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The Last Days of Buddy Holly

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It was 19 below zero the morning when the Winter Dance Party musicians boarded another bus in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for the 340-mile journey to Clear Lake, but near Prairie du Chien, the heaters, as if on schedule, failed once again and had to be repaired. They arrived at the Ballroom just in time to perform their 8 p.m. show for the more than 1,200 teens who had paid $1.25 to attend the concert. Alan Mitchell, a former Chicago radio disc jockey who was there that night with his girlfriend, recalls, "I was 15 and was wearing my Thompson High School letter jacket. And I have to chuckle when I remember my ducktail and lots of Brylcreem — 'A little dab will do ya.' We looked very cool then . . . and the girls did too with their poodle skirts, capris, froufrous and rabbit-fur collars."

And the musicians were dressed to kill. Throughout the tour, the Big Bopper sported a Stetson and a three-quarter leopard-skin coat that he called Melvin. Valens dressed in a blue satin shirt, black bolero and vaquero pants. And Buddy and the Crickets were clothed in black jackets, gray slacks and ascots. At the ballroom that night, they performed their hits, and for the finale they all came onstage for a jam that included "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," "La Bamba" and "Great Balls of Fire."

It has been told many times before....

On the bus ride to Clear Lake, Buddy Holly decided he'd had enough of the road. The boys hadn't had their laundry cleaned for days. And he envisioned a comfortable bed and a good night's sleep if only he could fly after the Surf Ballroom show to Fargo, North Dakota, just across the Red River from Moorhead, their next destination, some 400 miles northwest of Clear Lake.

Upon his arrival there, Buddy asked the Surf Ballroom manager to charter a flight from the nearby Mason City airport to Fargo. Dwyer's Flying Service contacted one of their pilots, Roger Peterson, to fly a red, single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza four-seater. The flight was to cost $108, and Buddy first offered one of the seats to Dion for $36, a third of the price.

"When Buddy said, 'That will be $36,' he hit the magic number in my head," Dion told me. "The rent for my parents' apartment was $36, and they argued all my fucking life over that $36 because my father was a beautiful guy, but he was an emotional 13-year-old, and he never worked."

Two of the Crickets, Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings, were the next to be asked. But the Big Bopper had come down with the flu, and Jennings graciously gave him his place. Valens asked Allsup for the other seat: "Are you gonna let me fly, guy?" "No," Allsup replied. "Let's flip a coin for it," Valens said. As Allsup recounted to Philip Norman, "I don't know why, because I'd been telling him no all evening, but I pulled a half dollar out of my pocket. I've never understood what made me — it just happened. I flipped the 50-cent piece and said, 'Call it.' Ritchie said, 'Heads,' and it came down heads."

Just after 12:30 a.m., Tuesday, February 3rd, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper climbed into the back seat of the plane with all of the musicians' dirty laundry, and Buddy sat next to the pilot. The barometer was falling, the ceiling and visibility were lowering, light snow was falling, the winds were blustering, the runway dimly lit. Shortly before 1 a.m., the plane slowly moved down the airport's runway and took off, made a 180-degree turn and headed north. There was no definite horizon...

But February made me shiver,
With every paper I'd deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep.
I couldn't take one more step.
—Don McLean, "American Pie"

"I first found out about the plane crash," Don McLean has said, "because I was a 13-year-old newspaper delivery boy in New Rochelle, New York, and I was carrying the bundle of the local Standard-Star papers that were bound in twine, and when I cut it open with a knife, there it was on the front page." Paul McCartney, who idolized Buddy Holly as a teenager and bought the publishing rights to Buddy's songs in 1976, also found out about the plane crash from a newspaper: "I remember reading the news on the front page of the Daily Mirror. Me and my friends were in the playground of the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys — it was the school George and I went to — in a little back corner that was called the Smokers' Corner. It was where all the would-be rebels and music freaks would congregate. It was before school opened, someone had the paper, and we were all huddled around reading it and were shocked and saddened by the news.

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