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The great moments we’ll never forget

Eugene Burnett displays a plaque given to him

Eugene Burnett displays a plaque given to him by his children bearing quotes from Marcus Garvey and Muhammad Ali. Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

 

We all know about those exciting life happenings — love, marriage, children, grandchildren. Getting the job we want. Buying that dream home. Making the last mortgage payment. Watching our favorite team win the national championship.

Great moments, for sure. But today’s stories take “exciting” and kick it way up because they’re far from the checklist of everyday living.

Here, Long Islanders share their stories of uber-exciting times they can’t forget.

 

A BOXING HERO

EUGENE BURNETT, 87, Wheatley Heights

Eugene Burnett’s most exciting moment came in 1974. As a former Suffolk County police sergeant, and businessman who owned nightclubs and ice cream franchises, Burnett, a father of three, says he remembers one never-forget, electrifying moment: the knockout of George Foreman by Muhammad Ali in the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing extravaganza.

Burnett had been invited to watch at the Upper West Side studios of WABC-TV Ch. 7 in Manhattan by a nightclub patron who worked there.

In his words:

It was a very difficult time as a young man in America, trying to raise my family. I remember taking my children upstate for vacations and going through the trauma of being refused in motels over and over. I had never experienced that type of discrimination. Boxing was a pastime that we enjoyed doing in those days. But when Muhammad Ali came along, saying the things that he was saying, he filled the need that black people had.

Society now claims that he is a hero. But America was forced into that because he was so popular locally and with people in this country and all over the world. America — the oppressive side of America — hated him. People couldn’t forgive him because he didn’t want to sign up into the services. They were calling him illiterate and that he couldn’t think and he didn’t graduate from high school and all.

When Ali knocked Foreman out, the feeling in the studio was euphoric. That was the pinnacle of Ali’s career and what he meant to us. There was kind of a feeling of us against them — the power structure. Ali represented us and anyone else represented the power structure.

They all said he was going to get hurt, and as we were coming out of the studio, we were passing the crowd that had just broken from Lincoln Center; people who were going there to see opera or whatever. I remember their faces — they were so far removed from that. They could not understand what was going on. They knew something was going on. The sound of the crowd, the euphoria. I will never forget that moment. That was my most euphoric moment. Ali meant a lot to me. He represented our manhood.

 

CONQUERING A FEAR

SHERRY PALENCIA, 74, North Babylon

Sherry Palencia taught Spanish for three decades in the West Islip School District, and now is a tango and line-dancing instructor. Teaching has its fine moments, but Palencia’s most exciting one came on a mountaintop in 1990. A mother of three, she was determined to face her fear of flying, so she went “heli-hiking” with a friend and eight strangers to the remote Bugaboos mountain range in the Canadian Rockies.

In her words:

I can picture the moment. The helicopter landed on such a small mountain peak that we could hardly get out unless that helicopter would leave. Then we stood on this mountaintop and watched the weather cells go by.

It rained, and it snowed, and the sun came out. Every 10 minutes, the weather changed. There were no other earthly sounds. We were above trees, above the animals. We were above everything. I was so excited, I could not take a picture. I could not even think about anything except standing there and experiencing that. To get down — because we couldn’t get the helicopter back on the peak — we had the choice of scaling this mountain, which I could never do — it was more than a mile down, or making a human chain, just sliding, and that’s how I came down. The human chain was terrifying. We had parkas. We were told to put our ski pants inside the boots otherwise your skin would be scraped off. Then we were to sit down and open our legs; and another person sitting down in front of us; and then we grabbed them around the waist.

There were 10 of us, and we were in that tight position sitting on the ground. We just went straight down that mountain. It was unbelievable. There was no time to think. It just happened.

Who knows how fast we were going? We were going very fast. Who knows if I even opened my eyes? I don’t remember. And before you knew it, we were all down. We clutched each other, you know, for dear life, and we felt this special bond when we were all safe and sound at the bottom. Then the helicopter picked us up below, and took us back to a lodge, which looked like a Hollywood movie set. It looked fake. I was dazed. It was unbelievable.

 

WORKING WITH THE KING

WILL HUTCHINS, 86, Glen Head

As the star of “Sugarfoot” from 1957 to 1961, Will Hutchins gave fans of the TV cowboy series some exciting moments. Other acting ventures were less successful, but then he got to work with The King, landing a role in Elvis Presley’s 1966 film “Spinout.” The next year, the father of one got tapped for another Presley movie, “Clambake,” a development that Hutchins says was “like the guardians singing with the angels.”

In his words:

Working with Elvis was a great, exciting experience. It was a gradual thing. It wasn’t one moment but many moments over the 10 weeks we shot both films. Going on to the Elvis set at MGM for the first time was like leaving the sepia skies of Los Angeles and going into the three-strip Technicolor wonderland of Oz — like going through a magic gate. It was almost like a pagan rite. He was up on a stage doing his gyrations and singing to a bunch of scantily clad girls, who were acting like they were worshipping an idol.

We met for the first time right on the set of “Spinout” to film the first scene I was in with him. He knew who I was because that’s how I got the job. He saw me on “Sugarfoot.” It was all business. He did everything in one take, and I had to keep up with him. I was 20-takes Hutchins.

We got to know each other between takes — it was like party time, and he was the perfect host, making sure everyone was happy and relaxed. We had so much fun. It was a wild time — noise, everyone was going crazy.

He was shooting off fireworks on the set all the time. So I’d have to wait for the explosions to stop so I could read my lines. One day, Elvis said, “Come on to my dressing room.”

He had a dressing room in a trailer right on the soundstage, the one where they shot the original “Phantom of the Opera.” I went and sat down and he pulled out an LP. I thought, “Oh boy, I’m going to be the first kid on the block to hear his latest and greatest.” But what he played was Charles Boyer — reciting love poetry. That’s the kind of guy he was. It was one surprise after another.

 

CROWNED IN GHANA

MIGNON SMITH, 88, Freeport

After a 2003 trip to Ghana, West Africa, Mignon Smith, a retired nursing educator, founded Global Associates for Health Development Inc. Its mission “was established to identify and resolve obstacles to the achievement of good health among peoples in the developing world.”

In Bomaa, a community of about 6,600, Smith, who has one daughter, saw a need for supplies, clothing and a dental clinic to serve residents there and in three surrounding communities.

Her title is honorary and carries no governmental powers, but her coronation to Queenmother for her volunteer work there was no less thrilling than those held for royal families.

In her words:

I visited Ghana for the first time in 1995. There was a contrast between severe poverty and those who were living well. For instance, in many parts of West Africa, mothers carry their babies on their backs and walk with them. Some of them walk miles like that. Many don’t have their own vehicles or have access to them. People are quite poor. They had a health clinic, but there was no running water or toilets. That was unbelievable to me.

I returned in 2002. I visited with a group, and I cited my interest in becoming a queen mother. Someone who I was touring with, she knew of a village and a chief who wanted a queen mother. That was Bomaa. We were introduced, and then he asked me if I wanted the title.

I returned later that year and was enstooled, or coronated. There was a big ceremony. There was a special dress made for me by someone from the village. They made a pretty stool for me. Everyone got dressed up, and a councilman had me stand up and sit down three times. After that, everyone laughed and ate and danced — lots of dancing. The acting chief — he was 116 years old — he danced and I was dancing. Everyone was dancing. It was a day to remember.

 

PRIDE IN THE TWIN TOWERS

TIMOTHY DEEGAN, 75, Huntington

As a steamfitter and member of Local 638, Timothy Deegan spent six years helping to build the original World Trade Center towers. His work there started in February 1969. The steel had been erected on Tower One to the seventh floor. He installed piping as part of the heating and cooling system, working with the general foreman or filling in for him. He also had a hand in building Tower Two.

Deegan was semiretired when terrorists destroyed the towers in 2001. He watched on TV as planes flew into the buildings he helped put together. Seeing them fall was “a trauma,” he says.

One Manhattan location provided the most exciting moments of his life. And years later, one of the saddest.

In his words:

I had some big jobs in my career. I worked at the Shoreham nuclear plant — another six-year job — and three of the four [smoke]stacks in Northport. Working on the Twin Towers was the best six years of my life — a high point in my career.

It was such an exciting time of my life being there. Not only was it the tallest building in the United States, it was the tallest in the world. At the time, the refrigeration plant, which chilled the water that was used for the cooling, was the largest in the world — 50,000 tons of refrigeration.

I was also part of the supervision. That was important to me — that my directions were part of the way the thing went up in the air. All piping, all the internals, the heating, the cooling, the air conditioning. I totally enjoyed it.

I had so many great remembrances as it was being built. At one point, a lot of the steel was brought in on barges and offloaded, and then they started bringing in steel pieces with helicopters. That was exciting.

I was there also the day Philippe Petit walked between the towers in 1974. There weren’t many days out of the year at that elevation that the winds weren’t blowing. That day, it was an August day, it was hot and there wasn’t a breath of air. So he had no worries about getting blown off the wire.

The only thing he got worried about was that the helicopters flying around almost blew him off. They had a police setup in the building, and I saw him being brought into the station.

There were so many good memories. It was a unique design and the way it was erected — I remember it. And the camaraderie between me and the people I was working with, I don’t think I ever had on any other job. I have fond memories and no regrets, and sad memories because it’s all gone.

 

ONE-OF-A-KIND EXCITING MOMENT It’s that one incredible moment in your life; the one that still gives you chills of joy. It’s the one story you tell everyone because it’s too good to keep inside. We’re not talking about marriage, children, grandkids or graduations. We want to hear about that unusual, exciting and true moment in your life that no one can match. Share your story for possible publication, with pictures if available. Email act2@newsday.com or write to Act 2 Editor, Newsday Newsroom, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747. Include name, address and phone numbers.

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