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Harry's Gang: What would we do?

I wonder what would happen if hundreds of strangers suddenly got stranded in Cloquet. Maybe a huge blizzard hits while we’re hosting a big hockey tournament? Or tragedy strikes on a summer Sunday afternoon, when seemingly a million people are passing through town on their way home from the weekend. I guess it’s pretty unlikely, but it could happen.

There was indeed such a scene after 9/11, when 38 planes were suddenly grounded in Gander, Newfoundland, leaving almost 7,000 passengers stranded in a town even smaller than Cloquet.

It’s a great story. Authorities chose Gander because the airport was unusually large, since it had been a refueling stop for transatlantic flights years ago, and if some of the planes were actually being used by terrorists, the risk of lives lost in Gander (population 9,000) was lower than with more populous cites. Plus, authorities didn’t have much time to make a decision: these planes were in the air, on their way to destinations mostly in the United States, but weren’t allowed to land here.

I just saw the show, “Come from Away,” a musical based on that true story. The show has become wildly popular, and has won awards and accolades. It’s an intriguing story.

The musical itself was routine and formulaic, with hookless songs and indistinguishable melodies. You won’t be hearing any of these bland songs being played on the radio or becoming a hit song. But the story was amazing, and the audience leapt to its feet in a standing ovation at the end. I’d go see it again, whether it’s on Broadway, our local community theater, or a local high school. It was that good.

It left me wondering: What would happen if Cloquet were suddenly inundated with stranded “come from away” people? (Apparently, that’s a Canadian term for visitors, you know, people who “come from away from here.”) How would we react?

In the show, it’s obvious that all types of people were on those planes. Just like in real life, you never know who’s on a plane with you. It could be a happy couple on their honeymoon, or a strained couple headed for divorce. It could be celebrities; it could be criminals. Each person would have a story: just like there’s 35,000 different stories in Carlton County. A random cross section of humanity.

I suspect we’d react similarly to the way they reacted in Gander. One of the messages is that while we are all different, people are the same all over. I bet we’d respond to the challenge.

In the show, people opened up their homes to perfect strangers. That happens here. For example, the Minnesota Wilderness hockey team — made up of eager amateurs hoping to get some experience and maybe a shot at playing professionally — has a program where players stay in the homes of local hockey fans, who allow these young men to join their families in exchange for a few free tickets to some Wilderness games. There’s all kinds of examples of generosity by our neighbors.

In the show, it seemed like the whole town pitched in. They cleared out the local Walmart and every other store, and asked everyone to donate whatever they had in their cupboards. They even raided the backyards of nearly everyone in town to commandeer their barbecue grills: it takes a lot of stove tops to cook for 7,000 people. How did they refrigerate everything? They closed down the local hockey shelter, and used it as a cooler. Sometimes, it seems, political leaders put their emergency powers to good use.

I think we’d probably do the same thing the people of Gander did. I envision the churches would offer their facilities for lodging, and the schools would let people stay in classrooms and use the locker rooms as bathrooms. The Fond du Lac Band would open its hotel and convention center for the same purposes. Someone would realize there are animals that need care, and form a group to tend to them. Some of the “come from away” would get sick, or need emergency dental care. Strangers would explore the beautiful natural resources we have around here, such as Jay Cooke Park and our trail systems. Relationships would form, and relationships would be strained. Just like in real life. And, after a few days or so, after the crisis had passed and the visitors had left, a wave of pride would sweep through our town, of a job well done. There would be no expectation of profit. We’d say, “Well, they would have done the same thing, if we were in their situation.”

And then we’d go back to our lives but, boy, we’d have a great story to tell for years to come.

Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News community newspaper and an attorney in Esko who hosts the cable access talk show Harry’s Gang on CAT-7. His opinions are his own. Contact him at [email protected].

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