March 14, 2012

My helicopter ride to the basketball tournament


It is hard to believe it was 50 years ago!

I remember being scared to death. I had never flown in anything, much less a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.

My oldest brother, Joe, was a member of the Sea Isle Police Department at the time. He and other policemen got me on the helicopter at what is now JFK Boulevard in Sea Isle City. Upon entering the chopper, one of the coast guardsmen said to me, “you must know somebody, kid, to get this ride”.

Once airborne, I became even more frightened than I had been when I saw all of the destruction on the ground and still lots of water everywhere.

The flight was, I am sure, a very short one, but seemed like an eternity. I really wasn’t sure at this point where I was going and who would be meeting me and that, of course, added to my apprehension. Upon landing and exiting the helicopter, I saw three very familiar faces approaching me—Dixie Howell, Berwyn Hughes and Tom Williams.

I think they were almost as happy to see me as I was to see them. Dixie said, “Dave, are you OK and is your family OK”. I told him we were all fine. He answered, “Good, now let’s hustle. We need to catch a bus”. And catch the bus we did. I will always remember the good feeling of seeing these three people and of seeing guys like Jerry Fadden, John Cranston, Ron Newcomer, Charlie Baker, Dan Money and a certain cheerleader again!

Ever the coach, Dixie handed me a new pair of white, high top Converse all-star sneakers with my number 20 printed on the back of each sneaker, just like the pair I had been issued at the start of the season. How did he remember my size and how did he think of the fact that I probably lost my sneaks in the storm? Dixie also informed me that I would be guarding the opposing team’s best player and it was my job to stop him even if I fouled out of the game. He also told all of the team that it was important to us that we play the game. And we did. The fact is we were soundly beaten and I did foul out of the game. But we played the game.

I subsequently found out that Dixie, of course, engineered the entire idea of my helicopter ride. It is my understanding that he called in a favor from a friend who was highly placed in the U.S. Coast Guard training center in Cape May to accomplish my evacuation from Sea Isle to play in a tournament game. This event epitomizes what Dixie Howell was all about. I was certainly not the best player on that team. He would have done the same thing for any of his players. It was not about me, it was not about that one game or any one player, it was about the OCHS basketball program and what one man did to make that program one of the best in the state. I was not one of the best players that Dixie ever coached, but he always made me and others who played for him feel that they were. I have always felt that I let him down in that game.

I believe it is accurate to say that probably never in the history of high school sports anywhere, has a coach gone to the lengths Dixie Howell did to get a very average basketball guard to dry land and have the opportunity to not just play a basketball game, but to have a warm, loving lifetime memory. The events of the 1962 storm certainly affected me and everyone who was a part of it. In many ways, the event itself and the resulting experiences have had a lasting positive impact on my life. My helicopter ride and the real meaning of it remain with me to this day.

Thanks, Dixie.

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