Published Nov. 14, 2008

I was on the next plane.

The first time Marshall University athletics flew after the horrific plane crash in 1970, I was a passenger.

It was on Jan. 9, 1971.

Marshall's basketball team was flying to Kalamazoo, Mich., for a game against Western Michigan. There were about 30 of us on the flight.

I was on-board as sports editor of The Parthenon.

I was 19 years old.

And never had flown before.

For years, I didn't think much about that footnote in Marshall history. But, more recently, it has crossed my consciousness several times.

And today -- of all days -- on the 38th anniversary of the tragic crash, I find it difficult to get that footnote off my mind.

I keep asking myself, "What were you thinking?" And the answer is always the same.

I don't know.

Perhaps, I was too young to be scared. Or maybe I was so caught up in carrying on for former Parthenon sports editor Jeff Nathan, who perished in the crash, that I failed to grasp the significance.

I realize it now, however.

As I look back at it, I am mind-boggled.

I'd like to say that I have vivid memories of that landmark flight. But I don't.

All I remember is it was a two-engine prop airplane and we were all very, very quiet during takeoff from Tri-State Airport.

Thirty-eight years and countless flights later, I still struggle to put it in perspective.

All I know is some how that event has defined me both professionally and personally.

Ever since, my mind-set can best be summarized in three words. ... whatever it takes.

If it meant getting on that plane in 1971, I did. If it meant missing Christmas to cover a Motor City Bowl, I did. If it meant missing a West Virginia University spring game to coach my sons' Little League baseball opener, yes, I did.

I do whatever I have to do.

That is the legacy my friends and acquaintances who perished 38 years ago left behind for me. We lived together in South Hall for two years.

Ten players, 10 friends didn't return to 6th Floor East Wing that fateful night. They included Marcel Lajterman, Joe Hood, Tom Brown, Freddie Wilson and Bob Van Horn.

I think of them often. Not just today.

But because today is their day, I am reminded that they were doing what they had to do and, more important, what they wanted to do.

They never expected it would take their lives.

And, perhaps, that's the best explanation of why a mere 19-year-old was aboard the next plane. He never considered that it could take his life.

Does that make me a believer or disbeliever in fate?

I'm not sure.

I do know that I always have recoiled when the term "star-crossed" was used to describe the crash. I don't believe it was fate. I refuse to believe it was meant to be.

It just happened. Tragically, sorrowfully, it just happened.

What I do believe is all our lives are circles.

The crash and boarding the next plane -- two events that profoundly shaped the rest of my life -- both happened here in Huntington.

Maybe that's why I have returned here. It all began here and, now, it will end here.

And I will continue getting on that next plane.

It's the least I can do for my old friends.

Chuck Landon is a sports columnist for The Herald-Dispatch.

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