Monday, March 2, 2015

We Are All Marshall

The Marshall University website tells the story best - On a rainy hill side in Wayne County, West Virginia, the lives of 75 people were lost in the worst single air tragedy in NCAA sports history. Among the losses were nearly the entire Marshall University football team, coaches, flight crew, numerous fans, and supporters. The event marked a boundary by which an entire community would forever measure time... before or after "The Crash". 

Scott Archer was there almost when it happened.  He wasn’t on the plane but some of his fraternity brothers were.  As far as Scott was concerned, he should have been on the plane when it happened.  His was a feeling common among so many Marshall University students on November 14, 1970, when “The Crash” changed their lives and the life of a community forever.  Even now, nearly half a century after it happened, Scott Archer still questions why it was them who died and not him.

Scott was a graduate of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.  He was a sophomore that fall and had pledged a fraternity.  Several of his fraternity brothers were Marshall footballers and they were on the plane that fateful night when Southern Airways flight 932 left Kinston, North Carolina bound for Huntington but the flight never made it home.  The National Transportation Safety Board said this about the tragedy in their final investigative report: 

“Southern Airlines Flight 932 left Kinston, North Carolina, at 6:38 p.m., carrying the Marshall University football team, coaching staff and fans to Huntington, West Virginia. After an uneventful flight, the crew contacted Huntington Airport tower at 7:23 p.m. and were cleared for a localizer approach on runway 11. The weather conditions were poor, mist and light rain with broken clouds at 500 feet. The plane descended below the Minimum Descent Altitude, striking trees on a hillside about one mile from the runway. The plane then crashed and burned.

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause was the descent below Minimum Descent Altitude during a non precision approach under adverse weather conditions, without visual contact with the runway environment. The Board has been unable to determine the reason for this descent, although the two most likely explanations are: a) improper use of cockpit instrument data; or b) an altimetry system error” (Aircraft Accident Report, NTSB-AAR-72-11, p. 36).”

Today, just like the incident at Kent State earlier in 1970, the crash at Marshall is indelibly etched in the minds of everyone even remotely involved.  Not many years ago Warner Brothers produced a movie starring Matthew McConaughy that was titled “We Are Marshall.”  It tells the gripping story of the crash and how the community and the students rose up like a phoenix from the ashes and overcame the crushing pain.  It was that movie, one I have watched probably 50 times, that helped instill in me a kinship with the university and its students.  I was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin on the day Scott Archer lost so many of his friends.  Who among us could not feel some sort of connection to Marshall University even though we may have been thousands of miles away at the time?   

I thought of that movie the instant I first saw Scott.  We were preparing to depart Tampa aboard the Carnival Pride cruise ship bound for the Western Caribbean. Those of us required to assemble at Muster Station D on the Promenade Deck slowly filtered out onto the deck to subject ourselves to 30 minutes of nonsensical training tinto how to put on a life jacket in the unlikely event that our ship should begin to sink.  Through each of my earlier cruises I have noticed that cruise lines put particular emphasis on training passengers not only in how to buckle the life jacket but more importantly in how to tie off the cord that surrounds the life jacket.  Apparently that is the most important part of the training and I was anything but anxious about getting the latest refresher in proper life jacket etiquette.

Everyone who has ever sailed knows this drill.  Adults at the pinnacle of their careers, doctors who perform brain surgery, actors who entertain us on the silver screen, teachers we entrust to educate our children and florists like Scott Archer are all subjected to the drill.  With considerable fanfare we stand in lines on the deck of the ship and listen to a description of how to don a life jacket.  It’s an exercise required by maritime law and it’s the biggest waste of time anyone who has sailed has to endure.

Like the rest of us Scott was putting up with the indignity as best he could.  Despite the admonitions on the part of Carnival Cruise Line staff, Scott showed up at the life jacket training carrying a drink with him.  Along with his wife (whose name I never caught) they chose to stand next to my partner and me to savor the latest tidbits of knowledge in life jacket technology.

Scott’s sweatshirt gave him away before he said a word.  On its front was the head of a bison and below the bison was the word “Marshall.”  Seeing it I extended my hand and quietly said, “We Are Marshall.”  A smile crossed Scott’s face as he shook my hand.

“Are you from Huntington,” I asked.

“Yes,” Scott said most humbly, “I was there.”  Two of his fraternity brothers made the flight to Kinston but never returned home.

“It was the most horrible experience of my entire life,” Scott said.  “Nobody should ever have to feel that much pain.  I can only imagine how the families must have felt.”

Scott told me that the movie “We Are Marshall” is an almost entirely truthful story about the crash, the aftermath, the rebuilding of the college football program, and the healing of the university and the city.   I asked Scott about the movie and its accuracy. 

“There are only two things in the movie that aren’t completely true,” he said.  “First just after the crash you see a group of people downtown getting ready to go to the airport to help.  Everyone in the movie left town headed to the right but actually the airport is to the left.”

Curiously several years earlier in Nassau, Bahamas, I met a woman wearing a t-shirt that read “The Thundering Herd” and she pointed out this very same faux pas.  Scott said, as did the woman in Nassau, “You’d have to be a local to know that part was wrong.”

The other aspect of the movie that wasn’t entirely accurate was the winning pass thrown at the end of the first game the 1971 Marshall team won.  “In the movie you see a long downfield pass but in reality it was a short screen pass.”  Scott then said, “I know.  I was at the game and I saw the pass.  When we caught the ball and scored the winning touchdown the entire crowd went nuts.  I mean they went completely fucking nuts.”

I kept grilling Scott and his wife for local stories about the crash, its aftermath, and the making of the movie.  “Matthew McConaughy was in town for three weeks.  He stayed in a hotel downtown and smoked pot every day.  But, what the hell. There wasn’t anyone our age who didn’t smoke pot in those days and if they didn’t there was something very wrong with them.”

Pointing toward his wife Scott said, “She got her rocks off over Matthew.  She as a mess the entire time he was in town.  She even got to hug him.”

Carnival Cruise Line personnel diligently went through their scripted talk about how to put on and buckle a life jacket and as they did Scott and I continued to talk about the movie.  Our conversation was much more interesting.

I asked if the memorial to the team is visited very often.  “It’s not just visitors who go there,” Scott started. “I go there at least once a month to leave a rose.”

The Marshall University website tells a bit of the history of the memorial fountain and its significance to the community and the survivors:

The Memorial Student Center Fountain was dedicated to the memory of the plane crash victims on November 12, 1972, by President John G. Barker. Each year on the anniversary of that fateful day - November 14 – a memorial service is held, which includes the traditional laying of the wreath. Then the water is turned off until next spring.

More than 13 feet high and weighing 6,500 pounds, the fountain was created by sculptor Harry Bertoia. It was his hope that the fountain would "commemorate the living - rather than death - on the waters of life, rising, receding, surging so as to express upward growth, immortality and eternality."

The bronze plaque bears this simple, eloquent inscription:
"They shall live on in the hearts of their families and friends forever, and this memorial records their loss to the university and to the community."

As much as the tragedy and the movie affected me personally I realized that I need to visit Marshall and go to the crash site and visit the memorial to put to rest some of my own angst about what happened.  Something tells me doing so will help me put the horror of what happened to Marshall University and all those families behind me just like a visit to Kent State helped me deal with the murders on that campus in May 1970. 

“I went out to the crash site when it happened and I saw the carnage,” Scott said.  “I saw white sheets covering the bodies of people I knew.  When we watched the movie the first time and saw those scenes of the burning plane I had to turn my face and look away because I could not bear to see it all again.  I still can’t look at that scene today.  It still brings back bad memories.”

A thought came over me as Scott and I continued to ignore additional instructions into proper life jacket etiquette.  I love the movie about this tragedy and feel a kinship with the people of Huntington who lost so much.  As time allows in retirement, why don’t I travel to Huntington to see the college, visit the crash site and pay my respects to the fallen at the memorial.  I had landed at the Huntington airport in September 1978 while in that part of West Virginia for work.  I purposefully looked forward as the plane landed so I could not see the crash site just short of the runway.  Now however I would like to see it.  Perhaps I could coordinate a trip to Huntington with a trip to see the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league team in Charleston, West Virginia, play a game at home.  I could satisfy two desires on one trip if I did.

“Scott,” I said, “I think I want to come up to Huntington to see where this all happened.  Is everything easy to find?”

Scott smiled, extended his hand again to shake mine and said, “When you get up to Huntington you stop by Archer’s Flowers; you can’t miss our shop.  I drive by the memorial once a week.  I will take you there myself.”

As I shook his hand and said good bye I realized what all those students meant when the day they stood outside the Administration building on the Marshall University campus begging the decision-makers to revive the football program.  They all stood there chanting “We Are Marshall!” over and over and over.  Even though we weren't there that horrible day, we are all Marshall.