March 28th 1975……A day that changed my life

March 28, 2010

It was Good Friday in 1975, I was 10 years old, I was enthusiastically looking forward to the upcoming baseball season with the Mount Holly Little League… very first season.  March 28th 1975 is a day that changed my life.  My Dad had to work the 4 to 12 shift that day for the Mount Holly Police Department, and I had baseball practice at the Folwell School around 3PM since it was a school holiday on Good Friday.  My Dad, who just recently picked up a used second-hand pick up truck, suggested that he drive me to baseball practice in the truck with my bike in the back, drop me and my bike off at practice, watch us practice a bit, and then head to work.  He did just that.  We started off warming up, having a catch with a partner, and then some batting practice.  Everyone took a turn to bat while the rest of us was scattered in the field to field the hits during batting practice.  As batting practice continued, I was in the outfield, I vividly remember glancing over my left shoulder and seeing my Dad slowly walking away heading toward his parked truck on Jacksonville Road.  He was in his uniform and his police overcoat since it was a chilly March afternoon.  I didn’t realize at the time, but this was the very last time I would see my Father walk.  After practice was over, I rode my bike home, and was ready to relax and enjoy the long week off from school.  My Mother was at work across the street as a waitress at the Moose Lodge, and my older brother Les was home with me.  What I didn’t know was that my Father was critically injured from a sniper’s bullet on Garden Street after responding to a call that there was a man with a gun.  My oldest brother Ken was home on break from Rutgers and was already aware of this tragic news, was out trying to find out if Dad was still alive.  Les was already being bombarded from calls from the press asking horrible questions about Dad’s condition.  Mom was told about the shooting at the Moose Lodge and immediately called Les to drop me off at a friend’s house, don’t disclose the shooting to me, and to meet Mom and Ken at the Emergency Room at the hospital.  Even though I was only 10 years old, I could sense something was not right.  Since Dad’s condition was critical, Mom wanted to wait before telling me about the news as it was unknown if he would survive the night.  Les tried his best to hold back tears and calmly took me down the street to the home of my friend Kevin Libby.  The Libby family was so kind to me that night as they tried to distract my worries and play board games with me.  They also kept me away from the TV since it was the big news on all three stations that night.  I remember going to bed before the news was on but having a very difficult time getting to sleep.  It was one of the longest nights of my life.  The next morning I woke up and dear, sweet, Mrs. Libby gently told me the news about my Father getting hurt, but he was going to be alright.  I will never forget how delicately she broke the news to me.  Saturday morning I went home and was reunited with my family and to my surprise, my Father’s family drove all night long from Missouri, and were expected to arrive at our hose very soon.  Because of my age, I was unable to go to the ICU to see Dad, so I was very confused about what was going on with this whole series of events.  As time went on, I was able to visit Dad, and I realized that he could not get out of the bed and walk like he used to.  The newspaper kept referring to his injury as being “temporarily paralyzed” but as time passed, we all pretty much realized Dad’s paralysis was indeed permanent.  All of our lives were changed from this tragic event.  Frequently, I would come home from school or practice and there would be a news van in the driveway and a reporter would be inside interviewing Dad.  It became a regular occurrence to see his photo or his name appear in the newspaper whenever an anniversary of the “Good Friday Sniper Incident” would be recounted in the papers.  We also realized that the time we had with Dad was limited.  None of us spoke about it, but we all knew it inside.  I remember all of us would have dreams about Dad walking again.  As I grew older, I remember many times my brothers Ken, Les and I along with Mom would share our dreams that we had about Dad recovering and walking out of his wheelchair.  After 17 years of suffering from his paralysis, Dad’s ordeal was over.  He passed away in July of 1992 and I have to say my initial reaction was not one of sadness.  As strange as that sounds, I was initially relieved that his struggle was over, and he was no longer bound by the paralysis that trapped his body on earth, and he was now free to join our father above and take his place there.  About a week and a half later after his passing, I recall looking at a photo of Dad standing proudly in his police uniform by his car and a wave of emotion hit me like I’ve never felt before.  It finally caught up to me and I cried and wept like a baby so hard my knees buckled and I had to sit down.  It actually felt good to release this emotion and to validate to myself that I was sad at losing my Father.  I was concerned that over a week went by and I did not shed 1 tear until that massive emotional release.  As time went on, at various family gatherings, my brothers, Mom, and myself would discuss Dad and the incredible burden he had to deal with for 17 years and we speculated if it would have been more merciful if Dad passed away that March 28th 1975, instead of 17 years later.  We all have our own feelings about that incredibly tough question, but for me, now at 45 years of age, and 35 years later from that tragic event, I realize that even though Dad could not walk, and was weak, and had countless operations, illnesses, and close calls until he was called in July 1992, he was still Dad, and the head of the family.  I don’t have too many strong memories of my Dad before his injury since I was only 10 at the time of the incident.  I remember some events here and there but they are very fuzzy since I was so young.  As I grew into my teens, Dad gave me the benefit of his homespun country upbringing and shared many stories of growing up and working as a young kid on a farm in Missouri.  I received lots of stories about the farm life to help me get through my years at high school, college, and the beginning of my career with the State of New Jersey.  I was still living at home when I was about 24 or 25 and starting to get the basic understanding of my new job at the state, and Dad said to me with a perfect straight face,  “If you walk through a cow pasture long enough…you’re bound to step in something”.  More than his country anecdotes and sayings, I learned about real courage from a man who struggled each and every day after receiving a powerful gunshot wound in the neck that left him totally paralyzed from his chest down and leaving him with very limited use of his arms and as time progressed it was a struggle for him to breath and to talk.  If anyone had reason to be bitter, Dad certainly did, however, throughout his 17 years of paralysis, he never complained or screamed, or displayed any type of temper tantrum about the bad hand that was dealt him in the game of life.  He always made the best of his given circumstances.  He always taught me to have something to look forward to.  A holiday would mean visits from Ken, Les and other family members and he looked forward to these times even though his energy was limited.  He always tried to call his family back home in Missouri to send his love and to ease their concerns that he was doing fine.  Something simple like a Phillies game on TV was a treat to him, and he asked me to make some popcorn and bring it in and watch the game with him.  I’ve realized that these basic lessons that I learned from Dad well after his injury were very important in determining the person that I am today.  I am very blessed to have that brave, easy-going, Missouri born man as my Dad.  Indeed, March 28th 1975 is a day that changed my life.

This is Dad after his injury in his wheelchair along with fellow Police Officers, attending a memorial service for Donald Aleshire and William Wurst, the two brave officers that died on March 28th 1975, the same day that Dad was injured and left paralyzed for the rest of his life.

In March 2006, Mount Holly Township dedicated a monument to the Police Officers that died on March 28th 1975, and to my Father who was left permanently paralyzed and eventually passed away from complications from the gunshot wound that he received on March 28th 1975.