Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Today was one of those weird days to me. It was a day with a really emotional connection because of something that happened fifty years ago this evening. Fifty years ago Southern Airlines Flight 932 carrying most of the Marshall University football team, staff, media, alumni and supporters crashed on its approach to Huntington Tri-State Airport, in Kenova West Virginia.
For me it is and remains a touchstone in my life. Not long before the crash my mom brother and I were living with my grandparents just across the street from Fairfield Stadium where Marshall played its games while my dad looked for suitable housing in Long Beach California where he had been transferred. While we lived there the stadium was rebuilt to include a new AstroTurf field and other modernizations. This made Charleston Avenue where my grandparents lived a busy thoroughfare for construction vehicles.
My brother Jeff was four years old and would go help the police direct traffic where the construction vehicles entered and left the sight. The cops and the drivers loved him doing it and I think once when the police officer had to take a break actually prevented a collision. The drivers had gotten used to him being there and whether or not they thought he was serious they played the game and it kept a crash from happening.
I remember coming home from school during the spring and watching the team practice during their spring drills. I think that any young boy would have dreams of playing football. I did, but as I grew up reality set in as I was neither high enough or fast enough to be really good enough to play at more than a junior Varsity Level. But as a kid you never think that athletes, a whole team can be killed, wiped out in a matter of minutes in a horrendous plane crash. But it does provide a sobering look at life that leaves a lasting imprint on a your life.
In the summer, once my dad found us a suitable place to live in Long Beach California we left Huntington. We had been in Long Beach about five months When the crash occurred I never will forget that night. A local news anchor interrupted his broadcast with the report of the crash. It hit us like a thunderclap. It shattered my mother as she had grown up and went to school with a number of people on the flight, and now having experienced a lot more personal tragedy, I really understand why it hit her so hard. Although I didn’t know anyone on the flight it seemed more personal than I can describe now. I had gone to school in Huntington with kids who lost parents in the crash. Then I was too young to comprehend what they were going through but now I understand
The crash devastated the city my parents were born and to which I had, and still have a strong attachment. The University was, and still is the heartbeat of Huntington. The loss was more than devastating, and it took many years for the University, the city, and the people to really recover.
I wasn’t born in Huntington and am basically a California and West Coast person despite not living there since I was commissioned as an Army Second Lieutenant in 1983 until now. No matter what I did in the Army or Navy I was never able to get stationed back on the West Coast. Instead apart from my overseas tours we have been stationed in the South and Mid-Atlantic since 1987.
One of the places we ended up living when I was serving in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve was Huntington, where I had my first post-seminary Hospital Chaplain Job at Cabell-Huntington Hospital in January 1995. At the time my paternal and maternal grandmothers were still alive and we felt at home, especially Judy. She got to know my grandmothers and other relatives better than me because of my work and National Guard/Reserve obligations including my mobilization and deployment to support the Bosnia Operation in 1996-1997.
Because I was in a contact position when mobilized, my contract With the hospital was terminated, and I ended up taking other active duty for special work assignments with the Army Reserve until there were no more available. So in October 1998 we moved back to Huntington where jobs were scarce, and even though I repeated tried to find work I was unsuccessful in finding post hat I was overqualified for, and was considered overqualified for most jobs. In December 2018 I was offered the chance to go on active duty in the Navy and on 9 February 1999 with Judy and my paternal Grandmother present put aside my Gold Oakleaf as an Army Reserve Major and donned Navy Khakis and the double silver bars of a Navy Lieutenant.
But even leaving Huntington, and the pain that my former employers caused remained because Huntington had become home. Likewise, Huntington and the crash that killed the Marshall University football team and so many Huntington notables, including men and women my mom grew up with still resonated with me. When I worked at Cable-Huntington Hospital the intensity of those feelings grew. When the film We Are Marshall came out in 2006 it made an impact. It took me back to a time and place all to familiar to me.
Anytime I go back to Huntington I visit the memorial fountain at Marshall University and other places significant to me and my family. Judy just reminded my that my maternal grandmother Christine died on 14 November 1996 when I was deployed for the Bosnia mission. She died 26 years to the day that many of her friends died in that crash. Every year on the anniversary of the crash people gather at the fountain for a memorial service and it is turned off and a symbolic reminder of the crash.
Today Huntington is a shell of what it was in 1970, the population has declined by half, the economy is a shambles, and it is still ground zero of the Opioid Epidemic. I do love my ancestral home but there is nothing for us there, other than a few distant relatives and our dear friend Patty, but I miss it in many ways.
While I never attended Marshall University I feel like I could have given the right circumstances. I think had we stayed I probably would have gotten an advanced degree and maybe gone on to teach there. Somehow I find a mystical bond between the University, the football team and me; especially when I close my eyes and watch the team that died in the crash. Those players remain forever remain young and full of life in my mind, though only one and one of the coaches due to individual twists of fate kept them off of that aircraft fifty years ago. Likewise, Fairfield Stadium is gone, torn down to expand Cabell-Huntington Hospital and the Marshall University Medical School clinics and complex.
When I think of my life and the moments that sometimes separated me from death at the hands of terrorists, insurgents, or home grown criminal murderers I appreciate how much life means. So, in memory of those who died, that night, their survivors, and those who carry on their memory and tradition, please know that you are not forgotten.