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.


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