Editor’s note: It has spent a year being the toast of Broadway, and indeed North America. Playing to packed audiences and picking up awards along the way, the Broadway musical “Come from Away” has been a roaring success. On its first anniversary, former CBC broadcaster Reg Sherren takes a look at not only the fateful day that inspired it — Sept. 11, 2001 — but the much longer-standing relationship between Newfoundland and America, in this letter to New York City.
It has happened my entire life. As soon as someone knows I am from Newfoundland, they often offer up a “Newfie joke.”
These jokes have infected Canadian society for decades, probably since Newfoundland joined with Canada in 1949. Sure, some are funny, but often they are derogatory and condescending, the type of joke that would never be accepted if told about any other place, race or religion anymore. But apparently, as I learned again recently, it is still perfectly acceptable for some people to tell them about Newfoundlanders.
That’s why I received the news from my wife that she had purchased two tickets for us to see “Come From Away” with mixed emotions ... OK, maybe with more than a little apprehension. I had visions of sitting through an hour or more of theatre with my teeth and fists clenched.
And yes, as a seasoned journalist, I know well enough that any production that has received tremendous reviews and awards and has broken box office records on Broadway and, indeed, across North America, must have a little something more going for it than that. But still, that feeling of impending dread loomed ... it loomed large.
There is something else you should know about me.
I was in the air myself that day, flying across Newfoundland from St. John’s to the west coast of the island and the small community of Stephenville. My cousin had been recently killed in a tragic kayaking accident, and I was on my way to help his widow chew through the paperwork. It was a journey that would take me halfway across the country — two plane rides, a long car ride, and an ocean sailing, to get to her.
The landing in Stephenville, as fate would have it, was on the morning of 9-11. It wasn’t as inundated with terrorism refugees as Gander, but Stephenville certainly received its share. As we landed in our commuter plane, these huge transatlantic jetliners were swooping in all around us. The small airport terminal was chaos. The terminal is small, but the landing strips are massive.
That’s because, also like Gander, Stephenville has its own connections to the United States. There used to be an American Air Force base there, one of five that were, at one time, dotted across the Newfoundland and Labrador landscape. I was born in the base hospital there.
It’s just one of many connections between Newfoundland and the United States, and, indeed, New York that you may not be aware of.
Before I continue my story, allow me a little history. For example, did you know that Newfoundland played a critical role in saving Canada from becoming part of your American states? One of the first times we bumped together, it wasn’t exactly amicable.
It was fall, 1775. The American War of Independence was in full flight. Americans were fed up with British trade laws. Debate led to dispute which led to revolt and then to war. And it didn’t take long for the so-called rebel colonies to become nervous about the danger on their flank, British Canada. After attempts at diplomacy failed, the American Congress decided to pursue the option of attack. Canada, they concluded, must be gained or conquered.
Two large American armies swept north. Canada was in a critical situation. Soldiers and provisions were in short supply. Leaders were dispatched to attempt to raise more men. They were not having much luck.
One was sent to Newfoundland, at the time little more than a fishing colony where permanent residency was prohibited, a place with barely 9,000 souls, most of them fishermen. They also had troubles of their own. Threatened with famine, American privateers were wreaking havoc off their shores daily, setting upon fishing and supply vessels alike. Still, almost 200 Newfoundland volunteers stepped forward to help Canada hold back the American invasion. They set sail and landed in Quebec, the very day before a major assault on the last city that the American forces had not captured.
The battle raged for days. Maj.-Gen. Richard Montgomery, an Irishman and co-leader with Benedict Arnold, led the final critical American assault with sword drawn. He would not succeed, thanks — as it would later to be noted — to the hardy defence put forward by those brave Newfoundlanders, and their ability to persevere in adverse conditions.
Montgomery lay dead. The tide of the invasion turned. Canada was saved. Montgomery’s body was later returned by the British for burial in New York.
It was the first but certainly not the last time Newfoundlanders stepped forward to save the British bacon. They did it again during the battle of 1812.
Then, in the First World War, Newfoundland, again without its own formal army, sent thousands to serve in the trenches of Europe, its regiment so decorated for duty and bravery in the face of slaughter, it was awarded the rare designation, “Royal” Newfoundland Regiment by King George V of England.
Newfoundland was now a country, with its own money and stamps, and ways of doing things. And our interest in your United States was on the rise. People leaving St. John’s were far more likely to set sail for Boston or New York than anywhere in Canada.
Many, desperate for work, did exactly that.
In downtown New York, they called them “fish.” Fish because they moved together on the streets as if in a school, these young Newfoundland fishermen who had been recruited to build the skyscrapers of the Big Apple. They were known to be fearless. Their experience dancing in the rigging high above the decks of their schooners made them invaluable. That fancy footwork riveted the steel of Manhattan together.
By the 1930s, Newfoundlanders represented about a quarter of the entire membership of Ironworkers Local 40, covering Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island.
My uncle was a high steel worker.
Down on the docks of New York, you could find Capt. Bob Bartlett of Brigus, Newfoundland and his sailing ship, the Effie M. Morrissey. Bartlett was considered one of the greatest ice captains in the world, leading more than 40 expeditions to the Arctic, it is said more than anyone before or since, many departing from New York.
Bartlett was the fellow who accompanied Robert Peary in his attempts to reach the North Pole, breaking a trail through formidable Arctic sea ice and bringing the good commander to within 150 miles of the pole itself. Bartlett was awarded the Hubbard Medal by the National Geographic Society for exploration and research.
In 1914, he led the rescue of the doomed Karluk expedition. Stranded for several months in ice, Bartlett was forced to put his crew and provisions on a jut of rock, an island in the middle of nowhere, before the ship was crushed. He and his Inuit companion, Kataktovik, walked 700 miles across Siberia, returning almost a year later to save those that were able to hang on.
This time he received the highest award from the Royal Geographic society for his outstanding heroism.
In 1927, Bartlett was once again decorated, this time by the Boy Scouts of America. He was made an Honorary Scout, an award usually reserved for “American citizens whose achievements in outdoor activity and exploration and worthwhile adventure are of such an exceptional character as to capture the imagination of boys.”
Other recipients included Charles Lindbergh and Orville Wright.
Bartlett lived out his days taking young Americans looking for adventure to the high Arctic, sailing among the icebergs, or capturing walrus to bring back for the Bronx Zoo. He died in a New York City hospital at the age of 70 of pneumonia and was brought home to Newfoundland to be buried.
I had the great pleasure of sailing on Captain Bob’s ship some years later (it is now being completely rebuilt, stem to stern) and I am just getting started when it comes to the relationship between Newfoundland and our American cousins.
During the second World War, Newfoundland was of critical importance as a fuel transit point for war planes headed into the battle for Europe. As I mentioned, no fewer than five American bases were built. The largest, in Argentia, housed over 20,000 personnel, and at one point, was considered the second largest community in Newfoundland.
It was also just off the coast from Argentia, in Placentia Bay back in 1941, that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill, a highly secretive conference to convince your United States to jump in and help turn the tide of destruction in Europe. It has been called one of the most important, yet least known moments in Canadian, or for that matter, American history.
Churchill, a relatively old man at 66, was embattled, in France and in Parliament. His troops were being pushed into the sea by Nazi might. He had just scraped through the humiliating withdrawal of thousands of men across the English Channel from French Dunkirk, and was forced to use civilian vessels to do so. Roosevelt, 59 and afflicted by polio, had problems of his own. Many Americans still remembered the first sacrifice in Europe, the war to end all wars, and were reluctant to send their young men into the middle of another one. Yet both men knew they had to meet, away from the conflict and the politics. They chose Newfoundland.
Churchill slipped away from Britain aboard the battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Roosevelt, under the cover of a fabricated New England fishing trip, boarded a U.S. navy cruiser and sailed for Placentia Bay. Over three days they set about planning the defeat of the Axis of Evil, drawing up the eight clauses that would become the Atlantic Charter, the plan to defeat Hitler and his cohorts.
Just months later, in February, on the other side of that very same Placentia Bay, the men were just coming off shift in the local fluorspar mine at St. Lawrence, when a stranger, drenched in oil, staggered up to them. He was an American sailor with the news that his warship the USS Truxtun and another, the USS Pollux, had driven up on the rocks in a terrible winter squall. Hundreds were facing sure death in the rage of boiling seas.
Newfoundland men scaled the 200-foot cliffs, down to where the broken ships rolled smashed in angry, oil-slicked water, and carried those still clinging to life up on their backs, one by one; 186 were saved.
As a gesture of gratitude, the United States government built and donated a state-of-the art hospital to serve the nearby towns. A plaque inside read, “For the dauntless valour displayed by the people of St. Lawrence.”
Churchill and Roosevelt would later have their victory. Argentia was also the last American base on Newfoundland ... now Canadian soil. I covered the story as the American flag was lowered for the last time.
In 1949 we voted to enter into Confederation with Canada, at least that’s how the story goes. But it should be known that early in the debate, there were actually three options, one of them being to seek union with your United States.
That never came to pass ... why, is another story. But many of those rescued American sailors from the Pollux and Truxtun returned to the Burin Peninsula almost every year for the rest of their lives, to say thanks — a bond welded in despair in the North Atlantic.
As I got off the small commuter I had flown into Stephenville on, I noticed two things: people in the normally sleepy airport terminal were headed in every possible direction, and secondly, nobody was getting off those jumbo jets, at least not yet.
As I was picking up my rental, the gal behind the counter said, “there’s something happening in New York.”
I headed for my cousin Fred’s house and found him and his wife Ann-Marie in the kitchen making dozens and dozens of sandwiches for those “Come-from-aways” who had landed, the carnage unfolding in New York beaming in on the television behind them.
“There’s been a disaster,” said Fred. “All those folks will soon be allowed off those planes. They’ll be hungry, and we are happy to help.”
And help they did. Like the good people of Gander, or St. Lawrence, they worked around the clock for days.
I had a very tight timeline to drive several hours through the bush, across the barrens, down to the southwest coast and the ferry to where my cousin’s widow lived, on the island of Ramea. As I sat on board, rolling in the swells, I watched the grainy image of the second tower collapsing on the ship’s television.
Several months later I found myself filming in New York, at the United Nations. I got up early, couldn’t sleep, and though it was bitterly cold, I found myself wandering toward the spot where the World Trade Center used to stand.
On Wall Street I stopped at Trinity Episcopal Church where George Washington once attended services. His chief of staff, Alexander Hamilton, owned a pew at Trinity, and is buried there, along with other founding fathers. His grave, all of them really, were still covered with the fine ash from the terrorist act that shook the world.
There’s something else you should know.
The descendants of those Newfoundland high steel “fish,” the ones who welded together the iron frames surrounding Times square? Well, they also helped build those twin towers.
The smell from the still smouldering wreckage grew stronger as I got closer. It was barely seven o’clock.
A New York police officer stood guard near an opening where you could view the tangled remains — it, too, now a gravesite for so many lost. I expressed my condolences and said everyone is rooting for New York and its people, and grieving right along with you.
He asked me where I was from. I said Newfoundland, as I always do, even when I am travelling outside the country. He said he had heard something about all the planes that had landed there, and the support the people received.
We stood together, just the two of us, staring at the carnage with tears in our eyes.
All of which is to say, this was personal for me, this musical called “Come from Away.”
As I carried myself through the crowd and to our seats, I could already feel the swell of pride, emotion and fear of what may be coming welling up inside me. I could not have been more wrong.
From the opening number, “Welcome to the Rock,” all my fears drifted away.
The energy, the humour, the sensitivity conjured by the writers, directors and actors was something I never imagined. It’s reflection of people and place left me riding high on each wave of emotion.
The latest statistics available show that Newfoundland and Labrador is far and away the most generous of all the Canadian provinces and territories. Even in the face of chronic, double-digit unemployment, in 2013, 87 per cent of its people donated to a charitable cause.
“Come from Away” captures all that it is to be part of that Newfoundland community — the tenacity, the selfless giving, the resourcefulness.
It’s the spirit of the place I still call home.
People have always been our greatest asset, and sadly, our greatest export. It’s been estimated that if you go back several generations, there may be as many as 5 million or 6 million Newfoundlanders sprinkled throughout North America.
I am one of them.
So, on this first anniversary of “Come from Away,” I raise my glass to you.
And yes, I do like a good joke as much as the next guy.
Like the fellow who came up to the Newfoundlander and asked, “have you lived here all your life?” And the Newfoundlander said, “well … not yet."