My “Come From Away”

Newfoundland Coast

It was the summer of 1973. A year after college graduation, I was making a life for myself on the gritty upper west side of Manhattan in a run-down tenement building occupied by a motley crew of hippies and disillusioned Columbia University graduates.  My boyfriend Fred and I shared a fifth-floor walk-up at 105th Street and Columbus Avenue, adjacent to a building controlled by the local drug dealers. Each evening we were serenaded by salsa music emanating from the bodega just across the street, sometimes punctuated by the click, click, click of dominos accompanying excited comments from local Dominican and Puerto Rican players and onlookers.

For over a year I had strutted through the neighborhood on my way to the subway, brushing off the incessant commentary from groups of boys and men on stoops and fire escapes. My New York was a poor, dangerous, rancid smelling citadel of freedom, and I gloried in my independence and burgeoning womanhood.

Summer there…was hot…and humid…with no respite and even worse…no escape. Then suddenly Fred’s cantankerous, yet charming, French father gifted him the family’s old Renault 16. No longer confined to the neighborhood streets, we were able to set off on a new adventure…somewhere cool, green, and exotic. We quickly hatched a plan to drive to Newfoundland and Labrador for a three-week vacation. Although we had few resources, we were experienced and frugal campers, and necessity had rendered me expert at managing the purse strings of a meager income.

We removed the rear seat from the Renault, packed it to the gills with supplies, camping gear, and Fred’s borrowed 5×7 view camera and tripod and left town in mid-August. After a minor adventure with border patrol as we crossed the Canadian frontier in our hippy garb, we arrived by ferry in Newfoundland early on the second morning of our journey. A green, dewy, rugged landscape emerged from low clouds on our approach to Port aux Basques. In high spirits we set off to explore.

(Click on photo of map for a detail view of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Newfoundland is shaped like a triangle with a main highway on two sides and no road at all on its base. Our goal was to drive from Port aux Basques at the southwest tip to the small port of Argentia (near Placentia) on the southeastern corner of the island. There we had reserved ferry passage to St. Pierre et Miquelon, two tiny French fishing islands just off the coast. We secured lodging at a pension, ate simple, locally prepared French food, tramped along the isolated seashore and rocky cliffs, and examined dozens of tidal pools teeming with sea creatures. After three days we returned to the main island to begin the drive back. Ominous rumblings greeted us when we reached St. John’s, the provincial capital on the eastern end of the island. Canadian National Ferry Service workers’ new contract negotiations had run aground; a strike was imminent. Suddenly we realized we had to hightail it six hundred miles back to Port aux Basques and get on a boat before service was cut off.

After a two-day slog (and a brief encounter with a Massachusetts family of two adults and five children in a ramshackle camper adorned with bicycles) we reached the port. A two-mile line of cars was already waiting to embark; we joined the queue and prayed. Then the news reached us. The strike was on.

Will and Jane at their home in Vermont

Following one night sleeping in the car through a terrible thunderstorm, we turned around and headed north of town to a campsite. Our supplies were running out and the local shops couldn’t keep up with two thousand tourists. Many began heading north and east.  We went into town to stock up and get gas and encountered the family in the camper. Lea and Meg informed us that the local Lion’s Club was planning to feed tourists who stayed in the area. They had also befriended Will and Jane, a middle-aged couple from Vermont, and Lou and Mary, an older couple from Connecticut, all of whom were collaborating with the Lion’s Club to help organize the tourist aid program. As we were young activists, we joined right in, eventually accepting Will and Jane’s offer to share their hotel room, which had two queen beds.

Lou and Mary

And so it was that we formed the Committee of Tourists, interacting with locals, strikers, disgruntled truckers and even the Emmett Kelly Circus for a period of ten more days.  We contacted a Manhattan activist friend by phone and urged her to encourage the New York news outlets to carry our story. We met with the American consul who flew in by helicopter. We made phone calls to the Nixon White House to ask for the U.S. Air Force to fly us out. The response was lukewarm, at best. Many Americans thought we should “just drive around the other way.”  Had they missed the geography lesson about Canada’s maritime island province?

Just as depicted in the 2017 Broadway musical “Come From Away”, the story of stranded 9-11 plane passengers who found unexpected hospitality in Newfoundland, we were welcomed by a local population that was generous, kind and genuinely caring. We were treated to three meals a day at the Lion’s Club Hall and accepted visits with local ladies in their picturesque cottages, where we gorged on biscuits with bakeapple jam. We enjoyed an evening performance by the stranded circus performers. The fine, uncharacteristically dry weather favored endless opportunities for small excursions to local parks and natural sites, and of course, hours of wandering the rocky shoreline with our new friends.

Click on this photo of Port aux Basques for original on-site CBC news reporter’s memoir

By the time the strike ended, our plan to move on to Labrador was no longer feasible. The Committee banded together and caravanned its way home, each car peeling off to points east or west of the main highway to New York. Back in our steamy apartment we collapsed, exhausted and dead broke, yet exhilarated. Already we had plans to meet our friends in just a few short weeks for a fall reunion at Will and Jane’s farmhouse in Vermont. We could hardly wait!

Theresa at Newfie reunion in Vermont

Over the years our little band of “Newfies” held reunions at regular intervals. In Vermont, we re-enacted Civil War photographs, took turns shooting an antique rifle on the farm’s wooded property, and explored neighboring Woodstock under a canopy of brilliant fall foliage. In Cape Cod, Meg and Lea treated us to a Thanksgiving picnic on the Orleans beach where we baked local fish and huddled together in the brisk fall air. In Connecticut, Lou and Mary generously shared their new condo on Long Island Sound, regaled us with photos of their frequent trips to Europe, and used their influence to organize a concert venue for me to perform a concert of opera arias and duets with a colleague. And in New York, we went to museums, restaurants and a favorite neighborhood jazz bar headlined by a combo of elderly former colleagues of Duke Ellington.

From left, Lou, Will, Annie (Meg’s daughter) Meg and Fred at Newfie reunion in Vermont.

My precious Newfie friendships endured for many years. How extraordinary it was to experience the wisdom and energy of a multi-generational group of friends who treated one another as equals despite the age differences that separated us.  Most of them are gone now, yet the memories of that special journey and the joyful reunions that we shared will never be forgotten.

 


Theresa at Newfie Reunion 1974

Theresa D’Aiuto Sokol was a performing artist, teacher and director. Experienced in opera, concert, and chamber music, she lived and worked in Germany and sang a wide range of repertoire on three continents. She was Opera Director at USF where she staged two productions annually for a decade, and directed opera, musicals and theater in regional venues. Theresa holds a B.M. and M.M. in vocal performance from Manhattanville College and USF, and trained privately in NYC with professionals from Juilliard, Curtis and the Metropolitan Opera and in Europe. In her retirement she enjoys languages, baking, blogging, bridge and video editing.



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16 Replies to “My “Come From Away””

  1. What an incredible experience! Theresa, I really admire your intrepid, adventurous spirit. Thanks for sharing this special story – it brings back the 70’s so vividly.

  2. This makes me want to take the Life Story Writing class, 9/25 – 10/30 at Concordia Village. I wish it was a hybrid class.

  3. This reminds me of a book written by Movie Critic, David Denby,
    “Great books” telling his experience with retaking the required course at Coulumbia twenty years later. I entered the US on Dec. 22, 1973 and took a Greyhound to see some friends. Even though I was qualified to start my internship, most positions started in July. My total funds were $400 and the Indian government used to give a few classmates a foreign exchange of $8. Luckily I soon found a student clerk position in a Chicago hospital. The first movie I saw in the US was American Graffiti… http://www.david-denby.com/greatbooks

  4. Loved reading this story. Brought back many memories of a car/ camping trip to NovaScotia in the ‘70’s. Those young and carefree days!

  5. Theresa, to your wonderful list of accomplishments, add…mesmerizing storyteller! The tale of your adventures enthralls all our senses., as you invite us to share your spirited experiences and this window into a special time and place and its memories.

  6. From the “other party in the story”: beautiful tale well-told; thank you, Terri!

    But the Renault 16 was NOT old (1969). We later drove it across the continent four times; THEN it got old.

  7. Ah, a colorful tale nicely told, and I enjoyed it all the more because I’m a former Upper Westsider.(lived at 91st and Riverside for 44 years). Bravo.

  8. NOW I SEE WHY WE JELL—WELL TOLD AND REMINDS ME OF MY R.V. DAYS IN THAT PART OF THE WORLD—YOU MEET WONDERFUL PEOPLE. AND IT REFLECTS IN YOUR WRITINGS AND MAKES ONE WISH TO ADVENTURE INTO THAT WORLD YOU DESCRIBED SO WELL.
    BEE ZEE

  9. What wonderful memories to look back on. I was especially pleased to note that you kept up your friendships for so long. Real life, real people making lemonade out of lemons!
    Thanks for sharing.
    Catherine

  10. Theresa – great story! And coincidently, I too was in Newfoundland the summer of ’73! I believe I was there in late June, because I wasn’t affected by the strike. I left my vehicle in Sydney Nova Scotia, and went on the ferry on foot with a couple of guys I had picked up hitchhiking earlier. I distinctly remember sitting in the bar on the upper deck, drinking that good Canadian beer, then watching my glass slide across the table as we left the harbor. I spent the next 4 hours of the trip to Port aux Basques puking. That’s the sickest I’ve ever been. Loved Newfoundland and Newfies!

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