In cod they trust

 The cast of

The cast of "Come From Away" performs at the 71st annual Tony Awards on Sunday, June 11, 2017, in New York. (Photo by Michael Zorn/Invision/AP)

Newfoundland was Britain’s oldest colony; in 1949, however, its inhabitants narrowly voted to join Canada, thus becoming the 10th province of that country. The capital city, St. John’s, is the home of the provincial legislature with its panoply of officials, including a premier and ministers of this and that. A remarkable site in its deepwater harbor is huge icebergs, the size of tall buildings — a huge and much-photographed tourist attraction.

The Newfies, as they’re called, sustain themselves on cod and tourism or, as my father, who hailed from the next-door province of Nova Scotia, used to say: “Fishing and fornicating in summer; no fishing in winter.” The Irish influence on the province is strong, not-only in the ever present Irish brogue, but also in the propensity of the natives to be great partygoers and storytellers, something known locally and in Ireland as craic. And Ireland itself is a mere 2,000 miles from St John’s.

The airport at Gander in Newfoundland was once the largest in the world due to its role as a necessary refueling place for aircraft that couldn’t quite make the long haul across the Atlantic Ocean. With the arrival of jet aircraft capable of flying thousands of miles at a stretch, however, Gander’s airport became redundant.

But that changed on 9/11 when flights were rerouted to their nearest airport and 38 jets deposited almost 7,000 passengers in Gander — about 2/3 of the local population.

Since then, the town has gained prominence as the subject of a Broadway musical titled “Come From Away.” (That’s what Newfoundlanders call people who come from elsewhere in the world.)

Among the audience at the New York premiere were Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ivanka Trump, and Gander’s mayor since 1996, Claude Elliott. (Nominated for seven Tony Awards, it won one for best direction of a musical.)

The natives of Gander were hugely welcoming to their unexpected guests, providing food and accommodation, and even clothing. Best of all, though, was making them into honorary Newfoundlanders, an ancient ceremony called “screeching” that requires participants to stand in a bucket of water, kiss a cod on the lips, and vow to tell no Newfies jokes — the equivalent of jokes about “Polacks,” or other groups singled out for jocular opprobrium — and consume a tumbler of the rough rum known as Screech.

As a young medical editor based in Ottawa, Ontario, I was detailed to fly to St. John’s to interview the province’s minister of health. Arriving at the minister’s office, I learned that he was on an extensive lunch break. While I was waiting, his secretary said, “Are you from Canada?”

After the interview, I was escorted to a nearby hangar and duly placed in a bucket of water. I kissed the fish, took the vow, and drank the hideous liquor. I was then presented with a certificate of the Royal Order of Screechers, signed by the mayor of St. John’s, Dr. Noel F. Murphy. That certificate, which reads in part “this is to certify that [I] consumed on this day some of Newfoundland’s Golden Elixir. The bearer of this certificate is hereby enrolled in the Royal Order of Screechers,” now takes an honored place among the various, and distinctly more mundane, attestations to real or imagined academic accomplishment gracing my office wall.

Since then, I’ve always had a great affection for Newfoundlanders, a hearty party-going group of jaunty storytellers — lovers of craic. In fact, in a later incarnation as editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, I was required to visit all 10 Canadian provinces at least once each year. The one that I looked forward to most happily was Newfoundland.

So if you go there, be sure to join in the unique festivities and the craic while trying to avoid the local liquor. Though be warned: You may not be able to similarly avoid the cod’s lips.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.