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.
Ahh. 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.
Two 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.
The 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 one 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.
I 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.
The 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.
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