Thursday my tight-fitting dress shoes were killing my feet from walking miles a day on the grounds. I copped a ride into Dartmouth with a Navy officer and bought a pair of comfortable walking shoes at Walmart. Some of us joked that “the service” here was better than what we would get at a four-star hotel – if we were offered that option, we decided we would stay at Shearwater.

Kathy, a passenger 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 recorded in the Book of Acts, chapter 4, where the communal living in Jerusalem among Jesus’ followers is described as being that of “great grace” because everything was being shared and no one lacked any needed thing.

Even the weather was a grace to us. With the exception of two hours light rain one afternoon, blue skies and delightful temperatures prevailed – no small blessing, considering that hundreds of us spent many hours outside on the grounds.

This generous neighborliness, this shalom, at Shearwater had begun on the plane the previous day and I want to tell you about those fourteen hours in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Mandajuice (permission via Creative Commons)


Halifax Nova ScotiaThree hours out of London and six miles above the Atlantic flying uneventfully through a brilliant blue sky, the passengers aboard Delta Flight 59 to Atlanta were as contented as possible on a nine-hour flight. The meal service had ended and people were now quietly absorbed in their laptops, reading novels, or drowsily captive to that vespertine atmosphere created on planes when the movies are running. Other than departing Gatwick Airport thirty minutes late, so far so good.

But then all the video screens went blank. A hushed buzz arose as passengers wondered why. Not to worry, an air hostess soon announced. “The movies should be back on in a few minutes. A computer needs re-booting. It happens. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Yawn. Passengers stretched, some ordered drinks, some queued for the toilets. A few broke the spell of counterfeit evening by sliding up their porthole shades. Outside, the bright blue heavens – pilots call it severe clear – stretched out into forever. It hurt one’s eyes to stare there for too long. Twenty minutes passed. The Boeing 777 droned on. The video screens remained blank. People fidgeted and some wondered why their cells phones had quit working. And then like restless compass needles locking on magnetic north, everyone’s wandering thoughts suddenly fixed on the thick Texas drawl now coming over the intercom.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Williams speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention. There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the country has been closed. All planes in the air over 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 Atlanta. We have been directed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we should be landing 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.”

A kind of holy moment filled the cabin as passengers turned to face their seat-neighbors. No one spoke. No one dared. Finally some whispers. What do you think it is? Must have been a huge earthquake? A nuclear bomb, maybe? Who knows? Maybe that announcement was just a ploy and we’re really going down? Maybe the air traffic control system has failed? Does the captain even know what’s going on?

None of these events seemed likely to me, passenger 34G. Even if a nuclear catastrophe had occurred in one part of the country, why had all the airports been closed? What had happened? I had to know. Knowing would at least help me beat back the worst-case-scenario self-talk I now battled. I calculated to Eastern Time and concluded that my wife would be in class with her first-graders. But then how could I be sure about that, if I didn’t know what had happened and where? It had to have been huge, but who had been effected? I was returning home from a demanding three-week book tour and speaking trip. I was completely knackered and just wanted to get home. Was I even going to get home?

Someone on this plane must know. Because I usually travel alone on these long flights, I like to make a connection with a flight attendant after I board. It’s a habit that has paid dividends, and I hoped it would now. Mine was an aisle seat a few rows behind the first class barrier and I had a few seats to myself, so I hoped to take advantage of that private space.

Coming down the aisle toward me from first class was “Terri,” a hostess I had befriended earlier. Our eyes met and I gently got her attention, hoping she would stop. She did, and then crouched to listen as I whispered, “I know you can’t tell me what happened, even if you know. 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 down the aisle on her errand. It was a small grace but it was enough – strangely comforting – and the first of many such gestures to come in the next few days.

Story continued next post….

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image of Halifax from “canoe too” (permission via Creative Commons)