We Are The Come From Aways

By Rachel M. Drummer

Rachel is a teacher by trade, though she currently works two jobs dealing with the public in retail, and in restaurants. She has a background in (and has always had a love for) theatre.

Every person in the world is special. Every person in the world means something to someone. And every person who was alive in the time of September 11, 2001 was impacted by the Terrorist Attacks. It didn’t matter WHERE you were from originally, where you were on that day, what your colour was, your gender, your religion. What mattered was that we all were and still are made of bones and skin, blood and water. We are all humans.
And even if we were at the place we called home, on that day and the days immediately afterwards, we ALL were Come From Aways.
Yes, I’m a New Yorker, born and bred, but I’ve also lived in Virginia (and have family in the DC area) and in Pennsylvania. So I sort of feel as if I owe it to the people whose stories have not been told, to try my best to show them that they did not pass away in vain.

On that beautiful Tuesday morning, I rolled out of my bed in my college dorm at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In my pajamas, I walked across campus to my women’s history class. As the professor rolled the television into the room and plugged it into the outlet, I remember my whole body freezing. I thought my heart even stopped for a moment. It didn’t, but I felt like it had.
To me, the days following that were a blur of not being able to contact my family on Long Island, the DC area, and then realizing that a number of my friends had parents who worked in those places… I didn’t know how to deal with that. I quite literally was away from home myself. I felt like I didn’t belong where I was; I was like Hannah in Come From Away. I was (figuratively, not literally) on an island in the middle of nowhere.

For days, weeks, months and even years after the attacks that September, there were many more American flags, there were people helping other people, and it almost seemed like life, though very different, might go back to some kind of a normal routine. For some, it has. For others, they’re still missing loved ones, they’re still at a messed up costume party wearing someone else's donated clothes.

At that time, and for many years after, I had no idea about the things that people of Gander, Newfoundland, its surrounding areas, and other places throughout Canada and all over the world as well, had done for the people who were diverted and displaced by the United States Airspace shutting down for the first time in history. It was only recently where I discovered what happened in Gander and those other areas, and I have Come From Away to thank for that.

This musical tells the story of many Newfoundland residents, and how when 38 unexpected planes landed at Gander Airport in only a few short hours, the residents not only gave the plane people their own food and clothes, but they took care of them in any way they could. It also tells the stories of both the residents and the “plane people” and how the Newfies took care of the Come From Aways in any and every way they could.  On September 11th and the days following, such strong friendships and relationships were formed that wouldn’t falter, and it started something, thanks to what Kevin Tuerff called the Pay It Forward Movement. Kevin was not only one of the plane people but also the author of a book titled, “Channel of Peace, Stranded in Gander on 9/11”, and that book is what inspired the musical I’m speaking of in this editorial.

This movement introduces the idea to be kind to others in any way you can. It doesn’t have to be financially; even a smile or a handshake or even opening the door for someone who is having a bad day could turn their whole mood around.

There are 21 songs in the musical Come From Away and each of the songs are important both to the stories of the real people in that time, and to the story at hand. A part of me wanted to tell you all about every single part of the show. However, if I did that, then I’d give away some spoilers which I don’t want for anyone. So I will pick and choose a few songs that jumped out at me the most the first time I heard this beautiful musical.

The first number in the show is called “Welcome To The Rock”, and it’s quite literally a conglomeration of stories of the residents of Gander and what they were doing when they learned about the two planes hitting the Twin Towers. Some were at home, some were at work, others on were strike, but all of them weren’t expecting what happened on that beautiful Tuesday morning. This song not only shows the strength and kindness of the people of Gander, but it welcomes all of the Come From Aways (in the musical and the audience) and helps to show everyone who sees and hears the song (and the other 21 songs as well) that there’s a place where you’re going to be safe and taken care of. That there’s a place where you can be welcomed with open arms and a cup of coffee or tea, and the light is always on just in case you stop by.

The tenth song in the show, “Costume Party”, talks about how the plane people were not feeling like who they’d been the morning before. It equates their thinking about being so far from home, unable to be with their loved ones, to wearing someone else’s donated clothes and feeling like they were at a messed up costume party. This song basically tells the audience that the plane people didn’t feel like themselves. There’s even a set of lines in it that reads, “It's like I changed into somebody else. But who? And it's somehow like we're at a costume party. And for a second you are not yourself.” The plane people could look at themselves in a mirror, but they didn’t see who they originally thought they were; they’d changed. To them, everything changed. When I think about this week being the middle of October, just after the 17th Anniversary of the attacks, and just before Halloween when costumes and costume ideas are all around, it just hits home even more for me.  

The eleventh song of the show, “I am Here”, is mostly about a pair of ladies, Beulah and Hannah, and how Hannah, a New Yorker and mother of a firefighter, is trying to find her son (or at least find information on him).  She isn’t having any luck, and Beulah is trying hard to help in any way she can. Beulah is trying to help everyone and not just Hannah, but the close friendship that this tragedy forms between these two ladies is not one which would ever falter. Nor would the love of a mother to her son.

The sixteenth song, “Me and the Sky”, follows Captain Beverly Bass, the first female American commercial pilot, and how she had many a man trying to stop her from doing what she wanted: flying a plane. At the time she was trying to become a pilot, women generally didn’t have that job, nor did they get all that many jobs. That didn’t stop Beverly though, and this song explains her journey to where she was on September 11th, 2001. She had kids and had only been married for a year. When she was flying Paris to Dallas, she was diverted to Gander Airport when the United States Airspace shut down. Beverly (both the real person and the character) have something about them, a strength, and it’s really emotional and touching when in this song, she realizes that the one thing she loves, flight, was harmed…The biggest thing to me is that Beverly was not about to stop trying to get where she wanted to be, and that’s huge, because she is a VERY strong woman, one whom I’d love to get to know and learn from.  

The 20th song in the musical is called “Something’s Missing” and it centers on what happens when the people who were meant to fly into the New York City area on 9/11 are finally allowed back into the country. They see what was missing, they see the loss of the buildings, they sense the loss of everything, including their innocence… This song shows how people all around the world, not just in Gander, or in New York, are trying very hard to get back to normal–whatever the new normal was for them.

The last song I’m going to talk about is the “Finale”. It shows how things had changed in the ten years following the Terrorist Attacks, both good and bad. It shows how Kevin and Bob, not to mention others who were Come From Aways and residents on that day, are still helping others. Bob collecting money for a scholarship for the high school that housed him, and Kevin’s Pay It Forward Movement, are only two of the ways that September 11th changed humanity. This song also explains how Gander is the only place outside of the United States of America that was given a piece of the steel from the World Trade Center.

There is more to this musical than those few songs, but if I were to talk about every song like I wanted to, it would take forever and might give away some spoilers (which I don’t want to do to you all). I want to leave you with a few short things, however.
Today, just over 17 years after the attacks, I look around myself and I listen to musicals like Come From Away, and it makes me think of how the world has changed in these last two decades. Science, math, English, and history have changed, as has humanity. Some are good changes, some are bad. BUT, this doesn’t mean the world is all bad either. Be a light in the darkness. Show the world, as former President George Bush on September 11th said, “The victims were in airplanes or in their offices: secretaries, business men and women, military and Federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror. The pictures of airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge structures collapsing have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger. These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our Nation into chaos and retreat, but they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.” Feel free to check out these links for the speech:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dTsbPje_6k and http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=58057.

George Bush’s speech elucidated how he knew we could be strong, how we could overcome. And he was right. We HAVE overcome this, and we will overcome so much more in the future, so long as history isn’t forgotten. I for one, never forget, do you?