Don McLean once said of his lyrics to “American Pie”- “They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry." I have listened to the song a hundred times in my lifetime, I once sang it for karaoke, which stirred certain drunken souls to begin dancing on the dance floor (which becomes another blog post altogether). The reason behind the song, of course, is the fatal plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Richie Valens, and pilot Roger Peterson, on that fateful night of February 3, 1959 in Clear Lake. Growing up, I listened to my mom’s “Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits” CD about a thousand times. I wasn’t scared to play it a few times in a day. I loved his upbeat songs (the lyrics of which at my age really didn’t make much sense to me), and a style that was all his own. I didn’t know his history. My mother (who was a big fan), just said he died too young, which indeed was the case. He was only in his early 20’s.
My buddy and I decided to take a little 24-hour road trip to see what we could see of that time frame. The number one thing on our list was the Buddy Holly crash site that is located just north of Clear Lake, right off of exit 203 if you’re approaching from the north. A few turns and you find yourself on a dirt road that can only be described as the middle of nowhere. If you GPS it, you’ll know when to stop. If confused, just look for the infamous Buddy Holly glasses that sit on the side of the road as a sort of marker. We parked the car and began the quarter mile trek down this pseudo-tractor trail, right in the middle of the Iowa cornfield. As we walked down toward the site, we came across a couple of other folks who were also visiting. They seemed obviously moved by the memorial that we were about to approach. Being a fairly emotional guy, I was wondering if I would also be so moved. As I kept walking, I began to wonder how much further it was or if we missed it, or whether there was going to be a sign soon saying “You’re almost there!” But there wasn’t. You just had to keep going.
As you approach the site, it's obvious that you've finally arrived. There is a slight opening among the corn and the tractor-ish trail kind of disappears. Then you're looking down on the makeshift memorial that has meant so much to so many. It’s simple. It’s iconic. It becomes very real to someone who is in his 30’s, that something major happened to American culture right here. If one believes that America has a pulse, that day, it skipped a beat. We stood in silence. Even with the wind blowing through the corn, there was a very eerie calm in the spot where we stood. I sat down, played the songs I knew in my head from all three artists, and began to reflect and appreciate the simplicity of this place. I was happy to see guitar picks, glasses, coins in a hubcap, beads, and other little mementos. To me, these items mean more than some fancy marble memorial. I placed a coin in the hubcap, said a prayer to the musical souls that have now been resting for 59 years and began the trek back to the car.
At this point, I had two bars of service left on my phone, and I played “Everyday” by Buddy Holly as we walked. We, like the gentlemen before us, were touched and moved by the memorial site. It showed us that tragedies like this can carry with them a silver lining, and at the end of that Iowa cornfield, somehow tragedy filled us with hope for American culture.
Image credit: Steven Kawecki