After we left New Mexico, Laura and I drove pretty much straight to Kentucky. We enjoyed the very cold spring weather there with our family and friends. The warmer weather of June came around and we got that feeling again to hit the road for the Mountain West for some drier air. So that is what we did in early June, and here was our first stop on our way West.
Well, I guess I have to start the reasoning for this stop in 1986. My family had rented a movie to watch at home on our VCR machine call “Stand by Me”. I loved the movie for many reasons but mostly for the music. There was a scene of the boys walking down the railroad that begins with a song that started an obsession that was only rivaled by Billy the Kid in my childhood.
The song was “Everyday” by Buddy Holly. It was the first time I had ever heard him before. My Dad showed me he had a record of him after asking them about the musician. I must have played that record a million times. I found my Dad’s old glasses that looked like Buddy’s. I would put them on and sing along to these songs from the 50’s all day. Later I would have my own prescription put in the frame and used them until they fell apart from old age.
Fast forward to Laura and I planning another cross-country trip. I brought up the fact that we were going to be very close to Clear Lake, Iowa: The place where the music died. Laura agreed to the pilgrimage.
The night of February 2, 1959 Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper were on tour and played a show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. You can go to the ballroom today. It is still set up a lot like it was that night, which was to be the last show these young stars ever played.
After this show the bands were to move on to Moorhead, MN for the next show in the “Winter Dance Party” tour. The bus that they were traveling in had a broken heater which made traveling in the Northern Mid-West winter unbearable. Buddy Holly had booked a plane for his band and him to fly ahead of the bus. Buddy’s band at the time was Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings (yes, that Waylon Jennings). Jennings gave his seat to Richardson (aka “The Big Bopper”) because he had come down with the flu. Ritchie Valens asked Allsup for his seat. The plane could only take three people. The rest of the bands would have to spend the night on the cold bus. The story goes Allsup agreed to a coin toss which he lost and Valens got the plane seat.
When Buddy heard Jennings wasn’t going to be on the plane he joked “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up”. Jennings replied: ” Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes”. Shortly after 12am February 3, 1959 the plane did in fact crash just a few miles outside of Clear Lake. This is said to of haunted Jennings until his death in 2002.
The field were the plane was found is just a few miles outside of Clear Lake. Along a dirt road there are Buddy Holly Glasses marking the path to the crash site. There is a marker for the young stars and one for the young pilot as well at the site where the plane was found the next morning. The oldest of the four was “The Big Bopper” at the age of age of 28. Buddy Holly was the next oldest at 22. Peterson, the pilot, was next in line of age at 21. The baby of the group was Ritchie Valens at just 17.
Finally making it to this spot that I have seen photos of and read about for decades brought up some tough emotions. I had spent my childhood listening to Buddy’s music thinking of him as a “man” to look up to, and as a musical genius that had the answers to growing up and young love. But standing in the spot were they all died, I only could see the death place of young boys. Buddy was just 22 and Valens was not even out of high school.
The street outside of the Surf Ballroom is named Buddy Holly Place. As Laura and I walked down this street to find lunch we passed a cross-street just blocks away from the ballroom. How fitting.
We still have a few more adventures on our way out West. We can’t wait to share them.
Until next time,