By now, most music fans are quite familiar with the details surrounding the tragic deaths of music legends Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper on February 3, 1959. In fact, thousands have made the pilgrimage to the Surf Ballroom (site of their last performances) in Clear Lake, IA and the plane crash site in nearby Mason City to pay their respects over the years. In 2004, my wife’s family decided to stage their family reunion a couple miles away from the Surf and opportunity came knocking like the cardboard drumbeats in “Not Fade Away.”
After our reunion obligations were finished, my wife and I raced over to the Surf Ballroom, which we had driven past on the way to the family gathering. When we walked through the front door, I felt chills from head to toe, as the venue has been beautifully preserved and holds so much rich history. In addition to the men previously mentioned, the Surf has hosted the likes of Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers and Little Richard, plus a long list of other well-known entertainers over the years, and still to this day. It is also available to rent for special events, which happened to be the case the day we stopped by. They were setting up for a wedding and alas, our visit was quite brief. But not before witnessing the famed ballroom’s stage, the payphone Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens made their last phone calls on and other pictorial tributes to the famed Winter Dance Party concert tour.
We were able to snap a few quick pictures inside and then made our way outdoors and out of the way of the wedding planners. We got a few shots of the building, including a picture of this memorial near the front entrance.
Upon leaving the Surf, we decided to try and find the location of the crash site. With no mobile devices or internet access of any kind, we made our way to Mason City and used our best instinctive navigational skills to find the location. After driving down some country back roads for a spell, we happened upon a handmade sign that read, “Buddy Holly” with an arrow pointing toward a cornfield. I understand they have since added a monument depicting Buddy’s famed horn-rimmed glasses that is certain to be more visible than that sign. While my wife stayed in the van, I put on my walking shoes and began my trek. I later read that the crash site was approximately a half a mile from the road, but on that hot, August day, it seemed much farther.
Anyhow, there was a beaten path along the fence, where other fans made their trips before me. Navigating through the brush and tall corn stalks, my wife couldn’t see me from the road, nor could I see her,as I occasionally looked back to see how far I had walked. If I happened upon anyone, it was my hope they were the friendly sort making the same pilgrimage I was and not opportunists looking to jump Buddy Holly geeks.
I also observed three trees planted in memory of Buddy, Ritchie and J.P. and wondered why there wasn’t a fourth one to represent pilot Roger Peterson. In more recent years there has apparently been a memorial built there in his name, though. Each of the trees had bark “skinned” off of them, undoubtedly by fans looking to take home a souvenir. While I didn’t deem it necessary to collect any relics for myself, my treasure was in reflecting on how much joy these memorialized artists had given me and millions of others. Though I was standing in the very place where gifted lives were cut short “a long, long time ago,” I felt an enormous outpouring of peace and tranquility. My wife later observed: “The air stirred and rustled the stalks and was calming and soothing to the ear. It was serene and surreal and oh so quiet. You could imagine no sense of this tremendous loss had ever happened out there. It was beautifully peaceful.” Even though I was a half a mile removed from her, we were simpatico in spirit.
After spending a few minutes at the site, I made the long walk back to the van and my beautiful wife, who was eager to hear about my experience. We got about five hundred feet down the road when I decided to turn on the radio. Appropriately enough, “Peggy Sue” was blaring through the speakers!
DISCLAIMER: The images included in this story are ones I found on the internet and NOT the pictures we took ourselves. I do not have any digital copies of our photos and my scanner is currently not working. I do not wish to misrepresent my experience, but these pictures are very similar to the ones we took in 2004.