A bizarre time travel story wherein the main character mysteriously finds himself back in 1959.
When I woke up, it wasn’t at all clear where I was or how I’d gotten there. I was freezing, and there was a smell of snow in the air. I rose up, realizing I was lying in the back seat of an old car. I have no idea what kind of car it was; it was a real old model, like something you’d see from the 1930s or something.
There wasn’t anybody in the driver’s seat and no keys in the ignition. I looked at myself and saw I was wearing my Boston Celtics Kevin Garnett jersey, a pair of loose fitting jeans, and some tennis shoes. Normally, I’d have been comfortable in that kind of outfit, but it was freezing in the car. I looked up and noticed I was parked in the middle of a city. I’d get out and rush into the nearest building to warm up.
I got out, and as I stepped out of the car, a cold gust of wind hit me in the face. I saw the car’s paint job was all rusty, but you could tell it used to be black. It reminded me of one of those cars you’d see in one of the old black and white gangster movies.
I passed by a man on the sidewalk, bundled up in two coats, who looked like he was in a hurry.
“You know, I like the Celtics myself,” the man said, with a smile. “But who’s Garnett? And where’d you get his jersey?”
He talked as if the idea of kids wearing the jerseys of their favorite players was completely novel.
“Not exactly dressed for winter time either, are you, son? Don’t you have a coat or something?”
Sure, I had a coat. I had four in my closet at home. But what did that matter now? Before I had time to even respond, he’d rushed off, probably with the same idea as me—to find some heat. I walked into the building I stood in front of, hoping I could also find a phone and call home. But what would I say to my folks? Tell them I woke up in some strange car with no idea where I was or how I’d gotten there?
When I entered the auditorium, I heard drums and loud guitars. I got the impression that I was entering a show that was already about half over. The dance floor was only partially crowded and a lot of folks were taking a breather.
“Thank you, Dion,” said an announcer on the stage, waving at the young guy who was exiting with his band. I couldn’t get a good look at his face.
I looked around, and felt a wave of nostalgia. The advertisements on the wall, the clothing of everybody inside—all of it reminded you of stepping back into one of those 1950s diners that are all decked out in old school memorabilia.
When the new guy came out with his guitar, the crowd really erupted. He didn’t look like any musician I’d ever seen—he was skinny, his hair was kind of combed back a little, and he wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses; you know, the kind of glasses you see when you’re thumbing through your parents’ or grandparents’ old yearbooks.
He strapped his guitar on and started playing a song I’d never heard. He had a couple of guys backing him up, one on drums and one on bass. About halfway into the song, I realized I had heard the song after all—one of my dad’s favorite movies was “The Buddy Holly Story.” This guy on stage did look a little like Gary Busey, now that I thought of it. I must have stumbled upon some kind of oldies tribute show. Odd, though, that the crowd would be mostly young people—my age and maybe just a little older. Usually those oldies shows bring out a bunch of people with white hair.
Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have minded staying to listen for a little bit. This was really more my parents’ sort of music, but I could handle it. But right now I had more important things to worry about—had to find a phone. Looking back, this must seem like a minor detail, but it was also really awkward being in the auditorium as the only person wearing jeans. Everybody else was dressed up, like they were at some school dance or something. I didn’t want anybody else to ask me why I was dressed like that. I didn’t want to converse with anyone if I could help it.
So I wondered around looking for a phone, determined not to ask for anyone’s help if I could possibly avoid it. As I wondered, I kept listening to the music, in a distracted sort of way. A few minutes passed and towards the end of the show, the guy on stage slowed things down quite a bit, playing a song that he wanted to dedicate to “Maria Elena”:
“Just you know why, why you and I, will by and by, know true love ways.”
Yeah, I remembered that one from the movie too. Come to think of it, though, this guy doing Buddy Holly was a little bit better of a musician than Gary Busey. He probably had a future in the business if he could ever get some kind of gig better than this oldies tribute thing.
I finally found a phone, but it wouldn’t work. It wasn’t like any phone I’d ever used. The operator came on the line and kept saying things I didn’t really understand. I assumed it was just a recording—maybe this was some sort of old vintage phone just set up to add to the nostalgia. Anyway, I knew I had to get home, so I rustled up enough courage to walk up to a couple that had taken a break from dancing.
They glared at me a little as I approached, but before they could ask me anything, I introduced myself and said, “I’m really sorry to bother you, but I’m trying to use the phone over there,” pointing to it. “Do you think one of you could help me a little? I really need to get back home.”
The woman said, “You look a little scared. You’re not having a good time?”
“Well, the music’s fine and all, but to be honest, I’m kind of lost. I didn’t mean to come here tonight. I just came in hoping to warm up and find a phone.”
“You mean you don’t have a home?” the woman said, her voice sounding very concerned. I guess I can see why she may have assumed that.
What could I say now without making me seem even odder? What would I think if some guy in a t-shirt and jeans walked up to me on a frigid winter day, saying he didn’t know where he was or how to get home?
Before I could answer, the man spoke up, “Look, we’ll give you a ride somewhere if you need us to. Just wait a few more minutes till the show’s over. Buddy’s got another song or two to play.”
It was a little loud, so I thought I’d not heard him right. Had he said his buddy had a couple of more songs to play? He must know the guy on stage.
“You a friend of the musicians?” I asked.
“Friends? No, I wish,” he said. “These guys are stars. I’d like to meet them after the show, if that’s possible, but they’ll probably be in a hurry to head out.”
I was confused, and must have looked it. The woman said, “The show’s almost over. Why don’t you just sit down and wait, and then we’ll take you where you need to go.”
I was taken aback by their generous hospitality. They didn’t even know me. I would really have just preferred a phone, but I guess a ride’s a second best. At least it might mean some warmth. How long had I been out in that car? The cold in my bones had been so deep that I’d still not shaken it off, although I’d now been inside quite a while. But where would I tell this friendly couple to take me? The outside surroundings I’d seen earlier didn’t look remotely familiar.
The guy on stage and his band closed with, “That’ll Be the Day,” a song I knew thanks to my dad. I had to admit the guy on stage sounded almost exactly like my dad’s c.d. version. It seemed odd, still, for the man to call the musicians “stars.” If they were so good, why were they relegated to doing oldies tribute shows?
The musicians exited and the announcer came back out and said, “Let’s give another big applause to Buddy Holly. What a great show.”
I’d hoped the announcer would mention the band’s real name. Apparently, they were taking on the names of the acts they were imitating, as part of the show. I already knew the musician was a Buddy Holly impersonator, so the announcer hadn’t helped me out.
People were starting to file out, and I turned to look at the couple I’d spoken with a few minutes earlier. “Well, if you’re ready to leave, we can head on out,” the woman said, taking a hold of her boyfriend’s or husband’s hand—whichever he was.
“Give me a minute,” he said to her. “I’m going to go see if there’s any chance of getting some autographs if we stick around a little while.” With that he walked towards the stage and got lost in the crowd.
“So you say you’re lost. Just where is it you need us to take you?” the woman asked.
“I, uh, I’m, well, I’m not really sure how to explain this, but I don’t really…well…first of all, could one of you tell me where I am. I think that might help me get straightened out.”
The woman said, “This is called the Surf Ball Room. It’s one of the only venues of its kind in the city. You’ve probably heard of it, haven’t you?”
Why did “Surf Ball Room” sound familiar for some reason? “I, uh, I don’t really know what city I’m in, to be honest,” I said, hoping the woman would continue to be helpful, in spite of how odd I must seem to her.
“This is Clear Lake, Iowa,” she said. “How far are you away from home?” Iowa! I couldn’t believe it. The last thing I could remember, before waking up in that beat up old car outside, was going to sleep in my bedroom—in Tennessee. Come to think of it, I remembered turning the ceiling fan on before going to bed because it was so hot—early July. What was going on? Even in Iowa, it doesn’t get this cold in July.
“How far are you away from home?” she repeated, when I didn’t answer at first.
“Quite a ways,” I think. “I live in Lagrange, Tennessee.” It’s a tiny little town about half an hour from Memphis. I shouldn’t have expected anybody in Iowa to have heard of it. It would’ve been better had I just said I lived in Memphis.
“How’d you get lost in Iowa all the way from Tennessee?” she asked. “Have you run away from home?”
Before I could answer, she said, half-smiling, “This is not the best time of year to run away from home, especially if you leave without a hat or a coat.”
I was embarrassed, but reassured. She didn’t think I’d lost my mind. They just thought I was some “troubled teen” who needed help. I could live with that, if it would help me get home.
“It’s hardly above zero out there,” she continued. “And this morning, the groundhog said we’d have six more weeks of winter.”
The groundhog? Not only was the question, “Where am I?” still unanswered, but “When am I?” was now becoming more and more front and center.
“Excuse me. You said today is Groundhog Day?”
“Of course it is,” the woman replied, her voice as sweet as ever. “Have you been on the run so long that you’ve lost track of time?”
Just then, the man re-emerged. He told his girlfriend/wife that he’d heard there probably wouldn’t be much chance for autographs since the musicians were eager to head on out, since the weather was so bad and only supposed to get worse. I stood there mulling over in my head how summer in Tennessee had suddenly morphed into winter in Iowa.
“Groundhog Day? I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone or something,” I said, thinking out loud. I hadn’t really meant to say it to where anybody could hear me.
“What’s ‘twilight zone’?” the man asked.
Sure, Twilight Zone was an old show, but I couldn’t believe this guy had never even heard of it. You didn’t have to be some classic TV buff to know about Twilight Zone. If he attended oldies tribute shows, he ought to know a thing or two about pop culture’s “golden age”.
The man repeated his question.
“You know, the old classic sci-fi show,” I said.
“Classic television show?” the man asked, incredulously. “It’s a little pompous for any show to claim to be classic, isn’t it? I mean, television’s only been around since I was in middle school.”
What the heck was he walking about? “Twilight Zone was on the air back in the 1960s,” I said. “Anyway, all I meant about feeling like in the Twilight Zone was that I’m confused and don’t understand what’s happening to me.”
“On the air in the 1960s?” the woman asked, exchanging a nervous look at the man. Then she locked eyes with me, looked very compassionate, and said, “That’s not possible. It’s only 1959 right now. I think you must be ill.”
I wanted to take her statement, wad it up and stomp on it, pretending it had never existed. It just didn’t fit with everything I knew about reality. How could it be February 2, 1959? If she was right, then this hadn’t been some oldies tribute show. This music, for this audience, was new.
Then it occurred to me—if this couple was right, then the guy on stage wasn’t some impersonator. That wasthe Buddy Holly. But how could that be possible? I was born in 1993, and Buddy Holly had died—when was it?—1959, right? I think that’s what my dad had told me.
I realized they couldn’t help me now. If I was in 1959, using a phone or even traveling to Lagrange wouldn’t solve things. I reached in my pockets, both of which were empty. I had no way of establishing my identity or proving where I’d come from. Not knowing what else to do, I bolted out the door, hoping to get away before they constrained me. If I could just get back in that car and see if it would crank. Maybe that car had something to do with it. Maybe this was all a dream and the only way to get the dream to end would be to go back to where it first started.
When I stepped outside, the temperature had dropped. The beat up car was still parked on the curb where it had been and the trunk looked slightly ajar. Wasting no time to investigate, I jumped in the driver’s seat. Still no keys in the ignition though. I checked the glove box, but the only things in there were a notepad and a press pass. Should I keep sitting in the front seat looking for keys, or should I lay low, in case the man and woman decided to come out looking for me? Chances are they wouldn’t; they were probably glad to be rid of me.
I sat there until much of the crowd from the building had dispersed. Having no idea what else to do, I got lost in thought. I was not an oldies fan, but even I knew the story about Buddy Holly’s death. Killed in a plane crash at the height of his career. VH1 had aired a documentary, “The Day the Music Died” when I was in elementary school that I still remembered watching. The details were coming back to my mind.
The day the music died—when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson crashed—had been 1959; February 3, 1959 to be exact. The plane had gone down in an Iowa blizzard. “I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride, but something touched me deep inside the day the music died,” Don McLean had sung in 1972—a year no one in this vicinity had yet fathomed.
It dawned on me then. I wasn’t just back in 1959 on some random day. If this was February 2, Buddy Holly would be dead in a few hours. The plane had crashed only an hour or two after midnight on February 3. I had a chance—an incredibly small chance—to alter the course of history. If I could just make my way back stage and talk to him firsthand! But how?
The only two people I’d talked to were already questioning my stability just because I’d mentioned the 1960s. What would anyone think now if I said I knew Buddy Holly would be dead soon if I didn’t intervene?
It’s still hard to believe that I was able to get back there to talk to him. Rock concerts apparently didn’t garner as much fanfare back in the 50s as they do today, which means, for one thing, security wasn’t nearly as tight. Going backstage really wasn’t that difficult, at least not compared to what it’s like today. Before going back inside, I’d taken off the Celtics jersey and jeans and replaced them with a gray coat and some dress pants that I’d found lying in the trunk of the car. To my amazement, they fit. At least now, I might look a little less conspicuous.
The key turned out to be the press pass. Could I, at 17, play the part of an adult reporter? Walking backstage with a note pad and press pass, dressed up in a suit coat, surprisingly no one batted an eye at me. Have you ever had the experience where you’re dreaming at part of you is conscious of the fact that you’re dreaming? Like if you’re being chased by a monster when it dawns on you that you’re dreaming and so you go ahead and take flight, rationalizing that if it’s a dream, you can do anything you want, so why not go ahead? That’s kind of what this felt like. This had to be a dream, so things impossible in the waking world must be possible here.
When I got back stage, I knocked on several doors, hoping to find Buddy Holly in there still packing his stuff away. Of course, there’d be no chance of a real interview. I didn’t even have a pencil. Finally, one of the stage hands directed me to his room. He was packing away his guitar and talking to one of the other musicians who was fastening his suitcase.
I knocked on the door and before waiting for a reply, went ahead and opened it. “Buddy? Can I talk to you for a second?” I asked. He looked a lot younger than Gary Busey had in the movie. Really, he hardly looked much older than me.
“Sure,” he said, looking up. “What can I do for you?” His Texas drawl was much more pronounced than it had been in the movie.
I introduced myself and then said, “I guess I ought to get right to the point. It’s about the plane you plan on taking to the next show. It’s not safe. There’s a blizzard coming and it’s dangerous to fly tonight.”
Buddy looked a little puzzled. “How’d you know we’d chartered a plane?” he asked. Apparently, some of the musicians were taking a bus, and the fact that he’d rented a plane hadn’t been overly publicized. Not knowing what else to do, I claimed to be a friend of the pilot they’d hired.
“I know flying conditions could be better, but we just can’t handle another night on that bus,” he said. “We’ve been breaking down and half the band’s on the verge of catching pneumonia if we keep going like this.”
The truth is, the National Weather Service had issued a warning prohibiting all flights due to the blizzard. History recorded that Roger Peterson, the pilot, had not been notified of the prohibition. Seeing Buddy Holly wasn’t budging on my recommendation alone, I appealed to National Weather Service and told him he could call to confirm the report if he wanted to.
Honestly, I really didn’t expect Buddy to pay me all that much attention. Imagine my shock when he asked one of the musicians, whose name I never got, to make a call to see if flights had been prohibited until further notice on account of the weather.
About 15 minutes later the guy came back. “Buddy, it’s just like he said,” pointing to me. “They’re saying not to try to make any flights until after sun up tomorrow.”
Buddy, who’d been hoping to get to the next stop ahead of schedule, looked perturbed. “Well, I’m not getting back on that bus. I say we wait it out here till morning and just get off to a later start. We’ll still get there before the bus does.”
With that, Buddy turned to me, shook my hand, and said, “Thanks for the warning. We’ve been so eager to avoid that bus that we probably would’ve risked that plane if you hadn’t talked some sense into us. It’s better to get there a little later than to not get there at all.”
He grinned, and I thought of how ironic his statement was. Before walking back outside towards the exit, I handed him my pad of paper. “Would you autograph this piece of paper for me?” I asked. “My dad’s a big fan.”
“Your dad is? Well, that’s encouraging. I been hearing for months now that rock ‘n roll doesn’t have any appeal to anybody born more than 30 years ago. Glad he’s given our music a chance.”
I realized that Buddy must’ve thought my dad was born in the early 20th century, seeing as how here I was standing in 1959. Truth is, my dad wasn’t even born until 1958—he’d been turned onto Buddy Holly by his older brother, who’d been born in 1944 and grew up listening. Boy, would my dad be impressed with a Buddy Holly autograph—if any of this was real, that is.
As I walked back out, I wondered what kind of world I’d go back to in 2011, assuming I could get back. Would Buddy Holly still be there? He’d only be 75, so it was definitely plausible. But would anybody in 2011 know, or care, who he was. Would my dad even care?
Buddy had been married less than six months when he died, and his wife was pregnant at the time. The shock of the news of his death gave her a miscarriage. With these altered events, would 2011 have a 52-year-old Buddy Holly Jr. living somewhere?
Funny how death makes you a big star; an early death will practically immortalize you, whereas if you die at 80, you’ll only be remembered as a has-been who used to be famous. I’d heard not long ago that a Canadian dentist paid $30,000 for one of John Lennon’s teeth. Paul McCartney couldn’t sell a tooth that much if his life depended on it. Why? It’s simple—because McCartney’s still alive.
The day a star dies, his or her value as a commercial entity sky rockets. Teenagers have posters of a young James Dean in his red leather jacket on their wall, and that can be considered cool, but would they if he were some wrinkled, 80-year-old man, still alive? The aura around Buddy Holly that had generated so much interest in his music had been his untimely death. Of course, the music was good, but would his 50s stuff still be remembered if his 60s and 70s stuff (assuming he was still around to keep recording) wasn’t as good?
Not to take anything away from Chuck Berry, but if he had died several decades ago, at the height of his fame, his music would probably be even better known today than it is. Kids don’t think it’s nearly as “cool” to be a big fan of some old 85-year-old musician as it is to be a fan of some dead musician who’s forever 20 or 30 something. The same could be said of Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Dion, and the rest who didn’t have the misfortune of dying young.
As I stepped back out into the cold, I suddenly found myself feeling incredibly tired. Not knowing what else to do, I went back and laid down in the back seat of the old beat up car that was still parked where it had been. I didn’t keep my eyes open for much longer. The last thing I remember, I was hugging that gray coat to me as tight as possible, trying to ward off the cold.
When I opened my eyes, I looked around, feeling a little disoriented. I looked down at myself and saw I was wearing a Celtics jersey and a pair of jeans. I saw my alarm clock, which read 10:15 a.m. The calendar on the wall said July 16. Was I back in my own room? I got up, feeling a little light-headed, and so I sat back down. I heard my mom and dad talking downstairs; it was true—I was back home. I’d fallen asleep the night before sitting in bed reading a book, before I’d even had a chance to get undressed.
I felt in my pockets, halfway hoping to find the Buddy Holly autograph, but of course it wasn’t there. There wasn’t a trace of the coat or dress pants or the press pass. I’d overslept again. I’d been out of high school for two months and wasn’t set to go to college for another month, and so I’d been taking it easy. But every Saturday morning that I wasn’t up by 8:00 or 9:00, my parents would rag me about being a slacker—halfway jokingly, but there was tinge of sincerity in my dad’s tone of voice. I’d have to just put up with it this morning, because here it was almost 10:30, and I’d not even had a shower. I could smell that my mom had some cooked some sausage and made some biscuits, and since I was too hungry to do anything at the moment, I just stumbled downstairs.
“So I had a strange dream last night,” I said at the breakfast table.
“What was it?” my dad asked, sounding only mildly interested. In fact, he hadn’t even looked up from his book as he asked. Dad seldom read newspapers, but he liked to have a book in his lap almost every morning. War books were his specialty, especially those about World War I.
“I dreamed that I went back to 1959 and saw Buddy Holly’s last concert.”
With that, my dad put his book down and looked puzzled. “Last concert? I don’t understand.”
“I dreamed I went back to the night before he was killed in that plane crash.”
“Plane crash? You must be thinking about some other musician. Your head for oldies trivia isn’t the greatest, you know,” he said, with a wry smile.
I didn’t know that much about oldies trivia. Everything I claimed to know about Buddy Holly was based entirely on that old VH1 documentary and that Gary Busey movie he’d made me watch when I was a kid. But I knew he was the one muddled this time.
“That’s really interesting,” my dad said, sounding very uninterested, looking back down at his book.
It was obvious he thought I’d just gotten the names all muddled in the dream since I didn’t know that much about oldies to begin with.
“I dreamed one time I got to see Jim Croce in concert before he died,” he continued. “But anyway, go ahead with your dream. What happened next?”
I wanted to tell about how I’d managed to talk Buddy out of getting on the plane, but instead I asked, “Dad, are you telling me Buddy Holly didn’t die in a plane crash in 1959?”
“Of course not. He’ll be turning 75 later this year. He still tours some, mostly oldies nostalgia shows with Chuck Berry and some of the other rock pioneers that are still alive. You really ought to brush up on your oldies trivia, Son.”