Postcard From Lubbock: Buddy Holly

In 1958, rock-'n-roll music was taking America by storm. Concerts for the musicians were being arranged at everything from supermarket openings and high school dances to large outdoor venues. One of these promotional tours was booked to last three weeks with appearances mostly in ballrooms and armories in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. The "Winter Dance Party" tour included some of rock-'n-roll's hottest stars - Dion and the Belmonts, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, J.P. Richardson and Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

Each of the musicians had their own reason for going on the road with the tour. Seventeen-year-old Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson wanted to expand on their recently-found fame gained from their new hit records. Others were already stars and wanted to increase their popularity. Buddy Holly was one of those stars, but he was in the middle of a financial war with his manager so he signed on for the money.

The opening night performance was held in the Million Dollar Ballroom in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on January 23, 1959. In a Milwaukee Sentinel review the next day, a reporter wrote, "It was crazy, daddy - the goings-on Friday night at George Devine's Million Dollar Ballroom. Nearly 6,000 young people turned out to hear such rock 'n' roll stars as Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Big Bopper, Dion and the Belmonts and Ritchie Valens. If you haven't heard them, you haven't lived, man."

Despite that successful opening night and the enthusiastic crowds at every concert, the tour was bedeviled with transportation problems right from the start. The tour managers had saved a few bucks by arranging for the musicians to travel from town to town in an old converted school bus. During one of the coldest winters anyone could remember, the bus suffered mechanical problems almost every time it was driven. Late one night in the middle of a snow storm, the biggest icons of rock 'n roll were stranded on the side of the road when their bus broke down. With night-time temperatures that often were below zero, the most serious of the problems was the heater. It seldom worked and even when it did, it never got the bus close to comfortable. One particularly cold night when it didn't work at all, Carl Bunch, the Cricket's drummer, ended up in the hospital with frostbitten feet. He didn't know it then, but it was fortuitous. The next day, J.P. Richardson purchased a sleeping bag with his own money hoping it would help keep him warm enough to sleep. As it turned out, he would never get to use his new sleeping bag.

 On February 2, the tour played at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. While visiting backstage with the owner, Buddy Holly asked about the possibility of chartering a plane to take him and the remaining two Crickets, Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings, to the tour's next gig in order for them to get some laundry done and to get some much needed sleep. The ballroom owner called a pilot friend and made the arrangements.

Buddy Holly statue at the
West Texas Walk of Fame
Things started to change when the other musicians heard about the plane. J.P. Richardson was suffering with a bad head cold so he asked Waylon for his seat. At first, Jennings said no, but Richardson offered to give him his new sleeping bag in exchange and, feeling bad for his sick friend, Jennings agreed to the swap. Ritchie Valens pestered Allsup to give up his seat for a future, "I'll owe you." Several times Allsup refused, but finally agreed to a coin flip. It came up heads and Valens won the seat.

The passengers arrived at the airport shortly after midnight, each paying $36 for the flight. The plane took off on a heading to Fargo, N.D. at 12:50 A.M. Observers said all appeared normal until suddenly the plane's taillight descended and then disappeared. Efforts to contact the pilot failed. A search for the plane began, but it wasn't until midmorning the next day that the wreckage was found in a farmer's field about 5 miles north of the airport. There were no survivors.

A Civil Aeronautics Board investigation later blamed the crash on the pilot's inexperience with instrument flying and an inaccurate weather briefing which underestimated the severity of an approaching storm. Forensics determined that the pilot, Roger Peterson, age 21, musicians Buddy Holly, age 22, J.P. Richardson, age 28, and Ritchie Valens, age 17, had all died upon impact. It was rock 'n roll's first major celebrity tragedy.

J.P. Richardson is buried in Beaumont, Texas, Ritchie Valens is buried in Los Angeles and Buddy Holly is buried next to his parents in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas. Over 50 years after his death, thousands of tourists and fans from around the world still visit Buddy's grave, leaving sunglasses, guitar picks, and coins to honor him. In tribute to its most famous son, Lubbock has established a well-regarded museum, The Buddy Holly Center. The city also established the West Texas Walk of Fame to honor various West Texans. It consists of a series of plaques which surround a memorial statue of Buddy. He was unanimously chosen by civic leaders as the first inductee. A year later, Waylon Jennings was selected as the 2nd musician to be honored. 

The grave marker for one of rock 'n roll's most famous musicians, a member of the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, influencer of such luminaries as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Elton John, is inconspicuous. It feature's a simple carving of his electric guitar and is inscribed with the original spelling of the family's name, "In loving memory of our own Buddy Holley, September 7, 1936 - February 3, 1959."


Postcard from Palo Duro Canyon

Palo Duro Canyon
In the Texas Panhandle you'll find the second largest canyon system in America, Palo Duro Canyon (the Spanish name "Palo Duro" means "hardwood" and refers to the hardwood shrubs and trees found in the canyon). At 70+ miles long, up to 1,000 feet deep and up to 20 miles across, it is known as the Grand Canyon of Texas. 

Humans have been living in and around the canyon for 15,000 years, but the first Europeans to lay eyes on it were members of the Coronado Expedition in 1541. At that time, the Apache Indians were the dominant tribe, but in the mid-1600's, the fierce Comanche and Kiowa drove them out. These nomadic people were kings of the plains until 1874 when the American military rode into the Texas Panhandle with the intention of driving the Indians onto reservations in Oklahoma and making the land safe for the white man. It was in the Palo Duro Canyon where the Comanche and Kiowa were finally defeated and driven from the area. 

On that fateful early morning of September 28, 1874, a column of blue-uniformed soldiers under the command of Colonel Ronald S. Mackenzie made its way silently down the canyon’s steep walls and just before sunrise, attacked a large Indian camp. The Indians were still asleep as they had been told by Maman-ti, a Kiowa medicine man, that no bluecoats could possibly penetrate the canyon. Startled into a panic, the warriors tried desperately to protect the women, children and their large horse herd, but it was too late: Mackenzie’s men killed several of the warriors and captured 1,400 animals. The fleeing Indians were forced to leave behind their clothing, lodges and all of their winter food supplies. Mackenzie ordered 1,100 of the horses killed and gave the remaining 300  to the Tonkawa scouts who led them to the Comanche and Kiowa camps. Without food, winter supplies, shelter or horses, the Indians were forced to accept defeat and moved to the Oklahoma reservations. A huge pile of bleaching horse skeletons remained for years to document the end of two hundred years of Comanche dominion and still to this day, sounds of a herd of phantom ghost horses galloping through the canyon are reported.

After the Indians left, cattleman Charles Goodnight laid claim to the canyon to raise his vast cattle herds. He co-founded the Panhandle’s first ranch—the JA Ranch—and erected some of the first buildings in the region. Within a few years he had acquired more than a million acres, much of it in the canyon, along with a herd of 100,000 cattle. Soon he was stringing barbed wire in the draws and side canyons where the Comanche had once hunted buffalo. 

Though most of the canyon and surrounding area is now private land—including part of the still prosperous JA Ranch—the 28,000 acres that make up Palo Duro Canyon State Park are breathtaking, an abrupt, uneven landscape made all the more dramatic by the layers of rocks that vary in color: the bright reds of the Quartermaster shale, the yellow and lavender mudstones, the sculpted sandstone that has been stained over millions of years by iron oxides.

Palo Duro amphitheater
Most of the Texas Panhandle is dead flat, but Palo Duro State Park has become a mecca for people who enjoy the outdoors and the beauty of nature. Hiking is the main activity in the park along with horse riding, camping and cycling. For off trail exploration the park has a sizeable backcountry area. An excellent summer musical pageant, Texas, is presented annually in the outdoor amphitheater. The pageant has become so popular that reservations are required weeks ahead of time and even longer for holiday performances.

Plan a camping trip and before you go, read Empire of the Summer Moon, S.C. Gwynne’s interesting history of Quanah Parker and the Comanche. As you drive across the High Plains, listen to songs by Don Williams who was born in nearby Floydada. Most places in the Texas Panhandle are so far from anywhere that you have to take a bus to catch a bus, but when you are sipping your coffee early one quiet, peaceful morning on the canyon floor, listening to the whippoorwill's morning song and watching a hawk soaring overhead, you'll find bliss.

Postcard from the Historical Fleming Oak

The Fleming Oak in Comanche, Texas
Martin Fleming and his father arrived in the frontier settlement of Comanche, Texas from Georgia in 1854. They spent their first night under a large live oak tree. The next day, the family was set upon by Comanche Indians. Young Martin survived the deadly fight by hiding in the space between 2 large trunks of the tree.

In 1910, Comanche's city fathers decided to pave the courthouse square. The workmen were busily clearing tree's from the area when "Uncle Mart," as he was by then affectionately known, stopped them as they approached "his tree" and told them he had been tying his horse to that tree for years and he was used to seeing it there. In the exchange of words that followed, Uncle Mart threatened to use his "No. 10's" on them if they even approached the tree with an axe. Not sure whether he meant his size 10 boots or his 10 gauge shotgun, the workers backed down and the tree was spared.

Fleming Oak providing shade for an historical log
cabin on the town square.

In 1919, Uncle Mart once again came to the defense of his tree when some "uninformed" newcomers in town started discussing cutting down the old oak. After he visited with them and "got them informed," the discussion stopped and their plans were dropped. Then in his 80's, he was quoted as saying, "They now pay due respect to that old tree."

The old tree's protector has been gone for the most part of a century now, but his love for "his tree" lives on in the hearts of Comanche's citizens who proudly point to this living memorial as a symbol of their pioneer heritage.