I was planning to write about something else this week, but as I typed in the date the newspaper would be published, I realized that it was 9/11, which deserves acknowledgement. I suspect that all of us who were old enough to be aware of the events of Sept. 11, 2001 have our own 9/11 stories. My story is unremarkable, but it’s mine, and it is seared in my memory, as I imagine that many of you have your own 9/11 stories indelibly imprinted in yours.
I was with a dozen other Outward Bound staff in Nova Scotia, about to get in line for the ferry to Newfoundland. With some time to spare, we decided to fill up the gas tank of our Ford Econoline before boarding the ferry. When we went into the station to pay for the fuel, the attendant said “Turn on your radio — something is happening in the U.S.”
We turned on the radio and heard what so many people all over the world were hearing — that something was indeed happening: something on a scale so big that most of the broadcasters couldn’t find words for it. It was hard to even grasp what they were saying, and the tiny radio inside the van was no match for 12 Outward Bound instructors talking over each other, trying to understand what was being reported. “Where can we find a TV?” we wondered, just as our eyes fell on a giant department store across the road, where we knew we would find just what we needed: a bank of televisions, all tuned into news channels.
We joined rows of people inside an eerily hushed Nova Scotian mega-market, incredulous faces staring up at the TVs lining the shelves in the electronics department. Only occasional gasps broke the stunned silence as we came to understand that we were watching a significant moment in modern history unfold.
What happened in the subsequent hours and days after the Twin Towers fell still gives me goosebumps when I think about it. Something in our dress or manner or speech gave us away as Americans, and the Nova Scotians in Wal-Mart began to turn to us and offer condolences and hugs, the shock and grief on their faces as palpable as our own.
When we decided to proceed with our trip to Newfoundland, word seemed to spread quickly on the massive ferry, and total strangers approached us throughout the 7-hour boat ride, sharing heartfelt feelings of sadness. We spent 10 days sea kayaking and backpacking in Newfoundland, and at every gas station, every grocery store, every campground, Newfoundlanders offered us food, invited us into their homes for meals, let us use their telephones, and kept us informed of the news that was emerging about the attacks as we moved in and out of the backcountry.
Meanwhile, the hospitality of the residents of Gander, Newfoundland, on the north-eastern side of the island, was quickly becoming legendary, when the town’s 10,000 residents opened their hotels, schools and even homes to the 6,700 airline passengers from all over the world whose planes were grounded in Gander in the aftermath of the attacks. We learned all this later, after spending the first three nights in the backcountry looking up at a night sky sprinkled with stars, no airplanes streaking light across the blackness.
Everything we witnessed and experienced in Newfoundland that week was a stunning display of singular generosity, compassion without judgment, and a fundamental acceptance of others’ humanity. And so I spend a little time every September with my 9/11 story, reinforcing the convictions I share with so many: that people are good, and that trust makes us stronger than fear.