Sunday, July 19, 2015

Crossroads of the world

Gander, NL – The wel-come sign to the town of Gander uses the above phrase as its subtitle, for the con-struction of the Gander airport was the reason the town came to be. Originally a swamp land, this region was chosen for its strategic location for planes to land from overseas when such travel was in its infancy, and for its wide expanse of flat land.

In the earliest days, air access was the only access to Gander, but it was nevertheless a bustling centre of activity, both during the construction phase and when the airport became fully operational. Refueling was a vital service here when planes were not able to go as far as they do now, so nearly every flight from overseas had to make a stop here before heading on to larger centres.
We visited the Gander Aviation Museum today after we arrived and got settled in our new location. It was a short drive, so we had all afternoon to explore. Since this attraction was right next door to the visitor centre where we made our first stop, it was an easy choice.

After reading panels at many museums on this trip as well as on others, I found it refreshing to absorb the information at this one through its breezy writing style, which combined facts and figures with touches of humour. For example, one panel about all the celebrities who had come through Gander was set up like a quiz game, asking “whose real name was Norma Jean?” for Marilyn Monroe or “who was the first human in space?” for Yuri Gagarin. There was also a photo of Fidel Castro trying out a toboggan outside the terminal as he encountered snow for the first time.
The military significance of Gander was particularly great, and the town still has a Canadian Forces Base. But the event that really put Gander on the map, at least in recent times, was September 11, 2001, when all US airports were closed following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Suddenly the tarmacs became airplane parking lots as dozens of flights destined elsewhere were forced to land here.

Hundreds of bewil-dered passengers found themselves stranded, but the people of Gander immediately res-ponded with open arms – bringing food, inviting strangers home, opening chur-ches where people crowded in and slept on the pews, providing toiletries and clothing and every kind of comfort and assistance they could think of over the several days before the travelers could get on their way. A display of heartfelt letters from people who received this support – and from others who were simply grateful that such kindness still existed in the world – were on display at the museum. There was even a chunk of steel I-beam from the World Trade Center that was sent by the people of the United States as a token of thanks.
It’s clear that this event had a big impact on the people of Gander. In 2011 there was a 10th anniversary comme-moration, and even today at the visitor centre there’s a notebook and pen set out for anyone who wishes to record their personal memory of that dark day in history – and lots of people have done so. The generosity and kindness triggered by 9-11 still reverberates in this small Newfoundland town.

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