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The Column: Americans may need reminding 'nice' isn't so bad

Tony Terzi, of Long Beach, talks in 1995

Tony Terzi, of Long Beach, talks in 1995 about his experiences in Vietnam. Photo Credit: Newsday/Jim Peppler

Broadway costs a bundle these days, so our four kids split the damage and gave their devoted parents tickets to “Come From Away.”

You’ve heard about it, maybe — a musical celebrating the generosity of townsfolk suddenly called upon to cope with 7,000 air travelers diverted to Newfoundland after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The play is comforting in what — at least, to me — seem strained and screwy times. Tell the truth, when did you last risk a chat with your favorite aunt or next-door neighbor about the state of the union?

“Just saying the word ‘America,’ can get you in trouble,” said a pal in Bethpage.

Oh, sure, we’ve been screaming at each other since forever.         

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were sometimes friends, often anything but.

When the two vied for the presidency in 1800, Jefferson’s supporters called Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character.” Undeterred, the Adams crowd dismissed Jefferson as a “mean-spirited, low-lived fellow” ill-suited to lead the new nation toward enlightenment.

Jefferson won. Adams skipped the inaugural. They didn’t speak for more than 10 years.

Finally, Jefferson and Adams reconciled and, in an astonishing act of cosmic coordination, died on the same day — July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

So, OK, we’ve been here before.

But, let’s face it, this does not exactly feel like the Age of Aquarius — peace, love and flower power.

Except, maybe, in Newfoundland.

That’s the notion of “Come From Away.”

When the madness of Sept. 11 became clear — the stark reality of evil unbounded — citizens of the town of Gander and nearby communities hurried to put down a marker for human decency.

Nearly 40 planes were diverted to Gander’s once-busy airport — transatlantic flights refueled there before modern jetliners made the trip on one tank of gas — and a crowd of strangers, dazed and confused, deplaned: Where are we anyway?

Turned out they’d landed in extreme eastern Canada, more than 1,000 air miles from New York, and soon found that if you had to be marooned for a few days, this was a great place to be.

Canadians are probably sick of being described as “nice” as if they were a nation of cocker spaniels, but Gander-ites met the test. And how.

Residents opened emergency shelters, collected soap and shaving cream, invited strangers into their homes, organized barbecues and entertainment, hoisted multiple bottles of Molson with the castaways and wouldn’t take a cent.

Nice, in other words. Very nice.

Here’s my question. Would we have done the same?

Were the Newfoundlanders special or is there more good in the world than we sometimes see — or want to?

Here’s an example:

As a reporter at Newsday in the mid-1990s, I did a story about a Vietnam vet named Tony Terzi.

After the war, Tony, who lived in Long Beach, went back to Vietnam a few times to do community service. He told me how good it made him feel to be waging peace instead of war. He loved the people and the place.

I tried to capture Tony’s big-hearted spirit in the story — his hope of making a difference, even on a small scale. 

A couple of years later, I found a manila envelope in my mailbox at the newspaper. Inside was a photo of a Vietnamese couple on the porch of a little house in the countryside. Behind them I could see a plaque near the front door.

It said something like: We would like to thank Fred Bruning for this home.

I called Tony. What’s with the plaque? I hadn’t built the little house or donated to the cause. How did I get credit?

“It’s OK,” Tony said. “The story meant something to me.”

For him, that was explanation enough.

I was thinking of Tony a few months ago and found his son, Jesse, by way of the internet.

Tony died several years before, Jesse told me. To the end, he cared about Vietnam and the villagers he met. Later in life, he went back to volunteer again.

“He was a good guy,” I said.

“Yes, he was,” said Jesse, in the easy manner of his dad. “A good guy.”

Tony Terzi was from Long Island, not Newfoundland.

But he knew the strength of a helping hand — the power of reconciliation.

Not a bad lesson, then and now. Sooner or later, we all come from away.          

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