Happenstance is all it was.
It had been a long day, it was about to rain and, from what NOAA radio said, it would be very hard and soon, so rather than continue on to Minnesota this day, I stopped. The state park was empty of people but full of Memorial Day trash and I wasn’t in the mood for a mess. I found a useful, if not charming, full service proprietary RV Park down the road and around the lake a bit further on, so I took the opportunity to run all the water I wanted and enjoy the luxury of knowing it was not coming from my internal tank and in the morning I could refill that nearly empty vessel with well water soft and pure.
A chatty and kind host met me and a bit later her husband walked over to the site to tell me of the pleasures of being a full time RV dweller (and one of the few without a dog). As he was departing, he said casually enough “Don’t leave without seeing the Surf Ballroom.” “The what?” replied the sleepy and now wet me now clambering back into the van when I suddenly remembered. This was Clear Lake. This was the place they sang their last songs.
I had seen the town on the map when picking the route. I knew it meant something but not what. If senility truly is the remembering vividly things long past better than yesterday, then I am happy to report I do not have it yet.
Now I have seen it, Now I have seen the place remembered for that awful winter night. The younger among you will not recall the event, but to those anywhere in their teens at the time, it is a day remembered even now.
The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake was hosting its original Winter Dance Party on the night of February 2, 1959. Three of the performers that night, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P.Richardson, better known as “The Big Bopper” climbed into a small plane after the performance to go on to Moorhead, MN and the next night’s performance. They were avoiding the icy bus ride the bands would have to make and perhaps have the opportunity to get some extra sleep. Five miles later, they were all dead, no doubt because of ice in a carburetor or on the wings. Great talent lost forever, memorialized in the song “American Pie” and the movie “The Buddy Holly Story.”
The Surf is still as it was then, maintained by a non-profit organization, and hundreds of men and women come back every year to hear other greats play on the stage has become an iconic shrine, especially to Holly, the best known and likely a most talented songwriter. The place is frozen in that moment. It is eerie. It is a step back into another time, another century. The pictures of the greats who have performed in homage on the stage here line the walls and their autographs line the walls backstage. The telephone still hangs on the wall that was used to arrange for the plane. It is still used, this 30,000 square foot entertainment space with the 6,300 foot dance floor, for all sorts of functions in this “resort” town in northern most Iowa.
To those who still come here on cold February nights to remember, it is their Graceland, the place the music died.