Marshall Plane Crash and You

TALKING TO MYSELF - 15 November 2013     Forty-three years ago, yesterday, the entire Marshall University football team, its coaches, and many of its supporters were killed in a plane crash as they attempted to land in Huntington, West Virginia. We lived in Ashland, Kentucky, near Tri-State Airport, and and the news of the crash rocked our small region. On the same weekend, I miscarried the child that would have been our firstborn.  This is a story about grief  -  


           This past Mother’s Day was the first since my mother’s death, and it was strange for me.  I’m not used to being an orphan.   Maybe Mother’s absence at the table, however, is the reason I thought of you. I’ve never stopped to think about you on Mother’s Day before.  No, not once in thirty-six years.  I’m sorry, but that’s the truth, and I can’t change it.  That first year, I didn’t think about you on purpose.  Then by the next, we were holding your sister in our arms.

          I’ve always assumed you were a boy  because the three who came after you were girls.  But I suspect you were a daughter like the others.  And I’ve tried to tell myself it’s just as well you didn’t see the light of day – you probably had all our bad DNA dumped on you.  Your great-aunt’s orneriness and my clumsiness.  The cancer gene from your dad’s side of the family and the stroke gene from mine.  Your great-uncle’s dumb gene or his fondness for drink.  I say this because your sisters turned out to be so wonderful, and surely, every family has to have one bad egg.  Surely, your chromosomes shouldered all our weak links for us, to spare us.

          And yet I know I kid myself.  I suspect you were the best of us.

          In odd coincidence, you died on the morning after the plane carrying the nearby Marshall University football team crashed into a mountain ten miles from our house.  In one fiery moment on a November Saturday night, all the fine young men and the possibilities of who they might have grown to be, evaporated. 

I was working late that evening with my students at Ashland’s Blazer High School.  We were painting a stage set for our fall theater production that was to open the next Thursday, when a sweet, round faced boy named Paul came in with the awful news.  A lifetime later, it is the stricken look on Paul’s face that haunts me, that I remember more than the endless newscasts and newspaper articles.

          Maybe you  died  at the same moment as the football players.  Maybe the tsunami of grief that swept over that time and place drowned you, and washed you away from me.  All I know is that I woke at dawn the next morning to a cold November rain pounding against the window in torrents as though all of the world were weeping -- and to bright, red blood in my bed.

          The weeks and months that followed were not easy.  The community was plunged into a collective grief for those who had been lost.   A tragedy like the Marshall plane crash is devastating anywhere, anytime.  In the small, familial, Appalachian city of Huntington, West Virginia, however, where Marshall was located, and in the even smaller nearby town of Ashland, Kentucky, where I lived, the catastrophe swamped the population, as surely as the rampaging, flooding waters of the Ohio River had in earlier times.  

An entire college football squad had disappeared along with many prominent community leaders who were traveling on the plane with them.  Everyone knew someone who had been personally impacted, or were themselves, alumni of the local university.

          But I took little note of the community’s grief because I was pining for you.  I was unwell, too, plagued by one strange malady after another.  All I wanted to do was go to bed and sleep, but my job and responsibilities pulled me out of bed each morning.  At Christmas, my beloved grandfather died, and then the winter set in, long and cold with lots of snow.  It seemed that spring would never come. 

But it did.  Weeds sprouted again on the scorched mountainside where the plane had crashed.  Marshall hired a new football coach, who began recruiting young athletes to re-build The Thundering Herd.   And soon we learned that you would have a sister.  It’s trite to say that life goes on, but it does here on earth.  It’s the way of things here.


I will be at the Kentucky Book Fair at the Frankfort Civic Center on Saturday, November 16, 9 - 4:30. Both of my books, Butter in the Morning and You Can Go Anywhere, will be available.