Category Archives: Museums and History

The Day the Music Died: My Visit to the Buddy Holly Center

I’m a big believer in the power of art. Whether it’s books, TV, movies, video games, or other media, I think that the creative arts represent humanity at our best. I’ve also spoken about the healing power it’s had for me personally in a number of places on this blog. I’m sure you, the reader, are no stranger to being uplifted by a well-timed song on the radio, a silly comedy when you’re feeling down, or any number of other examples that come to mind. Art and the act of creation are, to me, the defining trait of our human-ness.

I didn’t realize until posting this that you can see me holding up my phone in the reflection.

Not to get too Maximus Decimus Meridius on you here, but I do think that what we do in life does, in fact, echo in eternity, especially for artists. Some folks, like Stephen King or Willie Nelson, have had long careers, and have had a hand in defining and redefining their genres more than once. They are the pillars on which several generations of future artists may find inspiration while they continue being legends of their respective media. We are so lucky to have them.

Sadly, there are artists who leave us far too early, often tragically young. These are the comets of the artistic world, blazing a path through the heavens before the sudden absence of their light leaves us cold in their wake. Don Mclean’s famous song, American Pie, speaks about one of these comets, referencing February 3, 1959 — the day the music died.

His plaque on the Walk of Fame.

That’s when a plane crashed in a corn field near Clear Lake, Iowa that resulted in the deaths of, among others,  Jiles Perry “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Jr., Ritchie Valens, and Charles Hardin Holley, better known by his stage name: Buddy Holly. I remember hearing about the plane crash as a kid, especially when La Bamba, starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens, premiered in 1987. The movie ends with the now-famous coin flip between Ritchie and Tommy Allsup to determine the seat on the plane.

Exterior of the museum.

Last year, I travelled to Buddy Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas to learn more about this icon of the ’50s and early rock legend. The West Texas city is surrounded by miles and miles of cotton fields, studded with towering metal windmills. Travelling there at night from Dallas, I remember the hypnotic red lights on those windmills the most, as they always appeared in the distance without ever seeming to get closer.

The next morning, I went to the Buddy Holly Center in the heart of the city’s Depot District. The Center is situated in an old train depot. Across the street, you’ll find the famous Buddy Holly statue at the West Texas Walk of Fame. The statue was much taller than it looked from the photos, but it’s fitting for a figure who casts such a long shadow in the music world. His signature look is all accounted for there in bronze: the suit, the guitar, and (of course) the glasses.

Wow.

Speaking of the glasses, the sign at the front of the Center is a giant-sized pair of Buddy Holly specs. The museum itself consists of two main galleries. One is a recreation of Buddy’s bedroom, including several pieces of furniture he owned. Opposite that display are tributes from many other famous musicians that have made the pilgrimage to the museum. The other gallery contains a host of memorabilia from his personal life, his performances, and a timeline of his career. Photography is not allowed inside the exhibits, but there are photos on Google.   

Before you go in, you are treated to a short movie about Buddy’s life and legacy. A notable personality who shows up in that presentation is Paul McCartney, who talks about how the concert that Buddy Holly played in Liverpool was a catalyst to form the Beatles. Even the name of the Fab Four’s band was a reference to Buddy’s own band, the Crickets.

A wider shot of the West Texas Walk of Fame.

Of course, Buddy looks young in all the photos we have of him, but I didn’t realize just how young he was. When that plane crashed on February 3, he was just 22 years old. Twenty-two. His entire musical career lasted only around 18 months, but in that time he left an enduring mark upon the world. A comet, indeed.

That realization stung me pretty hard as I stood there looking at the actual glasses, which were recovered from the crash site. It really drove home what a tragedy it was to lose such a gifted musician at the dawn of his career. The Big Bopper had been oldest of that trio at 28, and Ritchie Valens was only 17. Yeah, the lump that I got in my throat as That’ll Be The Day played through the hall is roughly equivalent to the one I’m feeling now as I write this.

I didn’t take this photo. It’s from Wikipedia.

While the Center does not shy away from the circumstances of Buddy’s death, the museum itself is far from a solemn place of remembrance. Quite the opposite, in fact — it’s an upbeat and lively space. It’s a fitting testament to the man who, by all accounts, brought such an energy and fire everywhere he went, to everything he did.

You know, the act of creation is sometimes like throwing pebbles into the still waters of a pond. For many of us who create, the ripples we cause are small, barely noticeable most of the time. But as I stood there on the museum floor, surrounded on all sides by artifacts from his life, I found myself in awe of just how big the ripple Buddy left behind truly is.

So, should you find yourself out in Lubbock, Texas one day, I highly recommend that you make a visit to the Buddy Holly Center to learn not only about the legend but also the man behind the myth. As long as we remember him, a part of him endures. As Buddy himself put it:

Love to last more than one day,

Love is loving and not fade away.


My Journey to the Place of Red Corn

Late last year, I had the pleasure of visiting my first Mayan ruins at Chacchoben in the forests of Mexico’s coastal state of Quintana Roo. My tour group set out in the morning from Costa Maya on an hour-long trip by van inland to the ruin site itself. Our tour guide was a gentleman by the name of Gabriel, or Gabo for short.

Photos don’t do it justice. Trust me.

Gabo is an interesting guy for a number of reasons. First, he is the answer to the question he gets a lot from tourists: “Where did the Mayans go?” 

“We’re still here,” is his usual answer. Gabo is himself of Mayan descent. In fact, Gabo came from a place in Mexico where the Mayan language is spoken primarily. He learned Spanish as a second language as a kid in school. En route to the ruins, he gave us a bit of history on the Mayan culture, his heritage, and even the Mayan counting system, which used lines and dots with dividing lines to represent escalating multiples of 20, 400, and 8,000.

The leaf/football symbol represents zero.

We arrived at Chacchoben, which means “The Place of Red Corn.” It is located next to a brightly colored traditional Mexican cemetery. I’ll come back to that in a moment. The ruins were rediscovered in 1972 and subsequently excavated in 1994. The area still has places that have not yet been excavated. Occasionally you could see this with an otherwise ordinary hill revealing a fragment of a stone wall peeking through gaps in the dirt. 

This ficus tree is likely more than a thousand years old, possibly more.

Chacchoben is not nearly the largest set of Mayan ruins in Mexico, but they are in remarkable shape considering their age. They date back to the Classic Period of Mayan civilization from about 250 to 900 CE. I’ve heard different estimates of when these ruins were built, but it is likely around 500–700 CE. It can be hard to wrap your mind around just how long ago that was. I had to remind my young son that the buildings there were the oldest that he had ever seen, by quite a large margin.

The people give you a sense of scale.

We toured through plazas and temple complexes in a large loop that goes around the entire site, up and down stone staircases that are narrow enough that it’s easier (and safer) to traverse them sideways. Next to the main temple, there’s even an ancient cieba tree. The branches that grow straight out from the trunk were thought to represent the levels of the heavens, earth, and underworld.    

This is the Cieba tree near the temple in the picture above.

Oh, one other thing that Gabo mentioned, something he was very passionate about: Ancient aliens didn’t build Chacchoben, the Mayans did. None of us had asked him that particular question, but he said it early on in our conversation, almost as if to get it out of the way. I can definitely see why this might be a point of contention for him, especially since there are so many History channel specials out there that talk about ancient aliens.

One place I found of particular interest was one of its most mundane. There was a market square with rows of open stone bleachers that formed a perimeter around a large open space. Gabo explained that this would have been used for town meetings and ceremonies, as well as a farmers market. What struck me most about them was that they still could be used as a market today. Much like the Agora in many Greek cities, this was the beating heart of the community. Almost every citizen would have interacted with it at some point in their daily lives.

Just imagine what life was like here.

Gabo further explained that most of the stone would have been covered in a type of bright white paint. This would allow tradesmen to bring in goods at night when it was cool using only a tiny bit of moonlight.

Speaking of paint, the ruins would have been covered in plaster and painted all sorts of vibrant, almost neon colors. As magnificent as the ruins are as they stand today, we are just seeing the dull under layer. There was one place, at the back of one of the temples, where there is still a tiny bit of the original pigment and plaster. Here it is:

Amazing.

Even in that state, however, there is a definite sense of wonder that you get standing there. These buildings aren’t just for ceremony. No, this is where thousands of people made their home. The echo of their lives still resonates through that place.

Remember the cemetery I mentioned earlier? It’s possible that bright colors we see there are an echo of this tradition. Many of the paints used there are made from natural pigments, so it gives us a potentially tantalizing clue as to the amazing palate the Mayans might have used to paint their buildings.

Once again, photos don’t do it justice.

It certainly makes you wonder why the Mayans might have abandoned this place if they had taken such pains to build them in exacting alignment with the sun and stars. I asked Gabo that very question. He was of the belief that it might have been something as simple as an extended dry period. A crop failure of just one year could have been devastating enough, but if it had gone two or three years in a row, the Mayans might have been forced to find a new place to live just to survive.

This is the back of the of the temple next to the cieba tree. In fact, you can see it in the back ground, just to the right of center

Sooner than I would have liked, it was time for us to load up in the van and head back out to the port. I have to tell you that seeing these ruins has really reignited my interest in Mesoamerican cultures, something I’ve had since I was a kid. At some point in the future, I would dearly love to take a tour of the Mayan and Aztec ruins throughout Mexico and Central America.  

I don’t know if I will ever again have the chance to visit the Place of Red Corn, but I can tell you that I am incredibly grateful to have visited it this once, and walk in the footsteps of the ancients.


My (Most Recent) Trip to the National Museum of the Pacific War

Down in the South Texas hill country, situated between vast open green fields and numerous vineyards, sits the picturesque town of Fredricksburg. Many of the buildings are built of white stone flecked with streaks of orange. The people are friendly, and the whole place just has a good vibe to it, with rows of antique shops, restaurants, and boutiques along the main strip. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend stopping over there.

Fredricksburg also has the distinction of being the hometown of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet during World War II. In fact, there’s a large bronze statue of him right next to the old hotel where he grew up, which is now the Nimitz Museum. Just look for the distinctive ‘steamboat’ structure off the main street — you can’t miss it.

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The man himself.

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The Old Nimitz Hotel (Now the Admiral Nimitz Museum).

If you circle that block, you’ll also find that the town is home to the National Museum of the Pacific War. The place is enormous. It contains hundreds of displays and exhibits, models of ships, uniforms, presentations, and mini-featurettes. It starts with the roots of the conflict between China and Japan, and then takes you all the way through the Pacific War, from Pearl Harbor to the U.S.S. Missouri. Every major engagement and landing is covered here, and in pretty extensive depth. If you tried to read every panel and display, it would take you days to get through it all. Believe me, I’ve tried.

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Just around the corner.

Full disclosure: This latest outing to the museum is my fourth trip there. Each time I go, something new resonates with me. The last time I went was when my son was two. The thing that moved me the most then was the famous “Bloody Saturday” photo of a baby crying amid the ruins of a bombed out train station in Shanghai. It’s still a powerful photo, and indeed the entire museum is a moving experience. It’s hard to look at the dizzying scope of the conflict, along with the countless examples of courage and valor, and the loss of so many lives, and not feel something.

Case and point:  Just after the presentation about Pearl Harbor, there is a little alcove that contains a rusty metal hatch. There is a noticeable black stain across the middle of it. Above those black lines is an egg-shaped hole cut into the metal.

At first, it might seem an odd artifact – that is until you realize that it is a hatch from U.S.S. Arizona. The black line is where the oil floated at the waterline. The hole was cut by Navy divers to see if there were any survivors in the compartment. Powerful stuff. Just seeing it is enough to make me tear up.

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Every. Time.

We see it all in black-and-white photos and newsreels, but the time that has passed disconnects us from it. This one piece of rusted metal has a way of bringing me back to one of the darkest days in U.S. naval history.

I hasten to add that, though the museum does present the war from the USA’s point of view, it does not balk at showing the devastation and loss that Japan endured. There’s always the temptation to downplay that aspect of the war, but the museum does not. When a warship went down in the Pacific, several hundred people died, regardless of which flag it was flying, hundreds or thousands at a time.

Horrific.

In fact, on this trip the image that struck me the most was a photo of two dead Japanese soldiers washed up on the shore at Guadalcanal. Both were half-buried in the tide, and looked painfully young. I can’t imagine they were older than 18 or 19. I won’t display it here, but you can find it easily enough on Google.

Now I’m not trying to diminish the impact of those photos of dead American soldiers, such as those taken from the Bataan Death March, just simply reflecting that wars have a cost on both sides. Every one of those boys that didn’t go home left a hole in someone’s life. A mother, a father, wife, son, daughter – you name it. You don’t have to go much farther than the exhibit about the five Sullivan brothers aboard the U.S.S. Juneau to see what I mean.

But, as an anodyne to these feelings of loss and pain, there is one other feature of the grounds that is a ‘must see’ as far as I’m concerned. Just behind the Nimitz museum, there is a Japanese peace garden, a gift to from a group of retired Japanese admirals.

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May peace endure.

It is absolutely stunning. There’s a koi pond, with a flowing water course that winds around the periphery to a replica of Admiral Togo’s study. In the middle of the garden there is a Zen garden made of raked white stone. It’s…pretty sublime standing there, a place of tranquility and introspection.

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Profound.

If you’re ever at the museum and things get just a little too intense, stepping into the garden is a good way to reaffirm the beauty that people can create, even between those who were former enemies. I always like to end a tour of the museum with a stop here. Just my personal preference. It’s the cleansing breath that brings you back to center.

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Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

Again, if you’re ever in the area, I can’t say enough good things about Fredericksburg and the Pacific War Museum.  I hope that you find it as illuminating, emotional, and powerful as I have.

But don’t take my word for it…


Some Thoughts While Aboard the U.S.S. Lexington

I recently made my way down to Corpus Christi, Texas to visit the “Blue Ghost” of World War II, the U.S.S. Lexington. She’s the oldest aircraft carrier in the world, and one of only three remaining Essex-class carriers. Lexington was decommissioned back in 1991, but despite being inactive for that long a time, she’s a beauty. There is a quiet strength and majesty to her that resonates in the ocean air. Trust me when I say that the pictures don’t do her justice.

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Wow…just wow.

When I visit a place like this ship, a place so weighty with history, I get all introspective. This isn’t so I can look brooding, or so that I can recite some sort of inner monologue, but simply because I can feel the echoes. I took the ‘hard hat’ tour, which allows you to go into spaces that are usually off limits to the public. I walked just a fraction of her labyrinthine interior, through rusted hatches, up stairwells, and past any number of compartments lost entirely in darkness. People lived and died here.

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Crew berthings.

I went up to the flight deck and stood at the rails overlooking the ocean. The waters are a deep forest green there. In the distance someone rode a jet ski. I scanned the beach to see people fishing off the wave breaks, swimming, and enjoying their time at the beach in the shadow of a colossus. My feelings were bittersweet as I stood there.

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Up on the flight deck.

On the one hand, I am glad that Lexington survived the war, and avoided the breakers that claimed Enterprise and so many others. She’s a part of history, and the historian in me is overjoyed that she’s still around. Even beyond WWII, any number of factors could have ended with her at the bottom of the ocean, or torn apart. But she bucked the odds at every turn to eventually find a permanent home in Corpus.

The Blue Ghost

Historical marker.

But on the other hand, she’s warship who will never see active duty again. Once she was one of the mightiest vessels on the ocean, and now bored teenagers scratch their initials into her paint. There is a movie theatre built into the forward part of her aircraft hangar and a cafeteria built into the aft. While she needs the touristy stuff (like the gift shop) to sustain herself, it strikes me as a little sad that she’ll never sail again.

Families came and went on the shoreline, many of whom did not spare the ship even a passing glance; Lexington sat like a giant metal grandmother, watching as grandchildren played at her feet.

The Blue Ghost

The view from the bridge.

That’s when I realized that this was exactly what U.S.S. Lexington had fought for, her enduring legacy—peace. So, to everyone who has served aboard her in the past, and to all the custodians of her presently, you all have my thanks. Every. Single. One.

And should you find yourself in Corpus Christi, I highly recommend paying the Blue Ghost a visit. Definitely go for the hard hat tour. Take it from this guy, it’s worth every penny.

Get the T-shirt.

My new writing shirt.

[Check out The Backwards Mask on Kindle.]