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That'll be the day

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
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OKLAHOMA CITY – It was a weekend of ghosts as I spent time in Mason City, Iowa. One could sense their spectral presence. From the spirits of architects Frank Lloyd Wright and (my great-great uncle) Walter Burley Griffin, to the ghosts of The Music Man’s Meredith Willson and Buddy Holly, this corner of the Hawkeye State has more than its share of notable connections to famous folks from the recent (and not-so recent) past.

Had flown into Minneapolis and drove the two hours to Mason City for the annual Walter Burley Griffin Society meeting. Griffin, a one-time colleague of Wright (they had a falling out), had designed unique homes in Mason City in 1912-13, the same period when the musical The Music Man takes place, written and scored by hometown boy Meredith Willson.

While driving and listening to SiriusXM’s “The Bridge” (which had been preprogrammed in this brand-new Chevy Captiva) with its mellow slices of 70’s-era folk-pop and singer-songwriter tunes, Ted (RDR’s Ted H. Smith) mentioned Don McLean’s 1972 hit “American Pie” and how much he loved that song. And no, it did not come on during our two-hour sojourn to Mason City.

I had done a lot while in Mason City (early names: Masonic Grove, Shibboleth, Masonville) and yet one of the surprises while here was visiting the Surf Ballroom in the neighboring resort town of Clear Lake, where, on the infamous “Winter Dance Party Tour,”  Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) played what would be their final show before their airplane took off on Feb. 3, 1959 from the Mason City Municipal Airport and went down five miles northwest of town in a snow-covered field killing all aboard.

And there in the Surf was the actual phone used by Buddy Holly to call his wife Maria Elena and by Ritchie Valens to call his manager. The rock band Jackyl had performed the night before and employees were sweeping up the detritus from the aftermath of the show.

My first drive-in movie experience took place in 1978 when, as a 6-year-old, my parents went to the Razorback drive-in in Little Rock, Arkansas and my sister and I (in pajamas, of course) sat in the back seat of our family Buick Skylark and took in Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story. And while I was young I seemed to recognize the importance of that moment in time. One of my first LP’s was a cheap, cut-out Buddy Holly record. His songs really meant a lot to me. And years later, hearing Weezer’s song “Buddy Holly” helped trigger a renewed interest his music, as had a buddy of mine who worked at a paper in Texas. Yep, Buddy was always sort of there.

Meanwhile, back in that rural area of Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, between Clear Lake and Mason City, my companion and I had made our way to the very field where the plane had crashed – that day when the music died – and ran across a few folks wanting to pay their respects in this field of dreams after photographing the oversized Buddy Holly-styled glasses that were a landmark, held up by steel posts.

As I walked down the fence row where recently-planted corn was beginning to sprout up out of the ground, I thought about all the people who had made this same walk to the very spot where the plane crashed.

Reaching the spot there was a whirligig made of bundt-cake pans spinning in the breeze. Markers were left for the dead musicians and the pilot as well along with loose change, eyeglasses, notes, scarves and other small items.

The wind blew over the prairie and a plane flew in the cloud-dappled sky as I looked out over the expanse of the fields around me and the small shrine to a big part of rock n’ roll history.

Linda McKnight of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, was one of the people who made their way out to the crash site. She was simply curious about the area, having just come from the Surf Ballroom as we had.

And so for the next couple of days, thoughts of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper flooded my mind.

And on our last day in Mason City, leaving at 6:45 a.m. and heading to I-35 to head north back to Minneapolis, I glanced over at the Mason City Municipal Airport where the three musicians and their pilot had tempted fate in the face of a snowstorm 55 years earlier. I wondered what their final thoughts were as they boarded the ill-fated airplane, not knowing they would never reach Moorhead, Minnesota, the next date on the Winter Dance Party Tour.

We hit I-35 with Ted at the wheel and Sirius XM’s “The Bridge” still on. They were playing more folkie tunes this Sunday morning and about a mile or two up the interstate, at approximately the same spot pilot Roger Peterson would have crossed what is now the present-day Interstate 35 route, a song came on the radio, a song I had never heard before called “Holed Up Mason City” by John Gorka.

As a fan of Gorka’s music, I was transfixed by the song. It was about an experience he has driving on I-35 through northern Iowa and getting caught in a blizzard and ending up “holed up in Mason City” at the (fictional) Big Bopper Diner and spending time with Buddy Holly’s ghost.

I was floored. Ted couldn’t believe this synchronous event was taking place either. Of all songs and at all times it was not “American Pie” (as you might expect) that came on, but a brand new song specifically about Mason City and wintry weather conditions experienced by Gorka and, of course, by the doomed flight carrying Holly, Valens, The Big Bopper and Roger Peterson.

In the Surf Ballroom you can feel Buddy Holly’s presence. I felt it again in the car as we drove north.

I stared out the window, looking at the sunrise coming up over the Iowa farm fields. It was unbelievable, hearing that song. And yet, in a way, I had expected it. There had already been a lot of synchronicity on this trip – a trip I almost didn’t take. And while it had its bumps and trials, I learned a lot. And yes, it was all well-worth it.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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