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“We Are Marshal!” A Plane Crash, a Devastating Loss, and Memories that Remain


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.


Padre Steve+



Filed under History, News and current events, shipmates and veterans

A Trip to the Home World, Tithing on the Speed Limit, a Tooth Joins the Ranks of the Undead and a Giant No Hitter

Yesterday we made a trip back to my family’s home world, also known as Huntington West Virginia. As far as home worlds go it is probably on no one’s top ten lists, probably ranking about as high as Qo’noS, the Klingon home world in terms of places that you would go to on holiday.  However it is my family’s ancestral home for the past 200 plus years since coming from Scotland, Ireland and France.  Now I was not born in West Virginia, though my parents were born there as were three of my four grandparents.  I was actually the first of my generation born outside of the state as my dad was still in the beginning stages of his Navy career and was stationed at Naval Air Station Alameda California and I was born at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in California.  Even so Huntington was a place that served as a touchstone for our lives as my dad was transferred from one place to another on the west coast.  We would return almost every summer, usually travelling by train in the days before Amtrack.  Back then three of four grandparents as well as one set of great grandparents we still alive along with a butt-load of aunts, uncles and cousins.  In 4th grade we lived there while my dad found us suitable housing in Long Beach California after being transferred from Washington State. That was the year of three schools and four teachers for me, but I digress.

It was during that year that my great grandfather died and my grandfather was diagnosed with a golf ball sized yet benign brain tumor.  It was also the adjustment form the kinder and gentler west coast schools to a much stricter standard in Huntington.  I was also as we had come in from Long Beach I was nicknamed “City Slicker” and had to fight for my life.  A couple of school yard brawls later which I cannot say that I won but in which I gave good account of myself I was accepted so far as a “City Slicker” could be.  The thing was though that I had lived in a town of only about 8,000 inhabitants for 4 years prior to moving to Long beach for just over a month.  The kids in Huntington were far more “City Slicker” than little old me.  I had poor penmanship because in Kindergarten my teacher took the pencil out of my left hand and stuck it in my right hand.  This was of no comfort when my teacher whacked my hand with a steel ruler since my penmanship was so bad.  What good this did I have no idea except to maybe set me back two more years.  I don’t think I ever left the dining room table due to the amount of homework that she assigned.  During my time in Huntington we lived across from the old Fairfield Stadium where the Marshall University football team played.  I saw the team work out in the spring practices of 1970, the same team killed in the plane crash on 14 November of that year.  We returned to Long Beach that summer where when I started 5th grade I was known as “Kentucky Fried.”  Despite that I was happy to get back out west.  After my Clinical Pastoral Care Education Residency in Dallas I got my first full time hospital chaplain job at Cabell-Huntington Hospital which I held as a full time contractor until I was mobilized for the Bosnia mission in 1996.  During this time and while I was deployed Judy got to know my relatives better than me.  I went into the Navy in West Virginia and due to this we remain West Virginia residents for Tax and Voting purposes.  We came back to get our driver’s licenses renewed and see our dear friend Patty.

The visit this time has been pretty miserable for me as last night the tooth which was recently excavated for the second time as discovered to be cracked beyond repair decided to come back from the dead.  I didn’t get to sleep until about 0230 and woke up again at 0415 before getting back to sleep at 0600. The alarm rank at 0700 and after getting Judy up, we talked and I went back to bed where I slept until 1230.  It took 2 Ultram, 1 800 mg Motrin and a couple of beers with lunch to get the pain under control.  Tonight I will probably do the same and go to bed early.  In the morning I will have to call the Dental Department at the hospital to see what they want me to do.  We don’t travel back until Wednesday and I don’t know if I can take much more of this.  It seems to me that my tooth has taken a page from Dracula and joined the ranks of the undead.  This really sucks like a Hoover.

The trip here was long, we had the usual snarl on I-64  from Newport News until past Williamsburg, and thankfully the HRBT was not congested.  We picked up more slow traffic between Staunton and Lexington.  Now I am bothered by people who drive slower than the posted speed limit in the fast lane.  I trained on the Los Angeles Freeways and the German Autobahn.  My view is that the speed limit is a suggestion for the less skilled drivers and those who have trained on high speed roads should be exempt from it.  Now I am not a total scofflaw. I do not drive unsafely, weave in and out of traffic or fail to signal.  Likewise I know about how fast I can go without drawing the attention of the State Police.  Since radar detectors are illegal in Virginia one has to become very adept at this cat and mouse game and I am amazed at the number of people who get pulled over because they don’t understand the simple art of nuance.  In most states you can safely drive about 10 percent over the speed limit on the Interstate without getting ticketed.  This is a little different on the major travel holidays in Virginia where there is about a 5 mph tolerance.  I do this routinely and refer to it as “tithing” on the speed limit.  Of course there are times that I need to give more than my tithe and go a bit faster.  Our GPS “Lilith” has a conscious about such things and would alarm when I did this forcing me to silence her.

There was also cause for rejoicing as the first half of the baseball season came to an end.  The Norfolk Tides are tied for fist in the International League South, the San Francisco Giants have surprised everyone by playing great ball with solid pitching and now are in second place in the National League West and currently have the 3rd best record in the league behind the Evil Dodgers and one percentage point behind the East leading Phillies.  To really make things great Giants pitcher Jonathan Sanchez pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres.  It was almost a perfect game save for a booted ground ball and error by Giants Third Baseman Juan Uribe with 1 out in the bottom of the 8th and Center Fielder Aaron Rowland saved the no-hitter with a leaping catch at the wall for the second out in the top of the ninth.  Both of these show that even when a pitcher pitches a no-hitter it is a team effort.  I had seen the next to last Giant no-hitter in person with my dad and brother back on August 24th 1975 when Ed Halicki shut down the New York Mets at Candlestick.  Not a bad way for the Giants to go into the All-Star break.

Anyway it is time to self medicate for the night and try to get some sleep.  Pray for me a sinner.

Peace, Steve

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Filed under Baseball, healthcare, Loose thoughts and musings, star trek, travel

Mixed Up Mother’s Day

This is a weird Mother’s Day for me.  I’m getting ready to fly out to California to help my mom make funeral arrangements other end of life decisions and nursing home/ insurance company billing issues for my dad.  Dad is probably in his last couple of months of life.  His doctor is amazed that he has lived as long as he has.  However, dad was always a scrappy fighter and remains so despite his end stage Alzheimer’s disease and probable cancer.

Mom has had a tough go of it.  Dealing with my dad’s deteriorating condition the past five years and not having retired life turn out the way that they planned has worn her down.  She is not doing well neither physically or emotionally.  Sometimes her emotional state leads to difficult situations for my brother and me.   As with most independent minded older children my  relationship with her has been at times mercurial.  Mom wanted me to remain in our home town and be a teacher.  That didn’t happen.  As readers of this blog know, I am that Navy Brat who never grew  up and lives for the adventure of life and discovery.  When my dad retired from the Navy in 1974 I thought life was over.  The adventure of seeing new places and discovery seemed to stop.  When I finished my first two years of college I moved away, only to return for visits as I have ambled about the world.  I know that she has had a hard time with this but some things can’t be helped. It is interesting because she and dad did the same thing.  They joined the Navy and never went back to their hometown except to visit.

Mom has always been a bit special.  When my dad was in the Navy she was a rock.  Once a neighbor threatened me and mom went down and blasted him.  It was kind of cool to see my barely 5 foot tall mom take on a man who was 6 foot 6.  She would have had no hesitation to clobber him had the man laid a finger on me.  She endured a lot in life.  Her dad was abusive and controlling.  She endured frequent separations from my dad when he was in the Navy.  She worked hard in the house and outside of it.  We didn’t lack for anything.   She experienced the loss of many friends when the aircraft carrying the Marshall University football team crashed in 1970.

At the same time she is her father’s daughter.  She has always  known how to get my dad, my brother and me into rages.  She knows our buttons and can push them at will.  Thankfully my brother and I have become much more adept in recognizing what is going on and only occasionally have flare ups, a credit to our self discipline as well as a touch of help from the Deity herself.   Our family in better times was much like the Costanza’s in Seinfeld.My brother and I understand George completely.  At times we resemble Ray Romano’s family in Everybody Loves Raymond. Back in 1998 when I was the installation chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania Judy and I were watching Seinfeld. George’s parents were screaming and Judy looked at me with wides eyes and a shudder ran through my body.  She said “My God that’s your parents.”  I responded “I know but we can never tell them.”  The next night we got a phone call from mom.  She asked me: “Did you hear what Jeff told us last night?”  I said “no.”  She then said “Jeff said that we were just like Frank and Estelle Costanza on Seinfeld.”  I was stunned and started laughing out loud.  I then said “Mom, we were watching Seinfeld last night and thought the same thing.  But we weren’t going to say anything….but since Jeff has brought it up, you are just like them.”  She cried “Nooo!”  We later have had a lot of laughs over this but sometimes I think that  Jeff and I each in our own way are George Costanza or Ray Romano and our wives like Raymond’s wife played by Patricia Heaton.

My brother and I were born almost six years apart.  As such for most of our younger lives really didn’t think that we had that much in common.  Over the course of the past 10-15 years we have found that we are much more alike than not. Our views on politics, religion, how we react to different stressors, how we do life are surprisingly similar. He works hard as a school principal and is very involved in his family’s life.   His oldest son evidently has at least some of my personality traits and at times I am reminded by Jeff  that he never thought that he would be “raising his brother.”

Anyway the relationship that we have with mom is interesting, especially now.  She’s not doing well and I wish that we could get her back to where she was five to ten years ago.  However, that won’t  happen.  Certain medical and physical conditions never get better.  Mom is grieving dad, the man that she spent 50 years with is gone, even though his body is still alive.

I am going to surprise her tomorrow.  My Mother’s Day Card is intentionally late.  I have it to take with me.  Instead of the usual flowers sent through an online service, I will pick them up on the way to the house.  I’m telling her that I expect the man bringing her gift and card to get to the house about 12:30 or 1:00 her time.  However that man will be me.

I do appreciate your prayers this week.  I imagine it will be difficult.  Pray for my mom and dad.

Peace and blessings, Steve+

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Filed under alzheimer's disease, healthcare, Loose thoughts and musings