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Experiences of a lifetime and memories for all time

Jeff Birchfield • Aug 18, 2019 at 12:00 AM

“Through teardrops and laughter, they’ll pass through this world hand in hand.”

The famous line from Waylon Jennings’ country standard, “Good Hearted Woman,” is an accurate description of life. It certainly was my life a couple of weeks ago when I had some of the most amazing experiences ever, but also felt sad by the loss of two gentlemen I greatly respected.

First, the staff at Bristol Motor Speedway set up a trip of a lifetime.

It started with a ride over to the NASCAR Hall of Fame where many from the 1999 Bristol Night Race between Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte were on hand to recall that famous finish. It was Earnhardt spinning out Labonte on the final lap to win with Earnhardt’s classic line after the race, “I didn’t mean to wreck him. I just meant to rattle his cage.”

After that was over, members of the local media flew from Charlotte to Nashville where the next day, we along with NASCAR driver Chase Elliott and others, got to ride in a pair of Blackhawk helicopters around Nashville.

We congregated at Berry Field, a joint base for the Tennessee Army and Tennessee Air National Guard where we met several soldiers and airmen who proudly serve this country.

Tennessee Army National Guard General Kurt Winstead, who is originally from Rogersville, worked with BMS General Manager Jerry Caldwell to provide the experience. General Winstead was a pleasure to talk to, a very down-to-earth person, especially considering his rank.

He and the other guardsmen I chatted with knew some of the guys I served with in the old 771st Maintenance Company in Johnson City. To be at a military installation from the civilian side, you feel a tremendous sense of gratitude to the brave men and women serving our country.

After an introduction of key figures and a luncheon, we boarded the Blackhawk helicopters. They’re awe-inspring machines, the sight, the sound and feel of the power they display. Once we got strapped in our seats with a four-point harness and all the belts were tightened, the choppers lifted off and circled around the lot below.

I figured that would be the entire ride. Was I ever wrong!

Instead, we got an incredible tour over the city of Nashville, passing over downtown including the distinctive AT&T building, commonly known as the “Batman Building,” and flying right over Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans.

After circling over the city, we flew over Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway and over some of the beautiful Tennessee countryside before coming back to base.

The Blackhawks are amazing machines and when the pilot would make a turn or dip down, an incredible gush of wind would blow across your face. Even though you were strapped in, you felt the strong pull of the wind.

It was a thrill ride, but also gave one a greater appreciation for those transported in the Blackhawks during military operations.

The National Guard’s motivation working with BMS is to get more young folks interested in serving their country. It goes beyond what many think of as serving in the military. The Guard helps communities through natural disasters and in other times of need.

As for the experience, I have to thank all the staff at BMS who set up the trip. The public relations team — Becky Cox, Anthony Vestal, Chris Lawyer and Karissa King — did a tremendous job making the whole journey from the time we left BMS in a shuttle to coming back home a great time. The people at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the soldiers and airmen at Berry Field were amazing hosts.

The NASCAR trip came literally hours after another day when I was incredibly blessed.

I spent that Sunday with a wonderful lady I’ve been seeing for a little while now. We took the short hike to Sill Branch Falls, one of my favorite places in the world, and later saw the animals at Bright’s Zoo. More than me having a good time, the best part was seeing the joy in her face.

The day was capped off by spending more time with this terrific lady, who I won’t embarrass by putting her name out publicly, but I can’t say enough good things about.

Our adventures came after attending a memorial service for D.C. Smith, the former ETSU basketball player and later Science Hill tennis coach, that Saturday.

D.C. was a respected educator in the math department at ETSU, but more than that, a good man for whom I was grateful to get to know. I first met D.C. as a sports parent and he put high expectations on his son, Christopher. He was tough on Chris, but it led to his son becoming a state champion at Science Hill, and later a standout player at Chattanooga.

I’ve covered thousands of high school athletes over my career, but Chris Smith is one who stands out for being an exceptional athlete in both basketball and tennis, but even a better person.

It was easy to see how well thought of D.C. was in the Johnson City community. At a time when our country is so divided over politics, race and so forth, D.C. brought people together. People of all colors came to pay their respects to a fine man who was a great influence to young people.

During the BMS trip, I also learned of the unexpected death of Terry Abel. He and his brother, Larry, were coaches of the Happy Valley youth league basketball team I played for. To this day, it is the most memorable team I was ever a part of.

They coached hard, expected a lot out of us, even at that age, and stressed that we play with toughness. I can’t remember our exact record, but my best recollection is we finished 21-4 or something in that range.

When it came to the end of the season tournament, we beat a Cloudland team that was either undefeated or had lost one game in the semifinals. It set up a Carter County championship game against a Hunter team we had split games with during the regular season. With talented guards that included Larry Abel Jr. and Mark Jones, we lost, I believe, 48-46, in double overtime.

It was a tough loss, tough lessons learned, but a season filled with memories to last a lifetime. In the years since, it was always a joy to see Larry and Terry at high school games and have a moment or two to catch up with them.

They had a such positive influence over their own families and the kids they coached in different sports. They sacrificed a lot of time, gave a lot of themselves to teach more than winning and losing. They truly showed love to their teams.

With the teardrops and laughter, the amazing experiences and tough losses, the week was summed up by my favorite Bible verse, Ecclesiastes 7:14.

“In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him.”

The meaning is to enjoy the good times, but also realize the tough times and the sad times also exist for a reason. What remains from that incredible week are memories that will always be dear to my heart. For that, I can’t be appreciative enough of all those who made them possible.

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