Friday, January 30, 2009

The Day the Music Died

Nearly all of us shelter a few events and their related dates that remain locked into the deepest recesses of our minds for as long as we live, available for recall at a moment’s notice. Some of them are personal such as our wedding date and our children’s birthdates.

Then, there are also those national occurrences which are nearly impossible to forget. We remember the time and exact place where we were when those actions took place or when we first heard of them. Unfortunately, many are disastrous tragedies which have left indelible imprints which we shudder to recall.

For those a bit older than I, December 7, 1941, surely ranks near the top of that list. That Sunday morning, nearly three years before my appearance into this world, “the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan” at the military installation at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was truly a “day which will live in infamy.”

More than two decades later, November 22, 1963, on a warm sunny day in Dallas, John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. I was a sophomore at Purdue and had two classes that Friday afternoon. Since there were no parking places specifically designated for disabled drivers in those days, I always left the dorm early and drove my old 1956 Dodge to campus to look for a convenient spot. As I was sitting in my car outside Stanley Coulter Annex, a news break came on the radio saying the President had been shot. I listened as long as I could, and when I finally forced myself to go into the building, a sign had already been placed on the classroom door saying all classes had been cancelled for the rest of the day.

None of us will ever forget where we were the morning of September 11, 2001, when those two planes toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Another plane hit the Pentagon and a fourth crashed into a lonely field in southern Pennsylvania, killing all on board but perhaps preventing even further loss of life. Employed at Citizens Gas in Indianapolis, I watched in awe as the tragedy unfolded. People packed the auditorium to stare transfixed at the big-screen projection TV broadcasting the horrors. All of our lives changed that day forever.

Some exact dates are easier to pluck from your mind than others. Those harder ones just need a little more coaxing to emerge. It was very easy for me to remember the above examples. This last one took a bit more effort, but once it hit me, a flood of memories took over.

My wife and I own a Goldendoodle “puppy” that is just over a year old. On January 6, we took Jasper for his second annual round of shots at the vet’s office. One of them requires a booster a month later. When Carol wrote this next visit onto the calendar, I looked at the date and knew it had some significance. We have to take him back on Tuesday, February 3, 2009.

In the days following, I stared at that calendar two or three times before it finally hit me – on Tuesday, February 3, 1959, exactly fifty years prior to Jasper’s scheduled follow-up, rock and roll legends Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) were tragically killed in a plane crash along with their pilot on a frigid winter night in northern Iowa.

They had been participating in a tour called the “Winter Dance Party” with Dion & the Belmonts and several other famous rockers of the era. The heater on their tour bus had failed and the three doomed stars decided to take a small single-engine plane to their next stop in Minnesota. Although Buddy Holly chartered the plane, two other singers had chances at the remaining seats with Richardson and Valens as the unlucky “winners.”

The Big Bopper wasn’t one originally scheduled to fly with Holly, but he had developed the flu during the tour and asked Waylon Jennings, a future country music star, to give up his seat on the plane; Jennings agreed. When Buddy Holly learned that his pal, Waylon, wasn't going with them, he said, "Well, I hope your old bus freezes up." Jennings responded, "Well, I hope your old plane crashes." It’s been said that this exchange of words, though made in jest, haunted Jennings for the rest of his life.

In February, 1959, I was a 14-year-old sophomore at Elnora High School. Both of my parents arose early each morning and always awakened me just before they left for work so I wouldn’t miss school. This gave me plenty of time to bathe, dress, eat breakfast, and listen to some music before boarding the school bus. That morning, as I switched on the kitchen radio, Buddy Holly was singing “Not Fade Away,” one of his many classics. As the song ended, the DJ mentioned the song was by the “late Buddy Holly.” Since it was about time for the bus, I grabbed my new Zenith transistor radio and took it with me.

By the time we arrived at school, I had confirmed the news none of us wanted to hear. Three of the most popular young American singers were dead. Although he was only twenty-two years of age, Buddy Holly was the most well-known and became the inspiration for many to follow, including the Beatles. It’s impossible to imagine how bright his star would have become if not for that fatal crash. He has been called “the single most creative force in the early history of rock and roll.”

Ritchie Valens was the first Mexican-American singer to make an impact with fans outside of his heritage, having scored hits with, “Donna,” and “La Bamba.” J. P. Richardson was a prolific songwriter as well as having that great baritone voice. My father loved “Chantilly Lace” and often when he’d come into the house, he’d greet my mom with a big, “Hello, Baby, you know what I like.” That always made her smile and me a bit uncomfortable.

Some have pointed to that fateful day as the beginning of the loss of the innocence of youth. Others, including Don McLean in his 1971 song, “American Pie,” have simply called February 3, 1959, “The Day the Music Died.” However, to those of us who remember, their songs and legacies will live on forever.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Snakes on a Bus

About two years ago, a movie titled Snakes on a Plane starring the great actor, Samuel L. Jackson, appeared in movie theaters. It was an apparent hit with the younger crowd (to me, that’s anyone under 50), but although it’s been on HBO or Showtime several occasions since, I haven’t bothered to watch it. Maybe I will someday after the paint dries.

Although I haven’t seen the movie, I can’t imagine it being nearly as thrilling or exciting as a similar incident which co-starred a good-sized member of the reptile family when I was a student at Elnora High.

It all started with the morning bus ride to school on a sunny and cold, but not frigid, winter day. I was one of the first students on the bus each morning, and as we picked up the other kids, all wore the requisite outer garments appropriate to the season. However, as a classmate of mine (who shall remain nameless in the interest of continuing confidentiality) climbed the steps to the bus, I noticed that he was clad in a long-sleeved shirt, but was carrying his coat folded up and clutched tightly in front of him, not unlike a Wall Street banker trying to conceal a briefcase full of embezzled cash.

Some of us asked if he was cold, but he dodged the question with the efficiency of a point guard evading a defender just before hitting the game winning jump shot. As we arrived at school and headed to the Study Hall to grab our books and supplies from our desks, I completely forgot the bus scenario and prepared myself for the business of getting ready to start the school day.

Mrs. Humbaugh, the school’s English teacher, was at her normal early morning location, seated at a small table at the south end of the Study Hall. She had a supply of tickets piled on her table and a small money box in which to collect the quarters from the students who wanted to purchase lunch in the school cafeteria.

We had 15 minutes to get our stuff together, buy the last minute lunch tickets, and get ourselves to class. Most of the other kids in grades 7 – 12 were similarly occupied, except for a small group of students clustered around a desk a couple rows to my left and a bit more toward the front of the large room. About the time I looked in their direction, the desk lid was raised, and with the accuracy of an Australian boomerang, a large snake whirled overhead from the group of students straight toward Mrs. Humbaugh. With a shriek that would have made Alfred Hitchcock proud, Mrs. Humbaugh leaped from her seat, knocking over her small table, with coins and cash flying in all directions. From my vantage point, it appeared as if the snake grazed or, at the very least, just missed Mrs. Humbaugh in its spinning flight across the auditorium.

As things quieted down, a magnanimous young man (who just happened to be the same student with the suspicious folded coat on that early morning bus ride) went over and offered his assistance to rid the Study Hall of the offending reptile. The last we saw, the student and the snake were both headed down the hallway and out the door, where the legless creature was presumably allowed to slither to the freedom of its natural habitat.

Days later, another blood-curdling scream emanated from the 2nd floor English room. It seems that when Mrs. Humbaugh reached into her coat pocket near the end of the school day, somehow a tiny garter snake had taken up residence in the same location as her car keys. To my knowledge, nobody was ever punished for either incident.
As Harrison Ford so aptly complained in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “Snakes! Why does it have to be snakes?” I’m sure Mrs. Humbaugh felt the same way.