By Jim Schutze
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The man looks younger than his 64 years, sure, but not much. His hair is whiter now than the black-brown it used to be, and grandfatherly wire frames holding thick, bifocal lenses have replaced his signature black-framed glasses. It's more a look in his eyes than the features around them that tell you how hard the years have been.
"Sometimes," he says, "it feels like it all happened yesterday."
More than 40 years later, Buddy Holly still thinks about that snowy night in Iowa. He still blames himself for what happened, at least a little bit, still wonders what would have happened if he'd never left New York in the first place, stayed at home as his wife Maria wanted him to. More than 40 years later, Holly still thinks about his friends J.P. Richardson (better known as The Big Bopper), Ritchie Valens, and Waylon Jennings and how they were killed when their plane went down outside of Clear Lake--where they'd performed earlier that night at the Surf Ballroom as part of the Winter Dance Party package tour--and how he could have died, too. After all, it was his idea in the first place.
He was the one who chartered the plane--bound for the tour's next stop in Fargo, North Dakota--so he could have a chance to rest in a warm bed, a chance to wash the dust and dirt from his worn-out clothes. Holly was sick from riding in the back of a cold bus from city to city, each stage no different than the one before it, each town distinguished only by the amount of snow covering it. He missed Maria. He missed New York. The plane wouldn't get him any closer to either of them, but it'd give him a chance to warm up, prepare himself for the final week of the grueling tour. Richardson--literally sick and tired of folding his big frame into a cramped seat on the bus--wanted in right away, and Valens, who hated flying, reluctantly took the last spot in the four-seater after beating Jennings in a coin toss.
But Holly never got on the plane. Just before takeoff, he remembered a conversation he had with his friend and bandmate Jerry Allison a few months earlier: "Why do we want to go out on the road and work all the time?" Holly asked Allison at the time. "What if we get killed tomorrow?"
With that in mind, Holly made a decision that changed his life. Saved his life. He took his bag off the plane and gave Jennings his seat, telling Jennings to collect the rest of his things and the rest of his band in Fargo--the creaky bus the rest of the Winter Dance Party was touring in already had left town--and meet him in New York. There, they would start recording more of Jennings' songs, as Holly had promised before the tour started. (They'd already been in the studio once together, when Holly produced Jennings' first--and, as it turned out, last--single, released in May 1959.) Buddy apologized to the 21-year-old pilot, Roger Peterson, and said goodbye to Richardson, Valens, and Jennings and left to find a bus that would deliver him back to New York and Maria.
"When I got off the bus, Maria was standing there with this look, like she was almost surprised to see me, and I knew right then something bad had happened," Holly remembers. "I pretty much slept all the way in from Iowa, so I hadn't heard anything. I grabbed the first newspaper I could find, because I couldn't believe what I was being told. But, I guess, I knew as soon as I left the airport that something was wrong, or that something could go wrong. I guess that's why I'm here today, and those fellas aren't."
As Holly thinks about all of this, sitting in the New York apartment he's shared with Maria for the last few decades, a strange and familiar mixture of emotions comes over him. How would you feel if you were him, if he was you? Glad to be alive. Consumed by guilt. Confused by how destiny and fate and everything else you can't control work. Maybe all of these things. Holly has felt them all, and much more, at one time or another. The years after the plane crash sped by in a blur of eulogies and tribute concerts. He felt he owed something to the families of Richardson, Valens, and Jennings, as well as De Ann Peterson, the young widow of the pilot. It was halfway through the 1960s before he realized he owed it to his family to keep living and owed it to himself to keep making music.
He was only 23 then, rushing through life like a man who knew his days were numbered, like a man who knew exactly what that number was. His biggest hits-- "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," "It's So Easy," among them--were already behind him, and he was at the tail end of 18 months of top-10 hits and packed houses, an entire career shoehorned into less than two years. ("I thought I was finished then," Holly says, laughing softly.) After the accident, he still had the same sense of urgency, but it was now tempered with the kind of relaxation most people pay health spas hundreds and thousands of dollars to find.