• Reji Laberje

Gander Graduates and Legacy Living

My husband and I burst to our feet, along with the other twenty-three hundred people amongst the sold-out audience. As lovers of theatre and parents of a professional reviewer and two performers, we had been to many shows at the Marcus Performing Arts Center’s Uihlein Hall, but never before experienced such a joint explosion of appreciation for the production as after what we’d just seen. The energy in the room was electric. The applause was hard and loud and constant, but not mixed in with the hoots and hollers of exhilaration as had happened in standing ovations after some shows of the past (although that would come in a musical celebration yet to happen with the band following the bows). That wasn’t what was being felt. Instead, we were responding to the mixed-up cornucopia of sentiments occurring all at once – joy, sadness, empathy, nostalgia, pain, compassion, longing, and countless other feelings jumbled up together! The mix of raw, relatable sympathy and reverence left us unable to do anything more than chaotically and quickly slap our hands together while we stood almost breathless in an unmatched gratitude for the presentation before us. Everyone around us was in the same trance – mouths slightly open in involuntary jaw drops, eyes wide and—in some cases—filled with unfallen (or freeflowing!) tears brought on by complete emotional overwhelm. There weren’t words in that moment; only feelings, and all of them at once, it seemed.


But why?

More than any show I’d been to in the past, Come From Away stayed with me every day and night, and for weeks and months following my opportunity to see it. I read the lyrics over and over and played the music to the exhaustion of my family’s listening. The songs themselves didn’t blow me away, to be honest. Many of them have a spoken feel to them and they aren’t particularly melodic. With a couple of selections filled with highland themes and rhythms as an exception, the score (by Irene Sankoff and David Hein) is relatively modern – a mix of storytelling with music, often changing and layered. It’s not the sort of tunes one would simply sit at a piano or pick up a guitar to play. Don’t mistake this to mean it isn’t engaging. It is. Incredibly so. And very complex. But, there’s probably only one song that will become the extremely overdone audition piece in the near future: “Me And The Sky” – a number portraying the real-life story of American Airlines pilot, Beverley Bass.


If you ever have the opportunity to see Come From Away, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. It is the true story of how, on 9/11, the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland in Canada became the host to almost 7,000 people from all around the world. When American airspace closed following the terrorist attacks, thirty-eight planes with nowhere to go were redirected to this former refueling airport on a small northern island at the very edge of the western continents. With two- to three-hundred passengers on average in each of the planes, the town of around 9,000 nearly doubled in size in a matter of hours. Hotels would not be enough to house the scores of “plane people” arriving, so they opened their schools, halls, public buildings, and even homes to put up complete strangers from every corner of the planet for the five full days during which the planes could not resume their flights.


Gander and the surrounding communities didn’t just provide roofs, but also clothing, food, medication, supplies, and even veterinary care for the nineteen pets and animals that were included with the misplaced passengers and crews. They did so without asking for anything in return and they put their own needs and routines on-hold while serving the people of twenty countries and all fifty United States. Ongoing strikes stopped. A new school year couldn’t start. And the members of the town remained as sleepless as those who “came from away” to their little island. The Broadway musical tells the story of that fateful September 11th to September 16th, 2001 and anyone who sees the show leaves with a full understanding of why Gander, Newfoundland is the only place in the world outside of the United States that has a piece of steel from the fallen World Trade Center. The story is as much theirs as America’s.


Little by little, I came to understand the reasons the production had so fully captivated all of my senses and thoughts. At first, I thought it was because of my personal connections to 9/11. I saw myself and my own feelings in many of the moments of the show. I think every single person can say this of Come From Away. The show has people from all walks of life portrayed, so somebody up there is representing something of each audience member, especially of how they felt in the days around 9/11. I don’t pretend that my experiences of that day are special in any way. Anyone past the age of retaining memory could give an answer to the “where were you” question.


I was living in Baltimore – an Air Force veteran. I had been an Arabic linguist in the military; so many of my close friends and brothers and sisters in arms were still in the service and were about to become very important. My clearance was still active, my language skills were still strong, and I’d done reports and work that had some relevance to the current attacks, but the government wasn’t interested in bringing back a fair-skinned, blue-eyed woman to work at the time. (Believe me, I asked. My heart was duty-bound.) I felt useless.


My husband Joe, also a Military Intelligence veteran, was still working in our former office buildings with the National Security Agency (NSA). He was unreachable in the basement of some government facility. Joe was with a colleague and good friend, Mike. Mike’s husband, Bobby, came to our home, where I was with my son and daughter. He and I were in the same boat, unable to reach our spouses, unable to get out of Baltimore or D.C. because of road closures and general chaos, and unable to tell our loved ones in other parts of the country that we were okay because the cell towers and phone lines had been shut down.


Just a couple hours earlier, I turned off Blue’s Clues on Nickelodeon when my mom called from the Midwest in shock as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. That was the moment when we all realized this tragedy was an intentional act of hatred and cowardice. Bobby and I were glued to the news. Eventually, our husbands returned and we stayed glued to screens for days and weeks longer in our own homes and offices. In my part of the country, the scare continued for months as a serial sniper terrorized the streets and arsenic was mailed to public servants.


This was the new normal.


I had friends in the Pentagon that day who made it out even though some of their colleagues did not. My best friend’s husband and my brother-in-law were (and still are) both firefighters. The earlier served in D.C. and was pulling people . . . and bodies . . . out of the Pentagon on 9/11. Nearly two decades later, he and his family still won’t set foot on a plane. My in-laws had just finished passing through New York City while traveling when – at a stop in New Jersey – they found themselves in front of a news screen to discover what they’d just barely missed. I would eventually lose one former colleague in the war and those I’d served with and who were still active in the military were changed forever, some with unexpected new roles as a result of their expertise, and others with PTSD.


I guess that’s the short summary of my personal 9/11 story, but there’s the part of the story that every person in the world has and that is the story of how our entire existence changed on that day. My oldest, my son, started Pre-K on 9/12/2001. He had one sister, already, and I was carrying my third child who would become his other sister. My kids were all three about to grow up in a world different from my own.


I’m not naively rose-colored in my views of growing up in the Eighties and Nineties. I know it was the era of cocaine, AIDS, and Tiananmen Square. But, it was also the era of the hostages coming home, the wall coming down, the United Colors of Benneton celebrating American diversity, and “We Are The World” helping to feed the people of Africa. The mass shooting at Columbine some years earlier was so unusual and shocking that the country followed with disbelief as grand as that on 9/11, itself. And the original War on Terrorism (the Persian Gulf War) was confined to a mere forty-two days before total victory.


My kids would never know such a black and white world. Shootings, terrorism, extremism, and divisiveness are the only American life they have had and they don’t stop in shock of it when it happens on a daily basis. Each of them has grown up in a world in which tornado drills have been replaced by shooting drills, politicians are aligned to far-reaching fundamental ideals, and bombings take place routinely on a worldwide level.


I focused on all of these thoughts to exhaustion following the opportunity to see Come From Away. Why did the show affect me so very deeply? Finally, based on all of the emotions and reflections that it brought out in me, I realized what it was.


Gander, Newfoundland represents the very pinnacle of unity that preceded the very pinnacle of divisiveness and hatred that marks the present times.

I know that 9/11 was an act of war and terror, but it was also universally accepted as such. Anyone who agreed with the attack was wrong or a whacked fundamentalist. GOOD PEOPLE knew – in black and white – that the act was one of pure evil. It may have been the last time my country and world agreed on anything. Gander became the universal good to that agreed-upon universal evil. The small Newfoundland community may be an Atlantic sea-level town, but it was the peak of the mountain. It was peace and goodness, and mercy, and love, and oneness. It was completely unique. An act of hate that affected all the world resulted in the town of Gander being thrown into unequivocal unity to people from every part of the world. Such a circumstance couldn’t be orchestrated. Their response to the attack was a picture of the best of mankind. And since that day was the peak of the mountain – ironically representing the most idyllic portrayal of humanity despite being in the midst of unimaginable tragedy – we have gone only down the other side of the mountain since.


It’s easy to feel hopeless when our children experience every terrorist attack, shooting, racist reality, religious bigotry, and other hatred that has become commonplace in their generation. Gander was on that day the home, the capital, of HOPE. That was it. That’s why Come From Away was so impactful for me and – I believe – why it has been so unanimously adored by audiences everywhere. It is hope. The show reminds us of the good that is possible in even the darkest of times.


This year, the babies that were being carried on that day – a day that represents both the worst and the best – will graduate. My own youngest is among them. As we close in on the eighteenth anniversary of the peak of the mountain, I want more glimpses at it once again through these 9/11 graduates. In their stories, I want to see the goodness and joy and love that still exist in the world. Let us see, not the divided world they grew up in, but that these children . . . who are now adults . . . have come away from their circumstances to be "Gander Graduates" – a new generation that holds the world’s hope that they can once again be the best of humanity. May we also see ourselves in their lives and may they renew our faith in the goodness capable of mankind.


9/11 is a memorable day for . . . the whole world. But what if we chose to remember it - not for the evils that took place - but for the goodness of many thousands that immediately followed the cowardice of just nineteen terrorists?


Fall has always been a full time for my business. This year, I'm glad that the projects I have coming out are ones that would #leavealegacy of good and #honor911 through purposeful living in a state of awe for the best this world has to offer.


I no longer feel guilty for moving on and continuing to work and serve on this and all days. After all, the thousands who lost their lives on this day, 18 years ago, were doing just that; working and serving and living their lives. I #neverforget even as the ways in which I honor them have moved from tears and devastation to accomplishment and motivation.


God bless you all and God bless Gander.

~Reji

Waukesha, Wisconsin, USA

Copyright 2019