Monday, April 20, 2020

LockedDown Like Me

It's 3:45 in the morning on Sunday (4/19/20), I wake up fully alert and for some reason, I want to watch an episode of Dead Like Me. Maybe its a symptom of too much COVID19 running around, I don't know.

After searching my TV database, I find I don't have it digital. I then searched all sources (Netflix, etc) and could not find it. I knew I had it on DVD but I was wide awake but not energetic enough to go looking for it. Anyway, after checking the temperature in Berlin (65) and the weather in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Rainy), I went back to sleep.

The next day, I found my DVD version of the show and digitized it so I could watch it on my system. Fulfillment.

Dead Like Me is a 2 season - 1 movie series about an 18-year-old woman named George Lass.  She is a slacker who is selected to become a grim reaper after she dies from being hit by the falling toilet seat from the Mir space station. Totally plausible. It is quirky and fun with a level of dark humor any veteran would fully understand and appreciate. It also features the best character name I have ever heard: Daisy Adair - a blonde reaper who used to be an actress and lacks awareness of anyone and anything but herself. She always introduces herself as "Daisy. Daisy Adair." (upper left in pix)

If you liked Pushing Daises you will like this too. I heartily recommend it at 3:45 or any other time. Get it now, so you won't be left checking the weather in Europe because it is not available. Perfect for a Corona Virus LockDown.

Note: No one in this show ever dies from COVID19.


Monday, March 30, 2020

Whose Music Woke You Up Today?

I listen to a huge variety of podcasts, radio shows, and read a lot online as well. So, forgive me for being able to relate the source of this advice because I'd like to give them credit. I'm not even really sure what the official topic of the show was. Still, one of the announcers was talking about the attitude of your day been determined during the first few moments after you wake up. What they recommended was listening to music when you first woke up for a few minutes before you throw back the covers and get out of bed to start your day.

From the time I was in junior high until I stopped living on my own, I owned clock radios that allowed me the choice of alarm, music, or combination of both. Because I was a typical teenager growing up, I used both and at full volume to ensure that I was up in time to greet my day. Because of the way the device worked, I had no choice as to what music would play much of the time it was something like a transmission repair commercial.

Now, I have several devices that can wake me up and do so to a specific song if I choose. I was an early adopter of the Amazon Echo, and now my house is populated with these devices as part of my smart home set up. Several months ago, I replaced my last clock radio with an Echo Show device.  It has many alarm options including things like the ability to play whatever song you want to wake up to or a selection of songs by a particular artist. Being someone who is always preferred variety, I choose to select the artist and have kismet determine the title.

I will say that I have chosen a wide variety of things to wake up to in the past few weeks. I went from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Linda Ronstadt to Santana and even the Mamas & the Papas. Then I played folk music for a few days, including Peter Paul and Mary, John Denver, Harry Chapin, and Jim Croce. Most of the time, I would wake up in the first notes and immediately recognize the song. Still, a few times, I've had to ask Alexa to tell me the title I was listing to. None of that matters, I am reconnecting with a lot of old music I had forgotten. The part that matters is the difference in the way my day has gone since then.
On the whole, I have felt more positive heading into my day – – which is saying a lot given the current condition of the world. Sometimes, I'm left with the tune running through my head, requiring me to feed my brain more songs by the same artist. Other times, I'm flooded by remembrances of events associated with the song. I let my mind wander off to people and places stowed in the deep recesses of my memory. I think all of this is a good thing.

Anyway, try it out for yourself. Many devices can help start your day with whatever music you want to awaken you. The only rule, if you can call it that, is that once the song starts playing, you let the entire tune play before you get up and get out of bed. Unless you're playing In A Gadda Da Vida or American Pie you only delay your day by three or four minutes – no biggie. Give it a shot for a week. See what it does for you.


Thursday, March 5, 2020

Croce, the Ultimate Singer, Songwriter, Storyteller

Shortly after I turned 14, Jim Croce died in a plane crash. I'm not sure if it was before or after that I first heard him actually perform one of his songs. I do know that the Muppets were the ones that turned me on to his music with their version of You Don't Mess Around With Jim. Actually, I'm using Muppets in the broadest sense because Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson were performing as The Country Trio. What I loved about the song was the storytelling. Not only that, the story was funny and had a good turn around at the end.

Something to ponder while watching this: The song is about a man named Jim, written by a man named Jim, sung by a character named Jim, performed by a man named Jim.

As I got older, I sought out more and more of his songs. Many of them were stories set to music in the most amazing way. Roller Derby Queen, Bad Bad Leroy Brown, RapidRoy (The StockCar Boy), Speedball Tucker, and more. Each of them filled with memorable characters and a quick glimpse into their life. As a wannabe storyteller who was learning to play the guitar, I found great joy in the music of Jim Croce. Then, as adolescence took firm hold, I began to find meaning in his other songs.

People sometimes call his music melancholy as if it's a bad thing, it isn't.  I've always maintained there's a bit of warmth to be found in melancholy existing nowhere else. Among these,  were leaving songs like Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels) and One Less That a Footsteps. There were also songs celebrating the happiness of love, like Time in a Bottle and I'll Have To Say I Love You In a Song. and the, dammit I'm being treated wrong by my girlfriend" songs like Lover's Cross.

What I really like about all of the songs, stories, and love ballads, was that they were within my vocal range.  Even though I wasn't trying to emulate Croce, when I sang them they didn't sound half bad. Also, because of the sparse music accompaniment (one or two guitars)  in his music they didn't sound hollow when performed as a solo.

Later, I discovered his posthumous album The Faces I've Been.  the double album was a collection of traditional folk, This Land Is Your Land, and segments of him telling stories. The man could tell a narrative story every bit as well as he could tell one in song.   it was the first time that I became aware of how varied his life experiences were and how they contributed to his music and stories. He held dozens of part-time jobs while trying to get a break. The result is in his music. I wore out two copies of that album before I switched it over to digital.

How did I end up with a blog entry gushing over a musician who's been gone since 1973?  Recently, someone posted an entry online about him and included a recording of him singing Operator. That song holds a special place with me, it was the first song I ever played and sang before a crowd larger than two or three people.

During my high school's Spring Concert in 1977, I got brave enough to walk on the stage by myself and perform that song. While I was reflecting on that bit of history another bit of history slapped me in the face. When I lived in Kokomo, in the spring of 1989, I performed a Coffeehaus at Dad's Deli. I played four or five original songs and told a few stories, but the last song I played was Croce's song Railroads and Riverboats, harmony performed by Melanie Kenner. As of today, it is the last time I've performed in public for more than two or three people.

Looking back on that realization, I think it is only an appropriate set of bookends that my first and last performances were both written by Jim Croce.

If you are not familiar with Jim Croce, I encourage you to look him up on YouTube or somewhere else and discover his music.

If you are a glutton for punishment, I have provided links to both live performances. Keep in mind both of these were recorded with a portable cassette recorder using the built-in microphone. When I had it digitized, they were able to clean up some of the noise but it is still rough.

Railroads & Riverboats


Monday, February 10, 2020

Squiggly Lines...and Beyond

I am finally back to steadily putting words on paper. The morning after I created my previous entry, I managed to put down 3,200 words before my keyboard caught fire. After beating down the flames with my mouse and pouring my Diet Coke on the flaming mouse, I gave up for the day. Many times when I have such a burst, later review results in me deleting about half of them, this time it didn't, I added another 200 words to what I had written, for clarity, and now the dynamite passage. It tells how one of my characters went from being a sincere and loyal man to one with secrets– deeply in debt and coerced into doing many things he would never have considered previously.

The storyline for Stealing Ferdinand's Gold has been in my head for a long time without making it the paper in some form. I've told the basic story many times over beers with friends but have never taken the time to put the words on paper. Now I am, and I have found this book required more research than others because of the need to keep the timeline straight. The story is set inside actual events, so I have to mold my narrative around events and ensure events remain in the proper order. The easiest way for me to do this is to be utterly familiar with all of the events taking place to ensure I am clear as to which egg came before which chicken and vice versa.

This book is a break from my Evan Davis series, which I've decided will have at least two more books before I make any significant character changes. I have some great ideas that will wind up in those two books and look forward to how the story comes together when I sit down to create it. I hope followers of the series will enjoy where I take these next two stories.

In addition to Ferdinand's Gold, I am working on a few short stories as well. As soon as I get to a dozen or so, I plan on releasing them together. I enjoy writing short stories; the problem is getting anyone to notice and read them.

When I was in ninth grade, I remember buying many anthology-style books from Scholastic Books. Each had a dozen or so short stories by various authors with a particular theme. These introduced to Stephen King, Haruki Murakami, and the written works of Rod Serling. The last time I saw Scholastic Books flyer, it was more about Harry Potter than anthologies.

I think short stories are ideally suited for the kind of world we live in, where we are trying to fit a brief bit of entertainment into the time available. Of course, if you look at a lot of what is being sold as novels by independent authors on Amazon, you will notice they have page counts of 100 or less, technically this is a novella, but it might also be considered short story based on word count.  Previously, a short story was between 7500 and 20,000 words, now it goes down to 1000 words. Anything less is called flash or micro-fiction. Now you know.

What I like about short stories is that I can devour one in 15 minutes to an hour. This kind of speed allows the story to hit me very quickly, and depending on the work, it can be anything from a roller coaster ride to a trek up the mountain, only to find a cliff on the other side. I love the variety. Plus, they are all self-contained, you begin with nothing, and an hour later, you now have enjoyed a completely new story — a quick escape from the real world.

Writing short stories is how I maintain writers discipline between books. It gives me something creative to keep that part of my mind humming while I'm dealing with other things. I used to consider these bits and pieces starts for new books, but realized most were finished within 10 to 20,000 words. So, I started making short stories out of them.

Alas, it is time for me to get back to work and create more of a world where you can take a few million dollar's worth of gold easily during a confusing situation, but once things calm down, it becomes almost impossible to hold onto to.


Sunday, January 19, 2020

Squiggly Lines On a Page -- NOW

When I finished my ramblings about the Lynyrd Skynyrd Memorial Project in November, I  jumped into a short story that had been playing through my mind.  The story, entitled Words Ever Unspoken, is the tale of two former lovers who meet to exchange some property which one had left with the other when they broke up years before. Eventually, it will become part of a short story collection to be released later this year.  Creating that single-story took an emotional toll as I worked my way through both characters creating the conversation they were having with each other as well as the one taking place internally. After extensive editing, and finally declaring the missive done, I found myself needing to get away from putting words on paper.

The timing was good because with family goings-on during the holidays, it would've been challenging to find time alone to write. Now, after the first of the year, I find myself creating and conniving reasons not to sit down at a keyboard. The constant flow of story ideas which I have been blessed with has not stopped, just the desire to make them more concrete than a wisp of smoke in the wind. The only positive thing about this is that other activities I had procrastinated about are finally getting done.

For those of you playing armchair psychiatrist, this is not the winter blues. I usually discover creativity hidden somewhere within the blues. Overall, my mood is excellent. I don't want to do the writing thing at the moment.

To snap out of it, I opened a document and wrote almost 3000 words describing the stuff sitting upon my desk. It may seem like an odd exercise, but I was hoping I would burst into a story about one of the action figures or something else in the bizarre collection of memorabilia with which I surround myself. After all, I keep all of these things around to inspire creativity. No such luck, although I now have a detailed inventory of the items on my desk should I ever need one for insurance purposes.

I know that this will pass. I want it to pass more quickly. Just like I know my lack of production will pass so will the availability of time to create. I hate to lose the opportunity I have right now.

In interviews, I say I've never had Writer's Block. I've never been without words or lacking a story to tell. That is still true even now. I have an entire humorous story in my head, the beginning of my next book about Evan Davis, and the next three chapters of my crime novel about stealing a dictator's treasure. What I lack is the motivation to put squiggly lines on a piece of paper.



Thursday, December 5, 2019

We Still Remember You - Article

On 18 October 2019, I arrived in McComb, Mississippi, to attend the dedication of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Monument. Before my arrival, I exchanged emails with Miles “Pat” Nelson, and at my request, he set up an opportunity for me to interview two of the many folks who helped make the monument to reality. Dwain Easley and Bobby McDaniel were among the first people to arrive on the scene after the crash in 1977. This article is a result of my interview with all three, as well as other people I met in the days I was there.

The night of 20 October 1977 was clear, a blanket of stars shared the sky with a first-quarter moon. Except for the occasional sound of a barking dog and a nearby Coast Guard helicopter on a training mission, it was a quiet night for those who lived near Gillsburg, Mississippi. Then at approximately 6:45 PM, the stillness was broken by the sound of a Convair CV-240 as its fuselage made first contact with the treetops. The aircraft failed to locate a clearing for an emergency landing and was losing a desperate battle against gravity after the engines stalled due to a lack of fuel. In addition to the flight crew, the aircraft carried members of the band and stage crew for Lynyrd Skynyrd, who were on their way to a concert in Baton Rouge.

Eventually, the aircraft came to rest after plowing directly into an oak tree, which compressed the passenger section of the plane to less than half its regular length, which stacked people on top of one another. There has been much debate over the timing of the fatalities from the crash, but either immediately or just after the plane came to rest three members of the band (Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines), and assistant road manager he Dean Kilpatrick were dead as well as the flight crew. The crash severely injured most of the remaining 20 people on board.

Dwain Easley
Gillsburg resident Dwain Easley was 26 years old then, and he was among the first to arrive at the crash site to assist. “The first thing I remember hearing was a helicopter going over real low. Almost as soon as it went over, the phone rang, and it was my aunt and uncle, they saw the plane going down toward our house. We went outside to see what was going on, but where do we look?” Since the aircraft had no fuel on board when it crashed, there was no fire to identify the crash site. Luckily, the Coast Guard helicopter returned and started making slow circles over an area in the woods behind Dwain’s house. “The woods were getting dark, but I could still see clearly, and we took off running.” Two Coast Guard helicopters used their searchlights to provide light to the crash area to help with recovery. However, both lacked equipment for rescue/recovery, so they were not used to transport the injured.

In the time between the crash and when Dwain arrived at the site, three of the band members were able to climb out of the wreckage and took off into the woods, possibly toward the light of a nearby house, looking for help. When Dwain arrived, he was one of five or six people who had found their way to the crash site. “The wreckage looked like an accordion… Being one of the first ones there, I started to climb on top of the wreckage, but I’d never rescued anybody in my life. So, I reached down (into the aircraft) and started grabbing one of the guys by the arms and started to pull. But I couldn’t budge the guy; then I tried another one.” Gerald Wall, a law enforcement officer, noticed the people were still wearing seat belts and told Dwain. Using a knife, Dwain cut through the webbing and was able to lift the first survivors out.
“There was nothing inside the plane that didn’t have blood on it, and it looked like there were thousands of playing cards scattered everywhere.” Pulling the survivors from the plane took a few hours as each had to be lifted out and carried to a small clearing away from the wreckage. Dwain focused on rescue rather than whom he was rescuing. He admitted he wondered what a bunch of hippies was doing on an airplane. It wasn’t until all the survivors departed for the hospital that someone told Dwain whom he helped rescue. He was familiar with the name of the band and their music.

Bobby McDaniel
Bobby McDaniel attended three separate Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts before the night of the crash. After
hearing about the crash, he turned on the CB radio to get direction only to be instructed to go to his family farm.  On his way there, he was approached by an ambulance driver, telling him they could not get to the site due to thick mud and a creek blocking access. “They asked me if I knew another way in, they said, ‘Bobby knows those woods he’ll get us another way in.’ So, I get in the ambulance and direct ‘em down a logging road on the south side.” After getting as close as possible, Bobby jumped out of the ambulance and ran into the woods toward the crash site.

“There was already rescue going on by the time I got there.” Because of some first aid training from the Boy Scouts and as a member of the civil air patrol, Bobby helped a doctor set up a triage point and helped coordinate the transport of survivors out via 4X4 trucks to the waiting ambulances. “At first, it was only one stretcher,” as a result, moving the injured from the crash site for transportation to the hospital was slow. Additionally, every stretcher had to cross a small creek to get from the crash site to the ambulances.

In the following hours, others arrived to assist the survivors and the recovery of the dead. Several hundred gawkers also came once it became widely known who was on board the aircraft. Once all the survivors en route for treatment, both men departed the scene — the following morning, they discovered the importance of the incident.

In the week after the crash, many people showed up to visit the site. Then traffic slowly faded to a trickle.  In the years since the occasional pilgrim would still knock on the door looking for the crash site. As time passed for Bobby and Dwain, their memories of the night remained vivid; it is those memories that kept a flicker of an idea alive in the back of their mind.

Bobby credits one thing with getting the ball rolling on creating the monument, social media. “At each anniversary for the past six of seven years, I used to go back there with two long-necked Budweiser beers, I’d drink one, and I’d leave the other one there for Ronnie and the boys. On the 38th year, I was back there, and someone had left a dozen roses, so I took a picture of it and put it on Facebook.” A friend of Bobby’s who was a photographer for a newspaper asked to be with him the following year.  The photographer and Bobby spent the 39th anniversary in the woods.  No one ever showed with more roses, but speculation on who brought the roses caused attention, and the survivors started to contact Bobby and other folks in Gillsburg. 

Miles “Pat” Nelson
When asked what drove starting something 41 years after the fact, Dwain explained, “A year ago, someone mentioned that most famous plane crashes had a marker. So, I wondered why we didn’t?” At about the same time, Mike Rounsaville contacted former legislator Miles “Pat” Nelson to inquire if they could get state money to put up a marker. Pat told him probably not, but there was no reason they couldn’t raise the money for a simple marker. At this point, they were only looking at putting up a small sign on the road near where the crash occurred. 

All they would need for the sign was $2300, but then “…someone presented a better idea -- why not, a Mississippi Blues Trail marker?” Bobby explained.  The price tag at this point jumped to $9800. Pat put forward the idea to create a GoFundMe page to raise the money; the idea also landed him the position of Fund Raiser. Pat approached Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center to join the effort since they already had a foundation set up to facilitate handling donations and expenditures. It was about this time that the Lynyrd Skynyrd Monument Project formally stood up with Bobby as its President and Dwain as the Vice (Board members not mentioned here are listed below).

Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center
“In the first week, we had the $2300,” according to Pat, “It took another month or two to get to $9800”. At this point, some confusion occurred in the process. SMRMC wanted a display at their site as well, since all the survivors were taken there first. The LSMP discussed a second Blues Trail marker, but no application was submitted. When the Board went to the state committee who approves Blues Trail markers, they found them receptive. Not only did they already have the money to cover the cost, but they also had the wording needed for the plaque. The narrative by Ken Morris, Karen Nelson (no relation to Pat Nelson), and an anonymous Skynyrd fan was expanded and used for the final Memorial. The state committee approved the Lynyrd Skynyrd Blues Trail Marker unanimously. 

Before the state committee could officially release the information, word got out about the approval. There was some consternation over the early announcement, but the more significant issue was that the unofficial version talked about two markers rather than just one. The state committee withdrew the approval, according to Bobby, officially they said  “, Lynyrd Skynyrd is not a blues band, and there is no Mississippi connection.” Bobby called them back and gave them eight or nine blues-based song titles and provided survivor Ken Peden’s name as the Mississippi connection. The committee advised Bobby it was too late for this cycle and to resubmit the application in three months on September 15, 2019. There was no way they could wait and hope to have it in place by the 42nd anniversary, “We went a different direction,” Pat explained.

Rather than waiting on the Blues Trail committee, the board decided to create a similar sign for installation on the side of the road. When they pitched this to the state highway department, they were told to place the sign roadside would require legislative approval. Spirits were low at being blocked yet again.

Bobby was going to meet with local property owners to see if they would allow the sign to sit in their yard. When Bobby approached Dwain, he was surprised to learn Dwain and his wife had discussed the matter. “Well, not in the yard but just a few hundred yards down the road,” Dwain went on to explain it was a piece of property not in use and that he would be willing to donate to the cause. “That way, the state is completely out of it.”

One of the other issues requiring approval was the use of the band’s name.  Even though it was a tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd, they would need permission to use the name. Scott Smith, who was on the board, said he had a decades-old phone number for Judy Van Zant, Ronnie’s widow. In a favorable twist of fate, it was still a good number, so Pat left a message for Judy. When she returned the call, not only was she agreeable to the use of the name she had only one question: can I come to the dedication. “I told her, 'hell yeah', and a month or so passed, but in the end, we had a letter from Vector Management giving us permission to use the name.” Vector would also donate to the cause on behalf of the current band. At this point, the plan to establish the memorial was becoming known, and donations came in from both entities and individuals. Many, $15 donations were given through the GoFundMe page, arriving from 17 different countries due to the GoFundMe page being shared across several Lynyrd Skynyrd fan pages and on social media.

With legal and permission issues handled and monetary needs met for the larger monument, the pressure was on to make the 20 October deadline. Brookhaven Monument, a local company whose mainstay is cemetery memorials, stepped up to meet the challenge with a design created by Dave Pace and Kevin Laird. Dave recalled, “I asked the Board when they needed it, and they said October 20th.  I said, next year, right?”  The Board confirmed they meant 2019, with less than 90 days Dave and his team feverishly went to work.

While the stone was selected, Rich Hagen of Illinois, created the graphics etched on the back of the monument. Ground preparation and installation work began at an accelerated pace. “I was here just three weeks ago and helped lay the sod,” Rita Witcraft a fan from Iowa who chanced upon the dedication, said. Freshly poured concrete surrounds the monument, and three Georgia black granite monoliths explain the birth of the band, the crash, and the rescue efforts. On the reverse side are graphics of Lynyrd Skynyrd in front of the ill-fated Convair and individual pictures of the band members who perished.

On 20 October 2019, a thousand fans and family gathered for the monument's formal dedication.
Bobby McDaniel led the ceremony, which included words from local dignitaries as well as Judy Van Zant.  After the official unveiling, fans spent hours taking pictures of the memorial as well as the family of survivors who had attended. As people stood in front of the large stones, reading the words, and reaching a hand out to touch the monument, the internal emotion each felt obvious. Some were smiling and laughing at the joy the music of the band had brought. Others were holding back tears from the loss, which occurred 42 years prior.

In one of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s most famous songs, Free Bird, is the lyric: If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me? Just 400 yards from the fatal crash, at 7364 Easley Road, stands seven tons of carved and etched granite that screams “Yes,” in spite of the passage of time and obstacles overcome.

Afterword: The first stop for all survivors was Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center. A second memorial now exists at his emergency room entrance. Dedication will occur in November.

Board members not mentioned elsewhere:  Krystina Anderson, Tina Brumfield, John Reinheimer, Jamie Wall, Brenda Martin, and Steve Lawler.


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

We Still Remember You - Diary

Preface:  This is one of two versions of what happened during my pilgrimage to the Lynyrd Skynyrd Monument dedication.  It is more personal, whereas the other is a 1500-word article prepared for a leading music magazine and, therefore more “journalistic.”  To get it all, you should read both – but that is up to you.

18 October 2019 

This trip started simple, gratitude, and appreciation for the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd. It became something else as I realized my reasons were more profound and more heartfelt than I first thought. As my sojourn morphed into a musical and spiritual pilgrimage, I began to think about why someone would create a memorial in the first place -- was it to capture history for future generations before it vanished or was it to say thank you to those who perished? I needed answers. So, I reached out and asked if I could talk to some of the folks who made it happen. Luckily, they agreed and gave me full access to all events. Add in a twist of fate, which I can only label bizarre, and my project turned into a bit of freelance journalism.

As I sit in O’Hare IAP waiting for my connecting flight, I am trying to decide how best to put my mind and heart in the right place for the weekend. Saturday is full of interviews, that night a tribute concert, with the dedication of the monument on Sunday. A wide variety of things to prepare for and digest. I knew very quickly I was not going to be able to cover it all in 1500 words. That is what will be submitted, but much more will be needed to do all of this some level of justice. That is the genesis of this diary, to share my full experience – I may not capture enough for some folks, but I want to capture what these events made me feel and hopefully allow those who could not attend to live it vicariously.

As with any good story, it starts with research, and to that end, I have read fifteen different accounts of what happened before, during, and after the crash. Most have similar threads running through them, and the tales of the survivors and those close the band reveal the heartbreak and pain they carry with them today. Those accounts will be the basis for some of the questions asked during the interviews. But that is the journalism part of this – what about the musical soul I wanted to rekindle in myself?

Thanks to the internet, I retrieved my library of Lynyrd Skynyrd from Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd to Street Survivors from my home network As I thumbed through the titles on my iPod each one brought back multiple memories – some sweet, some not. Over the years, I allowed myself to get into the routine of listening to only the top tracks when I needed a dose of Skynyrd.  As a result, it has been years since I heard a few of the lesser-known titles I possessed. After my flight for Charlotte took off, I got a bourbon and tuned out the world – indulging my rock and roll soul starting with I Ain't the One.

It only took a few tracks from side one to remind me why this band’s music means so much to me. It wasn’t just the dynamite solos and riffs from the Three Guitar Army; it is so much deeper than just music. Everything fits. It was like each song was a song bit of Tetris, all the pieces and parts just fit together so perfectly from lyrics to drums to keyboards, and notably the guitar solos. Ronnie’s vocals were just excellent. He added such emotion and heart to every line.

Since each track triggered a memory or memories, my flight to Charlotte a roller coaster ride as I remembered both the highs and lows attached to each while moving from one album to the next. Tuesday’s Gone made the playlist more than once, but that’s okay. One time it was high, reminding me of dancing with a girl named Jessica while I was in college. The next time the song played, I remembered a low point when I was consoling a friend whose boyfriend just dumped her, and she couldn’t grasp why he would do such a thing when everything they had together seemed so right. It seemed like when I have several memories attached to each song, each was different emotionally as well.

After I arrived in Charlotte, I realized I had forgotten to retrieve the live album One More from the Road; I was able to get it loaded up before the plane took off again, headed for Jackson, Mississippi. I truly regret I never saw the original configuration of Lynyrd Skynyrd live, they were great. I can only imagine how awesome the shows must’ve been. Now with my spirit saturated by their music, and my mind reeling from all of the emotion and history I have tied to the band, I got out of the plane in Jackson and headed toward McComb.

19 October 2019

After getting my breakfast from the buffet, I sat down at one of the only open spots in the room.  It turned out to be lucky, as seated at the adjoining table were Gene Odom and his girlfriend. While Gene was not a musician, he was a close friend of Ronnie’s and traveled with Lynyrd Skynyrd and was on the plane the night of the crash. Gene is very adept at telling stories and has many in his arsenal. Like most storytellers, as soon as there is an audience, he will launch into one of his tales.

Among the most memorable from that morning, one about Ronnie catching his last 12-pound bass then how Alan Collins relied on the answers on someone else’s paper during a test. As he told the story about friends that have passed on, you could see a faraway look in his eyes as he spoke about people he earnestly loved and missed.

After breakfast, I went back to my room to finalize my questions for my interviews. I was meeting with three folks that morning: Miles “Pat” Nelson, Bobby McDaniel, and Dwain Easley.  I had been speaking with Pat for a few weeks and knew him as the “money guy” who was handling the fundraising for the monument. I recognized Dwain’s name from one of the articles I read and recalled that he was one of the first people to arrive on the scene. Bobby’s name was new to me, but I found him to be a very open and humble individual whose involvement was profound during the entire project serving as the Lynyrd Skynyrd Monument Project’s President.  Bobby was quick to give credit to others and to point out credit unduly given.  All three individuals quickly pointed to other people who accomplished great things in making this monument happen.

We met in a private room off to the side and spoke for over an hour. My questions started with the time before the crash. Because I was curious if they knew who Lynyrd Skynyrd was (all three had heard their music, Bobby had even attended three concerts) and then flowed through a cursory review of the crash. I felt that there was so much information out there already, I didn’t want just to rehash it all. While their stories were the same as a lot of what I had heard and read, they had particular information and nuances that existed nowhere else. That’s the difference between talking to an eyewitness in reading something secondhand; I will share these in the article.

The story of how this monument came together in less than a year is impressive. So many insurmountable factors worked against them, but it always seemed that every one of those negative things that appeared was quickly shoved out of the way and in some fashion not only did they overcome, each time they were blocked, the new route they took wound up making the monument better and bigger. This entire project started with the desire for a simple roadside plaque, but as a result of overcoming adversity is now a large nine-ton carved marble structure.  Phenomenal.

After those interviews, I spoke to several other people before attending the tribute concert and recognition of the first responders and survivors. The show was going to feature a Parkland Florida tribute band called Nuthin’ Fancy before the concert was a brief meet and greet with both survivors and the first responders who worked the crash over four decades years ago.

I spoke with several of the people who work in the hospital that night, and all of them had very positive things to say about the folks they met when they were brought in on stretchers on what was probably one of the worst days of their life. Lynyrd Skynyrd super fans filled the room, many were carrying copies of the Street Survivor album that was released three days before the crash. Others had pictures and programs from concerts that they had seen in the past. The feeling within the room was both electric and warm. All the attendees were ready to share the warmth they were carrying.

The program opened with greetings from local dignitaries, and then Nuthin’ Fancy played for approximately an hour. 

The band was quite good and included all the necessary musicians, including their own Honkettes, providing background vocals. After about an hour or so, the MC took the stage and moved on to the next section of the evening.

Each of the survivors came on stage and shared a remembrance, or thank you for the first responders in attendance. Of course, Gene shared another story – – this one about Leon and the fact they knew he was still alive when he reached off the gurney and grabbed one of the nurse’s ass. (Since Leon is no longer around to defend himself, I will say it might have been a reflex more than a deliberate action).  After the survivors, came the first responders and then the caregivers from the hospital as well. Dr. Lewis, who went out to the crash site to perform triage, shared a bit of what went through his mind that night and how memorable it was because of the spirit of the people who came to help.

The band returned and played another dynamite set. During the first set, everybody sat in their seats and listened to the music.  This time as soon as they started, the crowd rushed the stage and stood dancing in front of the band as they performed. They ended all with the segment that included Sweet Home Alabama, Simple Man, and Freebird. All too soon, the evening ended, and as I watched people exiting the building, everyone soon to be carrying the joy of the moment, which somehow seemed to have a layer of sadness underneath it. Yes, it was great to hear the music and talk about the band with people who felt the way you did, but now each person was returning to the real world where they were alone again. It was like walking away from the warmth of a campfire into the cold of the night.

20 October 2019

Before I drove out to the monument side, I went to Southwest Regional Medical Hospital to get a picture of the building. I was surprised to see the stone marker was already in place near the Emergency Entrance. According to the text on the stone, it was presented on 19 October, but I heard various rumors that an official ceremony was not going to take place for another month or so.

Driving out to the monument gives you a sense of the denseness of the forest in the area. The trees are so thick you can’t see much beyond the front row. I can only imagine it is a pilot’s worst nightmare to be forced to land in something like that. Getting to the monument is easy, and I can imagine visitors in the future will appreciate the thoughtfulness of placing the memorial close to the road for ease of access.

I estimated the crowd to be about 1,000 people. While waiting for things to begin, a DJ was playing Lynyrd Skynyrd music and announcing some of the locations from which people had traveled to be there. At least one person flew in from Alaska; several were from California, Maine was represented, as well as Florida.  A local church was providing free bottles of water to the crowd.

Bobby McDaniel took the stage and provided a summary of how the monument came about; he also introduced the members of the board who worked brought the monument to reality. I was able to meet the designer, Dave Pace.  Someone from Brookhaven Monument also spoke about what it took to bring all of this together. Consider this, the physical monument and the site was created, constructed, and unveiled in under 90 days. An amazing effort.

Bobby then introduced Judy Van Zant, Ronnie’s widow, who, in turn, introduced her grandchildren as well as Steve Gaines’ daughter and two of his grandchildren. Judy then provided a few words about the warmth of the people who made all this possible and then unveiled the monument.

The monument consists of three towering slabs of Georgia black marble on the front side.  The text on each piece covers a different topic: the beginning of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the crash and the recovery. A small stone in front speaks to a reunion that took place in 1987 when several of the survivors came back to gain closure. On the backside of each of the slabs are engraved pictures of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, and Dean Kilpatrick. Finally, off to the side is a marble bench provided for fans who want to take a moment to reflect. The monument is quite beautiful and impressive.

For the next few hours, fans came up to the monument and took pictures, some reaching out to touch the stone with extreme reverence while others were joyful at the fact the monument was now a reality, and they were there to be a part of the event. I can understand both sets of emotions. The monument stands as a tribute to those lives lost and saved the day of the plane crash; therefore, it holds a tinge of sadness as well as joy so many did survive. At the same time, I think Ronnie would’ve wanted it to be more of a party in celebration of the magic he and Lynyrd Skynyrd created. It was a fine line; at one point, I saw a woman smiling and gleeful as she had a picture taken in front of one of the slabs only to see her reaching out with tears in her eyes to touch the portrait of Ronnie a few moments later.

Later, with the property owner’s permission, I was part of a group to be guided through the woods to the actual crash site. Note: Anyone who thinks they can wander around and find the crash site is wrong. Getting to the site is not simple. Our first stop was the birch tree, where several people have stopped to create their monument by carving into the tree. From there, we went to the actual location where the plane ended up. We arrived just before 6:47 PM, the time when the plane crashed 42 years earlier.

Bobby McDaniel said a few words and then led a prayer. As everyone took a look around the area, many folks had brought Jack Daniels and various other libations to share and toast with, another thing I think Ronnie would’ve found very appropriate.

The walk-in had been a bit boisterous and loud; the walkout was more somber and reflective. Again, it was the bittersweet reaction to the event as the sadness overcame the joy.

After we got back to the “camp,” several people broke out guitars and started playing. It was one of those shared experiences pop up out of nowhere, and instantly everyone finds himself intimately a part of what’s going on. The entire weekend had that feel to it. Before the end of the weekend, I knew a dozen or so people by name, had conversations with many more who will remain nameless.  The entire time I felt I was part of a shared community that came together to celebrate the band. A band that still lives on as the greatest southern rock band of all time: Lynyrd Skynyrd.