An autumn morning’s sun was creeping upward while I was snuggled comfortably in bed, my face mashed into the pillow and my floral pink chiffon bedspread pulled to my chin.
The clock radio ticked to seven, waking me as it did every morning. I listened to a country FM station owned by an old man near Atlanta. No other voice but his was ever heard (he owned the station) because he recorded shows for mid-afternoon, night and overnight then turned the recordings on and left.
He was live on the air in the morning, though. On that day — Oct. 20, 1977 — the old man’s baritone was announcing that a plane crash near McComb, Miss., had taken the lives of several members of the Lynyrd Skynyrd band. His bulletin was delivered in the old-timey way of broadcasters: dramatic, serious, earth-stopping pauses between words.
My eyes popped wide open and I reached over to turn up the sound. In my junior high classes that day, the plane crash was all the talk. One kid, I remember, checked out of school early because he was so upset. I knew he wasn’t pretending because he had often worn Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts to school, which is probably how I knew who they were. I was a country music girl who could name every country singer worth knowing, knew who wrote the songs and which musicians played on their records.
Lynyrd Skynyrd of Jacksonville, Fla., with their long hair and rock and roll music was a little naughty for me at 15. They seemed too fast and too free spirited for me. Besides, until two months earlier, I still had the rock and roll icon who had been my favorite since I was 3. Then, breaking my heart to pieces, Elvis Presley just up and died.
My friends would play Free Bird or, most especially, Sweet Home Alabama, which even I, the country music dork, could appreciate the opening chords on that song, its twang sounding almost as familiar to me as a steel guitar. Later, I realized that their music and lyrics were similar to what I love because country music gave birth to Southern rock and roll and songwriters like Ronnie Van Zant.
Two incidences and one opportunity brought this series to being. There is the fact that this column has appeared for many years in the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Miss. Years ago, I discovered that an editor there, Charles Dunagin, was on the desk when they received a call that a plane was down. He covered this story, so I was impressed to know someone who worked such a big story.
A while back, Showtime aired a documentary about the group and the doomed flight. It had all the elements of dramatic storytelling: small town dreamers, high odds, huge success and tragedy. I was compelled to know more. The story is adorned with Southern heroes and the patented kindness that blankets both friends and strangers in the Deep South. Coincidentally, we were invited to a wedding in McComb around the same time.
“I’m goin’ out to the crash site and do a story on Lynyrd Skynyrd while we’re in McComb.”
Tink laughed, amused by another uncommon idea of mine. “What do you know about Lynyrd Skynyrd? I bet you never owned one of their albums.”
“I know a good story when I see one and, by the way, I do have ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’”
Shortly before our trip, a reader of mine in McComb wrote that he and his wife enjoy my column greatly.
“If you’re ever in McComb, we’d love to meet you. Maybe you and Tink could go to church with us,” Randy Dickerson wrote.
The Lord had sent help. Perfect.
“What are you doing Saturday after next?” I replied. “I’d like to see the swamp where the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crashed.”
That’s how simply an amazing adventure began.
This is part one of a four-part series. In next week’s installment, we visit the site of the crash.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “Let Me Tell You Something.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.