OPINION

A cold bus ride into eternity

Staff Writer
Story City Herald

—by Bill Haglund

My wife and I have been traveling across the great State of Iowa this summer and it’s been wonderful.

We’ve been able to re-connect with many old friends from my days spent in the automobile racing world before I returned to the weekly/daily newspaper field quite a few years ago.

Last Tuesday night, we made the trip to Tipton, the Cedar County Seat and home of the Cedar County Fairgrounds. While there promoting my book, I also took time to reflect … and to drive through the main business district of Tipton.

That journey sent my mind back to a long-ago year, a cold winter more than 57 years ago, and a story I read; one that has stuck in my mind for decades. I could only imagine the scene that unfolded those many, many years ago.

It seems, or so the story goes, that a group of folks were traveling by bus through the Midwest and that the heater on the old bus wasn’t working. In hopes of fixing the heat problem, the driver stopped in Tipton and the passengers left the bus to escape the sub-freezing temperatures.

Several, perhaps all, of the passengers entered a café on Tipton’s main street to sip coffee, or grab a sandwich while they waited for repairs to be made on the bus.

Juke boxes – those old Wurlitzers – stood in most every café of the day, especially those geared toward the younger crowd.

A number of local teenagers were already inside the café when they were joined by the young bus passengers. One of the local teens put a nickel in the juke box and played one of his/her favorite tunes – a hit of the day called “Donna.”

When that song began playing, one of the visiting bus riders exclaimed, “Hey, that’s my song – I’m singing that song.”

Quite naturally, the local teens scoffed at that idea, but the visitor persisted. “No, that’s me, it’s really me!” he exclaimed.

After some back-and-forth conversations, the dare went out to the young stranger to “prove it” at which time he began to sing along with the song as it played on the Tipton juke box.

Amazed, the local teens suddenly realized the young man was telling the truth. The young visitor was, indeed, the singer.

You see, the bus that broke down in Tipton that cold, cold January day in 1959 was carrying members of the “Winter Dance Tour.” Every passenger, in some way, was connected. There were singers, band members, stage hands.

One of those was Ritchie Valens, a young Latino from California, who not only sang the song “Donna,” but had written it, too. He was heart-broken over the fact that his girlfriend’s parents had forbidden her to see him any longer because she was white and he was Hispanic. “Donna” was written to her, but the words also expressed his heart-break.

And, of course, you know the rest of the story.

Workers couldn’t fix the heater. Finally, the bus moved on to the Winter Dance Tour’s next stop. Eventually, the teen idols wound up at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake where they sang and entertained young folks on Monday, Feb. 2, 1959.

One of the singers on that tour couldn’t bear spending another night on the cold bus as it was to travel overnight to Fargo, N.D., and another concert/dance the following night.

I probably don’t need to tell you the rest of this story. You already know that Buddy Holly chartered a small plane to carry him to North Dakota. He was joined by Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson on the ill-fated trip. They, along with young pilot Roger Peterson, were killed in the early hours of Feb. 3, 1959 when the plane crashed into an icy field between Mason City and Forest City.

The crash sent shockwaves across the country; America’s teenagers were in disbelief that three of their musical heroes of the day were gone forever. “Donna” reached new heights of popularity, Buddy Holly’s songs were played over and over and over on radio stations across the country and The Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” reached heights on the charts not regularly reached by novelty songs.

The kids in Tipton of those days? Well, they had a true tale to tell their children, not about “the day the music died,” but the day it stopped for a while in their hometown.

Bill Haglund is a retired staff writer for the Dallas County News and Boone News-Republican. He can be reached at bhaglund13@msn.com