“A long, long time ago . . . February made me shiver / With every paper I'd deliver: / Bad news on the doorstep; / I couldn’t take one more step. / 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.”

“American Pie” is a tribute to a young man in a hurry. At 1 a.m., Feb. 3, 1959, despite a snowstorm, 22-year-old singer-songwriter Buddy Holly, along with Ritchie Valens, 17, and “Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson, 28, climbed into a single-engine plane piloted by Roger Peterson, 21, not yet certified for night flying with instruments. All died in a crash shortly after takeoff from Clear Lake, Iowa.

Bruce Landsberg, of the Air Safety Foundation, observes: “If they had just waited until 10:00 the next morning, they would have made the flight in bright sunshine and gotten to Moorhead, Minnesota in plenty of time to do the show.”

Los Angeles, 1940: Jimmy’s mother died. His father shipped her body—and nine-year-old James Dean—by train to Indiana relatives.

Sept. 30, 1955: Intense 24-year-old actor James Dean (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause) had just finished filming Giant, portraying outsider Jett Rink:

“Jett at 21 was a man of restless anger, a man without profession or property, strong enough to excel in doing his employer's bidding, not strong enough to do his own—a dangerous man—possessing nothing but his anger—and the knowledge that he was the world’s equal in everything—but opportunity.”

Forbidden from racing during filming, Dean now climbed into his Porsche Spyder with 27-year-old mechanic Rolf Wütherich, speeding north for racing opportunities in Salinas. He received one final warning when, at 3:30 p.m., he was ticketed for speeding. At 5:45 p.m., Dean’s car crashed into an oncoming Ford turning left. Dean died, and his legend was born.

Thirteen days earlier, Dean appeared in a short film promoting highway safety, wryly warning: “Take it easy driving. The life you might save—might be mine.”

Gary Altman


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