After the late night excitement of the previous evening, it was quite an achievement to actually wake up to my 9:30am alarm instead of turning over and going back to sleep. I attribute that to my excitement to actually see more of Gander than was possible during a quick 3am drive though the town. One of the first things I did was to peer out my windows to get a look of the town. It was pretty much as I'd expected- very simple, small town feel with a few buildings and a lot of green. My room overlooked the main highway but there only ever seemed to be a couple cars at a time on the road. A sunny pleasant looking day beckoned at me to get myself ready.
In spite of my heroic efforts of getting out of bed, I nonetheless missed breakfast because it was only served until 10am and it took me a while to shower and get myself together. When I finally felt ready to face the world, I messaged Lisa and then waited downstairs by the lobby for her to pick me up at around 11:30am. I was excited to finally meet her in person, but I also felt nervous because I'm a definite introvert and it's awkward for me sometimes to meet new people. I reminded myself that over the course of our messaging, I'd discovered that she was a fellow red headed Disney cat lady… which obviously meant that she was several levels of awesome. The previous evening, I'd been amazed to discover that we also both consider purple to be a signature color. So the logical chance that we'd get along was pretty damn high.
Fortunately, as soon as she came in, I felt almost as ease with her I had with my old friends in Toronto. There aren't words to explain my gratitude to Lisa for the impact she had on not just my trip but my summer as a whole. When I first met her, I obviously couldn't yet imagine the depths to with she (and her dad) would touch my heart. But I was already so grateful for her kindness that I'd brought some presents that I hoped she would like based on some of our mutual interests. They included a pin of the castle from Disneyland Paris, a small Maneki Neko (traditional Lucky Cat statue) from Japan that I must have gotten for someone years ago but never given to them, and a Statue of Liberty Minnie Mouse plush that had recently caught my eye in the Disney Store in Manhattan. (I'm also indebted to my friend Bettina for actually picking up the plush Minnie for me when she'd been in NYC just before my trip.) I'd also brought a few Philadelphia things for her parents; it had been extremely difficult to pick out something for them since I didn't know what they'd like. I just did my best, particularly trying to seek out items that used the slogan "City of Brotherly Love". I was happy when Lisa smiled at my gifts, especially when she remarked that she'd always admired a Maneki Neko at a local restaurant.
I still hadn't eaten, so Lisa took me to what she called "The Goose", a small local gas station/restaurant that is officially called the Gander Big Stop Restaurant. Lisa cautioned me that local food was carb heavy and not necessarily the healthiest as if that could be a problem for tourists... but I saw no issues, especially since I was on vacation. I ordered pancakes with bacon and was served a huge plate that I was unable to finish despite my best intentions.
It was fun sitting in a local hangout and getting to know Lisa a little better. She described some of the real people associated with "Come From Away" so vividly that by the end of the trip I felt like I knew them. But I never got the sense that she was name dropping- the people she discussed appeared to be those whose company she genuinely enjoyed. It seemed like she was getting a kick out of the unique experience of being so closely involved with a hit musical, and so it was fun to hear the various little tidbits she shared. I particularly loved how she endearingly referred to the actors who play Oz in the musical as "Fake Dad."
After my appetite was sated, Lisa decided to take me to the site of the 1985 Arrow Air Crash which had resulted in the deaths of all 256 passengers and crew. The exact cause of the accident, which had occurred just after a charter US military flight took off from Gander en route to Kentucky, has never conclusively been determined. I'd never previously heard of the incident and found it interesting to learn of another story in which Gander was closely tied to the U.S. It was pleasant to walk around the site just off Gander Lake and take in the scenery, which included the Silent Witness Memorial statue, and a quartet of flags of Canada, Newfoundland, Gander and the U.S.
When originally researching my trip, I'd come across information for a tour offered by the North Atlantic Aviation museum called "Beyond Words Tours- A Come From Away Experience." As its name suggests, the tour was designed to show visitors many of the sites from the musical. Additionally, it offered the opportunity to meet a "notable local" who would personally tell their story. Obviously, I had to book it! Even after I'd later connected with Lisa online, I was glad that I'd planned to go on this tour because it had piqued my curiosity and I wanted to be able to experience it for myself.
Ever since a tour company had canceled my booking with very little notice during my 2011 Australia trip because they didn't want to run their tour with just 1 passenger, I've been leery that any tours I book might also suffer a similar fate if they don't reach some minimum number of guests. Leading up to my trip, I'd been checking availability on the website and I was getting nervous because it didn't seem like anyone else was booked when I was. When I missed a phone call from a Gander area code during my brunch, I worried that perhaps it was from someone canceling the tour. When I walked into the museum with Lisa, Abby (the woman who runs the tour) started to apologize. To my relief, the only hitch was that she'd been unable to find a "notable local" for that portion of the afternoon. She offered to refund a good portion of my payment, but I would rather have considered it a donation to the museum. Fortunately, Lisa was with me and before I could say anything, she insisted that her dad should be free. After she made a quick phone call, everything was magically as it should have been and I'd be able to experience the full tour! OK so I'd be meeting someone I'd already met… but I was cool with that.
After a cursory look around the museum during which time I was excited to see Beverley Bass' uniform and a piece of World Trade Center steel, it was time to hop into the van to get going. I am so impressed and pleased that they ran the tour- with both a guide and a driver- even though I was the only guest. It was obviously a very personalized afternoon, which is certainly way preferable to traveling with a full busload of tourists and feeling like the guide is mainly herding the crowd from place to place. Abby was an excellent and enthusiastic guide who had a wonderfully friendly and conversational manner of telling stories. I've since learned that she put together the tour herself, although she was too young to remember all that much about the original 2001 events. She's clearly put a lot of heart into researching the period and sharing her knowledge.
When I got into the van, Abby presented me a cute pin with the tour logo… which I placed in my bag and forgot about entirely until researching this blog entry. Our first stop was the Gander Airport. I'd obviously passed through there at 3am, but I'd barely even stepped into the building before being whisked off. One of the most noticeable sights in the main hall, just before the entrance to security, was a piece of the World Trade Center steel that was donated on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. The finale of the musical mentions a single piece of steel from the World Trade Center being donated to the city but in actuality I saw 3 pieces during this tour and there is also one more in the neighboring town of Appleton. According to the tour brochure, the first piece of steel was donated to Gander for the 10th anniversary, which is accurate to the musical since that is when its finale takes place.
We didn't get to see any areas beyond those open to the public but if I hadn't been on this tour, I probably wouldn't have realized that the airport has an upstairs area where one can look through windows at the international lounge which is where the diverted passengers arrived. True to the character Kevin J's exclamation "We've gone back in time", the interior is supposedly pretty much as it was during the height of the airport's usage in the 1950's when planes used to stop there to refuel during Transatlantic journeys. (I had to be a smart aleck and remark that the "Free Wifi" sign was probably on the newer side...) Nowadays, there aren't many scheduled international flights to Gander airport, although I was amused to find out that they offer seasonal service to Cuba.
One of the most notable features of the international lounge is the only escalator in Gander, which Abby said probably doesn't work any more. Above the escalator are analog clocks displaying the time in London, Montreal/NY and Moscow as well as Gander. On one of the walls is an huge, elaborate, colorful mural and Abby explained to me the meaning behind some of the figures depicted in it.
As we stood in the viewing area above the lounge, Abby visually traced the passengers' initial journey, pointing out the places where many of the activities would have occurred. She also shared some large (about 8x10) photographs taken on 9/11/2001 including one that showed a bunch of planes on the runway along with a cluster of yellow school buses which would be transporting the passengers. Actually being in the airport and hearing additional anecdotes and details about what happened on that day brought the stories of the diverted passengers alive to me in a new way.
Abby also discussed details that wouldn't make for a good musical theatre story like how the airport needed to staff additional personnel to process the passengers through customs. I asked what happened to any passengers from countries which required Visas to travel to Canada, but she didn't know the answer. On the way out of the overlook area, we stopped to gaze at a collage of celebrities who had passed through Gander during the airport's heyday as a travel hub; some of these, like Tiger Woods, were obviously more recent.
During our drive from the airport, we passed the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #8… and I kinda made the driver circle back so I could take a halfway decent photo of the location where the "Come From Away" screech in takes place. Being the only guest on a tour certainly has some benefits. As we passed the Newtel building, Abby showed me a 2001 photograph of tables outside which had been set up for the "plane people" to use phones, which is something mentioned in the musical. Our journey also took us by Gander Academy, another setting from the show.
We parked at the back entrance to Town Hall. Upon entering the building, I saw another piece of steel from the World Trade Center and then took my time perusing a hallway lined with various plaques and tributes. Among the most interesting of these were a a 9/11 Thank You quilt from Lancaster, PA and a key to the city of Seattle that had been presented to Mayor Claude when "Come From Away" premiered at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2015.
Then I entered the council chambers to "meet" realOz Fudge… for my second time. realOz had been a police constable during 9/11 but he's recently retired; however, he remains active in the community as a member of the town council- I smiled inside when I spotted his nameplate in the chamber. I'd obviously chatted with realOz already- and I would have more chances to casually hang out with him before leaving town. During the tour, I was treated to another side of him in which he assumed the persona of a master storyteller as he sat in front of me detailing some of his memories that had become part of a Broadway musical. Obviously a coherent 100 minute musical can't possibly include all the nuances of the stories that were its basis, and it was a treat to learn more about some incidents that were only briefly alluded to on stage... especially since realOz clearly enjoyed weaving these tales, sometimes with a bit of a twinkle in his eyes. I kept laughing every time he'd ask if I remember such-and-such a line… Of course I did! I'd seen the show 10 times, as recently as the previous day…. and I'd listened to the cast recording a ridiculous number of times.
I obviously can't relate all the details I heard- my memory is fuzzy and this blog is already long enough. But I'll share the highlights of some of my favorite tales. The first of these was an extended version of how realOz came to write out those "STFD" ("Slow The F--- Down") warning tickets during his days on the police force. It was super fun watching him re-enact how he'd want to make young drivers squirm while not really getting them into trouble. At some point (it may not have been during this conversation), he said that he'd talked to writers Sankoff and Hein so candidly because he had no expectations that the show they were writing would go anywhere and that he was surprised when he first heard "STFD" onstage! But he seems to embrace his now famous trademark phrase as evidenced by wearing one of the "STFD" shirts that his daughter Lisa sells (with part of the proceeds going to the Gander SPCA).
Another wonderful story alluded to briefly in "Come From Away" is how the town threw a party for the Make-A-Wish kids who were stranded in Gander. realOz had been directly involved in putting the event together and he shared the backstory of how and why it happened. I could tell that he was proud of his role in creating a little bit of magic for the kids.
I think it was realOz who shared the story behind the line "I saw a casserole dish I don't think I could lift", but it might have been Abby. I am unfortunately hazy on the details but the cool thing to me was that some people actually made a huge dish of food in order to help out.
A detail not in the show is that the town had to thoroughly clean out places like schools even before the passengers could be taken there due to health regulations. I think the story he shared was that someone came by to help or check on the progress… only to discover that so many people had already chipped in that the place was already completely clean and ready!
At one point, realOz pointed to a portrait on one of the Town Council boards of a gentleman named Ed Brake who was the real person that told a diverted rabbi his story of being born Jewish but being sent away during the war. (this incident is beautifully depicted onstage during the song "Prayer") In my research for this blog, I've learned that the rabbi didn't give Ed a kippah while he was in Gander (as shown in the musical), but rather he sent several items of Judaica later on. I was moved to read an article that said that Mr. Brake had been buried in a Kippah and Tallis that had been sent by the rabbi.
realOz seemed surprised that I'd never been backstage at "Come From Away"… which amused me because, I mean, who am I to be going backstage? He told me that I absolutely must let Lisa and/or him know the next time I see the show. As soon as I got a chance to sneak a moment with my phone, I messaged my friend Bettina, with whom I'd already been considering seeing the show again on Sept 30, and flat out told her we had
to see it. (True to his word, realOz got us backstage and it was amazing!)
In retrospect, I wish I had taken some notes since my memory for minute details is not the best. But I really just wanted to enjoy the conversation and live in the moment- and that I sure did! The hour flew by, and it was one of many highlights of my time in Gander. When Abby returned, she offered to take a photo of me with realOz- and I'm glad she did because I was too in awe of my experience of being thoroughly enthralled in realOz's stories to have thought of asking for a photo.
After saying goodbye to realOz (for the time being), I went outside to the front of the building to take a photo of its facade as well as the rainbow crosswalk that stretched into the street in front. Repainted each year since 2016, the crosswalk represents inclusiveness and was originally inspired by the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Gander may be a small town, but it's a super cool
The final stop of the tour was the Town of Gander fire hall where Abby has filled a small room with an impressive array of memorabilia: banners with messages from the "plane people", newspaper clippings, photo albums, thank-you notes, and binders full of cards from schoolchildren around the world. One of the binders happened to be open to a cover letter followed by pages of Valentines Day cards sent in February 2002 from a school in the town where I work! I smiled at the sight of the Commander Gander costume that Lisa had donned for the wish kids' party. On prominent display was one of the 2 original maps that had been set up at the Broadway theatre for patrons to use to pin their home locations. Unfortunately, this was the map of the NY metro area so it didn't have my pin; Captain Beverley Bass probably is in possession of the world map which would have the pin I'd placed during my first visit. I could easily have spent hours poring through every last item in the room- especially if I was able to go there on a rainy day when I had no other plans. As it was, I spent about 30-40 minutes there and I feel like I barely skimmed the surface of the room's many treasures.
One corner of the room had been set up as a small souvenir store and I bought one of the "STFD" t-shirts since I could pay by credit card. However, I also wanted to get one to surprise my friend, Bettina, and they didn't have any in her size so I purchased that one directly from Lisa later; fortunately Lisa received stock in my friend's size the next day!
Finally, the 3+ tour concluded back where we'd started, at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum. I lingered there for about a half hour going through the areas I hadn't seen earlier. Although the small museum has a variety of exhibits relating to the history of aviation in relation to Gander, I ultimately gravitated back to the area covering the post 9/11 airplane diversions. I was disappointed that a section that was supposed to be playing audio of actual air traffic controllers didn't appear to be functioning properly. But I was intrigued by a 9 minute video loop from an old ABC news segment with Diane Sawyer documenting the activities in 9/11 in Gander that had aired in Dec 2001, which included some of the people who ended up in the musical as well as others who didn't. (you can watch for yourself at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxaxrlusQC8
My hotel was nearby, and Lisa had told me about a path that would lead almost directly across from there. It was a very short walk, but quite pleasant. It might sound intimidating that I had to cross a highway to get to my hotel… but a Gander highway is more like a 4 lane road which happened to have little traffic at that time of day. I relaxed for only a very short time in my hotel room before Lisa messaged at around 5:45 asking if I was ready for dinner.
As I waited in the lobby, I was quite amused to hear a front desk clerk chatting with a guest about encounters with Moose in a manner similar to how Americans may sometimes talk about deer. It was such a Newfoundland conversation- I loved it! Lisa and her dad soon came by and we headed to "Wing 'n it" which is apparently one of her dad's favorite places. I was still pinching myself that this whole trip was actually real, and enjoying chatting with Lisa and realOz so I found it even harder than usual to focus on the menu. I was hopeless at scanning the intimidating columns upon columns of possible wing sauces. When Lisa ordered the macaroni and cheese with bacon, it sounded perfect to me- and much easier than choosing a sauce- so I ordered the same. No regrets- it was an excellent choice.
Afterwards, we headed to Scudrunner microbrewery because I was dying to try one of their custom brews, "LoveBirds", a mix of British and American processes/ingredients that was inspired by Nick and Diane, 2 of my favorite "Come From Away" characters. I could have ordered a small sample glass like Lisa did, which might seem sensible since I'm not usually a beer drinker. But I'd been anticipating this brew for months... so damn it all, I wanted a full glass! "Go big or go home," Lisa laughed approvingly of my choice. Don't ask me for comments since I don't much care for beer so I have no discerning thoughts to share… but I can say I finished the whole thing and I basically enjoyed it. Once again- no regrets.
There was some controversy with the brewery as they'd recently been going through a sexual harassment scandal with an employee. I appreciated the fact that Lisa wanted to ensure that I was informed about the story before deciding to go through with my visit. I trusted her judgment that the issue- while definitely awful- didn't involve the main owner who is a decent guy. Nonetheless, the scandal seemed like it might have been taking a toll... it so dead there that I was glad we visited just so the bartender wouldn't be dying of boredom. When we were almost done, another party walked in but for most of the time we were the only ones there.
As we were drinking, Lisa and realOz encouraged me to fly to Seattle and join them for the US tour opening in October. It was one of those ideas that sounded fabulous when I was feeling ever-so-slightly buzzed. I was all ready to book my plane ticket- to hell with the fact that it wasn't really in the budget- until I later realized with a sinking feeling that I'd already made plans for that weekend. I could never ditch my long time friends for a little brush with fame and new friends, even though it would have been wonderful to attend the opening party and to be introduced to Nick and Diane, whom I'm dying to meet (but probably shouldn't as I'm sure to say some awkward things and I'm not English so it won't come off that well). If I'm meant to attend one of these things, there will be other opportunities… I mean, there is a London opening next year…
After I was finally done with my drink (it, umm…. took awhile), they asked if I needed to stop for anything like snacks which was a wonderfully considerate thought. I suggested hitting Shoppers, a Canadian chain (similar to US Walgreens) that is mentioned in an amusing anecdote in the show, which was one of the places I'd most wanted to see during my visit. So I went to Shoppers and got a couple beverages and snacks. When I caught sight of a stack of reusable shopping bags near the registers, I excitedly thumbed through them hoping to find one with a Shoppers logo. Alas they had many beautiful designs… but none with even a hint a logo. When I went to pay at a self check-out aisle, I felt like an idiot because a cashier had to manually intervene to allow the sale to go through. I think it was because I had was using out of country credit card. Unfortunately, the current Shoppers is not the same building that was in use in 2001, but it was still cool to go there to feel a little show spirit.
On our way back to the hotel, Lisa and I started chatting excitedly about some of the purple items in our purses and realOz chucked with amusement that he felt like he was hearing double. It was a simple moment, but one that I recall quite fondly because I felt like I belonged. And because purple rules.
I got back my room somewhere around 9pm, which was a huge relief after 2 straight late night arrivals. I finally had a chance to relax a little and to reflect on my day. I was so grateful to Lisa and realOz for their hospitality. It might not seem like much… but when you've spent much of your summer questioning your place in the world with your friends and family, it's amazingly heartening to feel like people are genuinely glad to have you around.