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On tragic anniversary, the pain remains

Flag files half-staff In front University Evansville AdministratiBuilding morning after university's entire basketball team perished plane crash which claimed 29

Flag files at half-staff In front of University of Evansville Administration Building the morning after the university's entire basketball team perished in plane crash which claimed 29 lives. | Sun-Times Media File Photo

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Local player among those killed

Ray Commandella, a Munster High School basketball star, was a freshman for the Purple Aces. He was among the players killed on the flight.

Updated: January 9, 2014 6:35AM



My anniversary is Dec. 13.

No, it’s not what you would think.

No need for presents or greeting cards or phone calls of congratulation.

The common anniversaries in a person’s life generally are pleasant celebrations of happy history, some of which continue onward perpetually if you are lucky. Most anniversaries are road signs of shared love and devoted experience.

This is not that sort of anniversary.

I serve it alone every year, often in self-imposed solitary confinement. Seems taciturn, but this is the only way I know.

On Dec. 13, 1977, many of the people I knew and cared about — the University of Evansville basketball team and its official family — were killed in a single, consuming fireball. Their deaths took barely 30 seconds.

The town and school that cared for them were devastated. Their families were devastated. I was devastated.

The aging passenger airplane that carried 29 had crashed and exploded into a million fragments that night. Each fragment was a piece of someone’s life. Each fragment was a piece of my life.

All quirks of fate are odd by definition. Only ambition kept me from being on that plane. I would have been sitting at the window just behind the starboard engine where I always sat. I have known this for 36 years. The roster of the dead would have read 30.

I had been the Aces “beat” writer for a decade at the Evansville Courier. Started as a green-at-the-gills sports writing cub.

But then the boss suggested I should take the News Editor job. Get out of the toy department, I think he said. More money to raise young children. More responsibility. It’s a big deal. You’ve earned it, he said. So I said yes.

But the choice was hard. Those who covered the Aces were almost celebrities, too. Readers paid attention to you. They knew who you were. It made you feel significant and valued. You wrote about what they most cared about. The town loved them.

Those assigned such jobs often pretend they are indifferent to who wins and loses, but that’s not true. When you spend years with the same kids on their way to adulthood, you triumph when they win and are heartsick when they lose. They belong to you.

You meet them when they are 18, and wave goodbye when they turn 22. That’s almost a lifetime.

So these were my surrogate kids. They had taken a new direction with a new coach, as had I. But they were mine.

So on that cold, rainy night, I was not on their plane as I had been for a decade. I had been on that same chartered DC-3 N51071 before. It was an aging, creaky pile of rivets. A few men on the flight were older than it was, but only a few.

The pilot lost control on takeoff at the end of the Evansville runway. The inferno consumed everything. They had launched themselves into the darkness toward a date the next night at Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro. The new coach wanted to fly rather than take a bus. He would show the Aces were now officially big time.

It took three years before I could summon enough will to enter the stadium where they had played. Too hard. Too sad. I finally saw the “new” Aces play, but games never would mean the same to me, ever.

You might suggest this a pedestrian form of survivors’ guilt, and I have considered that diagnosis and rejected it. It’s too bland for complex emotions.

The biggest answers are not easy. No one knows why one person dies and another lives, or even what the divide on that road is meant to measure. You have to earn guilt; deserve it. But melancholy pain? That comes free of charge.

By comparison to the kids on N51071, I am little more than a shard of flotsam stuffed in the trunk of history.

My successes all seem less significant, and my failures all seem more poignant. But that night gave me a chance to have more of both. Life takes; life gives.

On the night of Dec. 13, 2013, I will sit alone and have a beer as I remember them and cheer them on.

It’s not much. But it’s the only way I know.

David Rutter was an editor at six community newspapers for more than 40 years, including nearly a decade as managing editor of the Post-Tribune. His column appears Sundays in the Post-Tribune. Contact him at david.rutter@live.com.



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