We were just kids, on our way to adulthood.
None of us had many cares at all. Life was perfect and nothing could interrupt our days. Most were spent tossing around a baseball or a football, or bouncing a basketball on weekends when the school’s gymnasium was open for the few kids in town to enjoy.
We’d spend most after-school hours studying – at least we were supposed to be – but, on occasion, we’d ride out to the old Town and Country Café (T&C we called it) at the corner of Highway 69 and the “Elkhart” blacktop.
Nickel after nickel were put in the juke box, a big one stood in a corner of the café and smaller ones were attached to each booth. We had no cares in the world. Many of us had discovered girls around that time (of course, the girls had taken to boys) and we fantasized about a real date when we were old enough to get our first drivers’ license. For now, school dances had to do.
In two years, we would become an historic bunch of graduates, although we were the only ones who actually thought that way. You see, our senior class rings would read “1961” – the only class rings to read the same way right-side-up, or upside-down. Either way, the ring read “1961.” That hasn’t happened since and it won’t happen again until the year 6009. Wow!
We were enamored with a new singer named Elvis and we gyrated to the latest rock ‘n roll hits that blared out over the AM radios. New hits by new artists were released almost weekly and we watched the top 40 lists. My parents had given me an old phonograph for Christmas a couple of years earlier and I bought as many 45 rpm records as possible, playing them over and over.
That was our life as the second semester of our sophomore school year had just begun a month earlier. But, on February 3, 1959, our lives changed. As we returned to class on Wednesday, Feb. 4, we learned that three of our musical idols were missing. They’d performed on Tuesday night at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake and had been on a small plane headed to their next performance in Fargo, N.D., but the plane had apparently crashed after takeoff from Mason City.
With many smuggled transistor radios turned on at times during the day, hopefully out of sight of our teachers, news trickled in that a plane had been found between Clear Lake and Forest City, where I’d later attend Waldorf College. As the day wore on, we learned that three of our musical heroes had been on that plane and had died along with pilot Roger Peterson, a young man who’d grown up in Storm Lake.
Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were the other three victims.
It was as if we’d suddenly lost some of our best friends.
Kids around the country, including those of us at North Polk High School, grew up a little during that time and it wasn’t by choice. Suddenly we didn’t seem so invincible, so indestructible. If Buddy Holly could die, could we be next?
In the days following, juke boxes all around the nation, perhaps especially in Iowa, blared out songs like Ritchie Valens’ “Oh, Donna” and “LaBamba” … and Richardson’s “Chantilly Lace” and all the 1958 hits of Holly like “Peggy Sue,” “Maybe Baby,” “Rave On” (which actually didn’t become a hit until after the plane crash), “Oh, Boy” and “Guess Things Happen That Way.”
I didn’t buy my first record album until a year after the three stars died. It was “Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits” volume one. I still have that album, and about 200 more including several more by Holly and, of course, Ritchie Valens.
And, I still listen to them, sometimes to the chagrin of my wife. Yes, those records take up a lot of space that we don’t have. But, I simply can’t rid myself of them. In fact, I still buy records at garage sales when they’re available (and “listenable” as well).
Yes, we grew up some in the aftermath of that tragedy. Suddenly, our invincible lives seemed a little more tenuous, a little more un-sure.
Like most Americans, the millions who didn’t have a close association with those three lost teen idols or their pilot, my classmates and I went on with our lives. We were, I’m sure, a little more conscious of our own vulnerability.
It was a life lesson we accepted. Soon, our lives returned to normal – music, sports and, of course, the never-ending pursuit of that “special” girl in the class. Boys still gathered in small groups and talked about the girls in our class and the girls all gathered in small groups and talked about, well, I’ve never been sure. Maybe they were talking about boys – who knows?
But all of us in the Class of 1961 were a little more aware of our own mortality after that plane crash in 1959.