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Friday, September 11, 2009

The Good People of Halifax

The second part of this posting is a re-post from two years ago to commemorate September 11, 2001. Before getting to it, let's remember another connection between September 11, 2001 and Stephen Jay Gould. His last essay in This View of Life—his regular column in Natural History—was published in January 2001. The title of the essay was "I Have Landed." Those are the words his grandfather wrote on September 11, 1901 when he arrived at Ellis Island, exactly one hundred years before September 11th became one of the most famous dates in American history.

Mike Dunford posted excerpts from a Stephen Jay Gould essay Apple Brown Betty [9-11]. This is another connection. It brings us to the third, and more direct, influence of 9/11 on Gould.

I hope you'll forgive my Canadian chauvinism on this occasion as I post parts of another Stephen Jay Gould essay [The Good People of Halifax].

My latest visit among you, however, was entirely involuntary and maximally stressful. I live in lower Manhattan, just one mile from the burial ground of the Twin Towers. As they fell victim to evil and insanity on Tuesday, September 11, during the morning after my 60th birthday, my wife and I, en route from Milan to New York, flew over the Titanic’s resting place and then followed the route of her recovered dead to Halifax. We sat on the tarmac for 8 hours, and eventually proceeded to the cots of Dartmouth’s sports complex, then upgraded to the adjacent Holiday Inn. On Friday, at 3 o’clock in the morning, Alitalia brought us back to the airport, only to inform us that their plane would return to Milan. We rented one of the last two cars available and drove, with an intense mixture of grief and relief, back home.


I know that the people of Halifax have, by long tradition and practice, shown heroism and self-sacrifice at moments of disaster -- occasional situations that all people of seafaring ancestry must face. I know that you received and buried the drowned victims of the Titanic in 1912, lost one in ten of your own people in the Halifax Explosion of 1917, and gathered in the remains of the recent Swissair disaster.

But, in a sense that may seem paradoxical at first, you outdid yourselves this time because you responded immediately, unanimously, unstintingly, and with all conceivable goodness, when no real danger, but merely fear and substantial inconvenience, dogged your refugees for a few days. Our lives did not depend upon you, but you gave us everything nonetheless. We, 9000 strong, are forever in your debt, and all humanity glows in the light of your unselfish goodness.

And so my wife and I drove back home, past the Magnetic Hill of Moncton (now a theme park in this different age), past the reversing rapids of Saint John, visible from the highway, through the border crossing at Calais (yes, I know, as in Alice, not as in ballet), and down to a cloud of dust and smoke enveloping a mountain of rubble, once a building and now a tomb for 5000 people. But you have given me hope that the ties of our common humanity will bind even these wounds. And so Canada, although you are not my home or native land, we will always share this bond of your unstinting hospitality to people who descended upon you as frightened strangers from the skies, and received nothing but solace and solidarity in your embrace of goodness. So Canada, because we beat as one heart, from Evangeline in Louisiana to the intrepid Mr. Sukanen of Moose Jaw, I will stand on guard for thee.
Some of us can watch the movie Diverted on television this evening. It's about the response of the people of Gander, Newfoundland when 38 planeloads of people landed at their airport on September 11, 2001 following the closure of American airspace.


  1. Yes, we Haligonians are known for our hospitality and reliability in a storm (literal or figurative).

  2. As usual those are beautiful words from Gould.

  3. Hey Larry in half an hour I'll be on CBC radio if you want to tune in hahaha