"A Healing Return"
A story I wrote earlier this year as I remembered the events of 1970.
A HEALING RETURN
I’ve thought about the trip many times; gone over it again and again in my mind.
In November I’ll finally make the real trip that I’ve avoided making all these years. I guess I just didn’t want to be reminded of what happened on that West Virginia hillside so many years ago when 75 people including my good friend and teammate Art Harris and his dad lost their lives in a devastating plane crash that rocked the town of Huntington, West Virginia and changed so many lives in the blink of an eye. I guess I didn’t want to feel that survivor’s guilt again; as Mr. Harris, Art’s dad, had invited me to join him on the trip that weekend.
It was November, 1970 a day or so after the crash that for some reason I was drawn to the campus of Marshall. So I got in my car and drove the almost 600 miles to West Virginia. I had no idea what I would do when I got there or why I was going. I think I needed the confirmation that this wasn't just a nightmare.
As I arrived on campus, the atmosphere was gloomy along with the weather. There were no smiles, there was no laughter that I remembered from my previous visits. Everyone seemed to be walking around in a daze. As I have written before, time seemed to stand still.
I hitched a ride out to the crash site that was still smoldering with a few flames here or there. As I approached the site it was like a movie and everything taking place was in slow motion. My whole body became weak and my hands shook at the thought of what I might be about to witness. Not far down the hillside I saw the smoldering wreckage, what was once the a fuselage of a DC9. As I remember this, I think of the line in the movie ‘WE ARE MARSHALL’ when Nate Ruffin asks the firemen to check the front of the plane to identify the airline. The fireman replies, “Son, there is no front of the plane”.
That’s exactly how devastating the scene that unfolded in front of me appeared.
My heart sank and I was so weak that I dropped to my knees on the muddy road,with tears in my eyes. It was at this moment that I really understood that Art and his dad were not coming home. There would be no NFL, no more “partner in crime” and no more hours of talking about sports with Mr. Harris.
I got to my feet,turned from the wreckage and began to walk down the old logging road to collect my thoughts. I thought about Art’s two sisters and his mom and Art's 1year old son who would never get to know his dad and all the other people in Huntington and around the country who had their lives changed forever.
I attended a service that night which seemed, for the moment to make things better and I helped at the armory where they brought the bodies in for identification; something I will never talk about in any detail. I returned home when I could no longer take the heartbreak and grief,.
I attended my friends’ funeral, where we placed a football and a six pack with the casket. I took a rose from one of the wreaths and still have that rose to this day.
I occasionally return to my native NJ and when I do, one of my first stops is the cemetery to pay my respects to Art and his dad and now his little sister and mom; who always treated me as family.
Time passes quickly. But those memories are as fresh as if they happened yesterday.
So in November, that part of my life will have come full circle. Would I change anything? Of course I would. Art had so much promise as an athlete and as a person.
I’ll go over the trip in my mind over and over again until November, when I’ll retrace my steps from so many years ago. The sights, the sounds and the smells will re-emerge and as I take each step it will seem like slow motion. My knees will be weak and my hands will shake once again as I approach the crash site. This time however, will be a healing trip; unlike my previous trip in 1970.
I hope that those who have struggled and still struggle with what happened on that hillside in 1970 can find peace after 38 years in knowing that their friends and family are always remembered; not just at the Fountain Ceremony on November 14th every year, but everyday of the year by everyone and anyone who was connected to the event.
This one single event shaped our lives and are part of who we are and we all are forever connected. As someone once wrote,"WE ARE ALL ONE HEART", although we’ve probably never met.
Those of us who didn’t board that plane, for whatever reason, were given a second chance.
That second chance has given me two sons, my siblings, my friends and best of all, life itself. I've tried to make the best of that gift and give back whenever I can.
I’ll remember the football games in the mud, the church basketball championships and Art’s winning hits in the baseball games. Most of all I’ll remember Art’s devilish smile when his practical jokes gave everyone a good laugh. These things I would never trade for anything.