(this is a re-post of a blog I wrote in 2009 when I took my daughter to visit the Surf Ballroom and the crash site where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died here in Northern Iowa).
The path I walked yesterday was of cracked and sunbaked Iowa soil. Worn by the feet of thousands of visitors from all over the world it cuts a ten foot wide swath between two soybean fields, marked on the right as you approach by an ancient barbed wire fence and on the left by a farmer's tiny orange flags. It is not visible from a paved road but discovered by driving winding gravel roads and marked only with a sculpture of a giant pair of black glasses. No parking lot, no driveways. Visitors simply pull gently to the side of the gravel and park in the tall weeds at the edge of deep ditches and trudge to the opening between the fields.
It is not clear who owns the land the path is worn into....perhaps the state, perhaps an honest and kind farmer with an appreciation for history. The path is dotted with the trampled remains of volunteer plants, rocks and weeds. The soil is hot as it dries from the previous night's rain, dry on the surface but soft to the step. As it nears its destination, the standing water from the night before cuts into the dry soil making it impassable, yet die hard fans have left a trail of tamped down weeds just to the side that comes out just behind the memorial.Three people walk ahead of my daughter and I, two more coming behind. The walk is only a quarter of a mile but feels like eternity...not knowing what to expect to see, not knowing how it would make me feel. A large shimmering dragonfly hovers near and darts away, delighting my little girl while the crazy part of my mind contemplated the ease with which the insect maneuvered against the stark contrast of the doomed flight of that airplane that smashed to the ground up ahead 50 years ago.
The path in the weeds takes a turn and empties out into the field on the right, putting us on the wrong side of the fence. The fence, however, has been anchored down to allow passage with minimal threat of barbed wire injury. The trio who had been there several minutes was silent, as were my daughter and I...coming around the memorial to see what homage to the artists their fans had erected at the place of their tragic demise.
One simple sculpture. A silver guitar and three silver records engraved with the names of those lost to the world 50 years ago where we stood. And with it simple tokens of love from legions of fans who had walked that same path....business cards, wine bottles, tee shirts, shoes, notes, lyrics, flowers, coins. Humble and heart felt. The sense of loss was palpable, radiating both from the other group of people standing there and from the objects at our feet....the only sound the wind in the weeds and the chirp of crickets, as if to remind us who had been lost there so long ago.
As the trio of twenty-somethings left one of them stopped to place a gentle hand on the silver records. The couple that had been coming up behind us, also in their 20s, arrived behind the memorial. My daughter and I moved aside to let them closer....no words exchanged. Simple silence, quiet reverence and an unspoken bond between music lovers in the prescence of something powerful and heartbreaking. Fifty years later, fans young and old make the trek through mud and weeds to quietly honor the three young men lost in that spot....to feel the loss there, to feel a part of it.
We left the couple to their grief and headed back through the tall weeds, grateful for those before us who had created the dry path. As is always the way, the path back to familiar ground seemed much shorter than it did as we headed in. My daughter stopped to pick up a rock and asked if it had been there the day the plane crashed...I told it very likely had, and that it should be something she should save as a reminder of our visit there. Thinking about that I wondered how many millions of fans had come away with a small rock of their own from that field, how it was possible that this tiny piece of land in Northern Iowa had perhaps been carried piece by piece to all corners of the globe.
And in light of recent events I considered the simplicity of it all. A small memorial erected in a field, maintained by Iowa farmers....no huge glitzy markers, no souvenier stand, no attempts at capitalizing on this tragedy. Even into town, in Clear Lake, the Surf Ballroom still operates to this day with only a simple marker out front and some memorabilia on the walls.