While most people were glued to their televisions on September 11
watching horrific scenes, we were stranded in Gander, Newfoundland, not knowing when or if we would ever get home.
“All air space has been closed to incoming and outgoing traffic!”
On September 11, 2001, my fellow TFP-member John Ritchie and I, along with three students of the TFP’s St. Louis de Montfort Academy, James Bascom, James Slobodnik, and Alex Zivnuska, left Paris on US Airways flight 27 bound for Philadelphia.
What began as a routine flight turned into something very extraordinary when, just before landing in Philadelphia, the pilot announced that we had to land in Newfoundland because of engine problems.
We eventually touched down in the city of Gander, whose airport was built in the 1930’s. With weeds growing as tall as a man in the middle of the tarmac, it became clear that not much had happened there since that time. All one could see for miles around were rolling hills covered with a thick spread of pines. We were in the middle of nowhere.
The pilot then announced the real reason for our landing in Gander. “There is a security problem in the United States,” he said, “and all airspace has been closed to incoming and outgoing traffic.” This news quickly brought home to us the seriousness of our situation.
The tragic events in the States began to trickle in through cell phones and a radio owned by one of the passengers. We first heard the news that planes had hit each of the World Trade Center towers. Then came the news that the towers had been leveled. No one could believe it. Some of the crewmembers began asking some nearby passengers, “Did you bring any food with you?”
Those that did were told to use it sparingly or ration it as they saw fit. We were also told “it would be a good idea to save the little paper cups in the bathrooms” so that we would have a way to drink the remaining water in the plane’s tanks. Suggestions such as these made us realize that we had suddenly entered a world of uncertainties.
We were loaded onto yellow school buses and taken to the nearby city of Gambo, a half-hour journey south of Gander.
It was almost 24 hours later that we were finally able to disembark. Once inside the airport we encountered the most hospitable people I have ever met. Tables full of food and bottled water were laid out and we were told by smiling, tired faces, “Take as much as you want.” When we thanked them for their kindness they would simply respond with another smile, “This is what neighbors are for.”
We were then loaded onto yellow school buses and taken to the nearby city of Gambo, a half-hour journey south of Gander. The last miles of our journey were over gravel roads. The surreal nature of our experience became apparent when we passed two black bears eating on the side of the road. We simply looked at each other and laughed. “Can our situation get any more bizarre?”
One minute we were homeward-bound on what we imagined would be an uneventful trip; the next minute we were on a school bus with total strangers, riding down a gravel road past black bears, not knowing where on earth we were going or how long we would be there.
We finally arrived at an Anglican church camp called Mint Brook and were warmly greeted by an Anglican priest, Rev. David. He graciously explained the layout of the camp and our accommodations. Thus began an ordeal that would only end five days later.
Clockwise from top left: Alex Zivnuska, Norman Fulkerson, John Ritchie, James Slobodnik, and James Bascom.
“People back home will not believe me when I tell them about you.”
From the beginning of the twentieth century until now fashions and a proper code of conduct have “evolved” in a clearly dissolute direction. Most people have adapted themselves to this successive change without questioning. Members of the TFP, as well as the students at our Academy, have not.
Our main concern when we landed in Gander was that of maintaining our distinction as men of principle. This meant not only the desire to preserve the appearance of being gentlemen but also the ideological integrity which should not be modified simply because the circumstances of life change. After it became clear that we would be spending an indefinite period of time in Camp Mint Brook, we were determined to maintain our way of being, cost what it may.
A young man in a suit and tie on a hot sunny day when everything is normal is often looked upon as being weird or eccentric. Change the setting, however, and put the observer of such a young man in the state of uncertainty and all that changes.
Suffering is most beneficial to the soul, for it obliges a person to philosophize and ask the question “Why?” People who at the beginning of our ordeal snickered at our way of being and dressing soon became intrigued as the days wore on and the news of the tragedies set in. They eventually looked upon the TFP differently. “I just have to get a picture of you all dressed up before we leave,” said one lady. “People back home will not believe me when I tell them about you.”
As time went by, many people approached us with questions about who we are and what we do. After some time the inhabitants of this little island of Newfoundland ended up turning to the TFP with open arms and ears. One man, pointing to my lion pin, said in a very amusing way, “People in the camp are saying that those who wear that symbol are the counselors.”
John Ritchie and James Slobodnik play a variety of military and patriotic songs for a pensive audience.
“The boys” of St. Louis de Montfort Academy
Those who caused the most sensation, however, were the young men of St. Louis de Montfort Academy, with their gentlemanly conduct and chivalrous way of being. Since I was the oldest person in our group, the students were often referred to as “my boys.”
One lady approached me during our stay, and said; “I thought my son was good until I met ‘your boys.’” Another lady came up to me after dinner one day and said, “I hope the parents of these boys know what outstanding sons they have.”
The apex of this affection came on Saturday, September 15, the day before we left. I had just finished my lunch when I saw John Ritchie and James Slobodnik walking across the lawn in the direction of the dining hall.
They were both carrying the musical instruments they had taken with them to France. The dining hall was jampacked with about 120 people. When they entered the room, everyone burst into a roaring applause.
Not a dry eye in the house
“We have spent the morning watching all the memorial services on TV,” I began. “All of us were touched by the show of patriotism we see in our country, and we thought it would be a good idea to have a moment of silence before we leave Newfoundland to remember those that died.” Every head bowed immediately.
Some minutes later, John Ritchie played our National Anthem. While most people sang along, others wept uncontrollably. When the Anthem finished, however, the whole room erupted into a thunderous applause once again.
The look of hope in everyone’s eye was noteworthy. It was a sad day for our country, but just as the sorrow of Our Lady, whose feast we celebrated that day, was transformed into the triumph of the Resurrection, we felt that the tragedies of September 11 could also be transformed into victory.
School buses wait as passengers gather their belongings to leave for the airport.
After playing some other military and patriotic hymns, we announced, “We are going to play taps in honor of the heroic firemen who died trying to save others in the World Trade Center.” There was not a dry eye in the house as the sound of that moving and symbolic piece of music drifted overhead.
“Diamonds” and a double rainbow
Upon leaving the room there was roaring applause once again as many people followed us outside. Rain had given way to brilliant sunshine, which illuminated the dripping vegetation. Our little world was suddenly transformed into a diamond wonderland. People approached us to express their gratitude. “I want to thank you very much for what you just did,” said one lady, as tears rolled down her cheeks. “You have no idea how much it meant to me.”
Another man whom I had conversed with on several occasions also approached and with a very determined look in his eyes said, “Tell me again, what is the name of your organization?”
Another lady, who from the first moment showed appreciation for our way of dressing and acting, said, “I knew from the first moment I saw you that you were special; now I know I was right.”
Gary Daniels, a passenger from first class who had become known as “the mayor” of Mint Brook because of his leadership qualities, came up to me and in something of a reproachful tone said, “Norman, you have been holding out on us. You guys are great. Why didn’t you play in the beginning?” I jokingly responded how “the best wine had to be saved for last.”
Many others came up and asked us to stand close to one another so they could take pictures while others asked for a group photo of us in front of cabin number 8, which had been our home in Camp Mint Brook. It was funny how many people took our little concert as a sign that at last we were going to be able to go home.
As the sun broke through the clouds, passengers of
flight 27 marveled at a splendid rainbow.
Later we had a few more showers but the sun came out and shone once again with an impressive brilliance. With it came a magnificent double rainbow that, since the time of Noah, has been a sign of hope.
The events of September 11 gave us valuable glimpses of what we might expect in the future. Our stay in Newfoundland, however, showed us that no matter what happens Our Lady will continue to be Our Mother of Mercy, our Life, our Sweetness, and our Hope no matter what the future brings.
If Our Lady helped us to the degree she did, in proportion to our needs in Newfoundland, she will also do the same for all her children in the days ahead leading up to the triumph of her Immaculate Heart.