“A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile. And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance and maybe they’d be happy for a while.”
My 3-year-old daughter has sizable chunks of Don McClean’s “American Pie” down cold. When she performs it, I cannot help but smile, and my mind slips easily back to an important year from my own childhood.
It was 1971 when McClean released his melodic anthem recalling America’s tectonic cultural shifts. Through eight-and-a-half rambling minutes, McClean wraps his nostalgic lyric around a lively, toe-tapping tune evoking simpler times even as it pays melancholy homage to the day the music died. That day was February 3, 1959, when three of rock-n-roll’s biggest stars met their violent end in a frozen Iowa cornfield. Shortly after midnight, minutes after takeoff, a Beechcraft Bonanza piloted by Roger Peterson, carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson — The Big Bopper — en route to Fargo, North Dakota went down just 5.8 miles, as the crow flies, from my childhood home in Clear Lake, Iowa.
I spent my formative years from age seven to thirteen in Clear Lake. This airplane crash had occurred ten years before my family had moved there from New Jersey. Yet, for reasons unapparent to me at the time, this event would have a profound effect on me. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-forties that I pieced together an explanation for one of the most horrifying scenes of my childhood.
As Mclean’s song was bee-bopping its way up the pop charts, a young man who had lost a piece of his father when that plane went down, was about to turn thirteen. His name was Kirk Dwyer, and he was the son of H.J. “Jerry” Dwyer, the man whose aviation company handled the charter flight that evening in 1959. The Dwyers were neighbors of ours. They were a fine family, living in a fine home and there was just something very special about them. They carried themselves with grace, dignity, and good humor. Dawn, the only daughter, was a year or two older than me, and was the youngest of the four Dwyer children. I remember her most fondly for playing the role of the young diplomat one summer night, when some of the neighborhood boys were taunting and threatening to hurt my older brother. She persuaded the older boys to leave my brother alone; that she knew them “to be nicer than that.” Dawn’s two oldest brothers, Jeff and Kim were first-rate young men. They were bright, athletic types. I remember their cool, yet humble, confidence, and their gracious open invitation for the younger kids in the neighborhood to come swim in their pool whenever they were out there — the first and only in-ground pool in the neighborhood. Mrs. Dwyer made sure there was zinc oxide for our noses and lemonade for our thirst. Good people, the Dwyers. Unusually so. Which is why the youngest boy, Kirk, was such a puzzle.
Kirk was three years my elder, which at 9 or 10 is a pretty big deal, and from the autumn of 1971 through the summer of 1972 he was — for me — the face of terror. He was bigger, faster, and stronger than me, and he was possessed of a clever mind for foisting physical and psychological discomfort upon his target. The official release of the home version of Atari’s Pong was still three years off, and so, apart from family meals, the life of every ten-year-old I knew in 1972 was lived outside. There were treehouses and schoolyards; a golf course and the lakeshore. We furiously pedaled our bicycles from one side of the universe to the other. But there was no place to hide. Whether on foot or on bike, I couldn’t outrun him. Climbing into the neighborhood willow tree proved ineffective, and to this day, I still have a small reminder of Kirk’s BB-gun marksmanship near the junction of my index and middle fingers on my left hand. Well aware of the painful fiberglass itching all of us neighborhood kids would experience if we climbed the heavy-duty red and white striped swing set in our little community park, he’d use speed and intimidation to corral me, leaving me with no option, but to climb it, if I was to escape his wrath. Shimmying up the poles would result in terrible itching, and would turn summertime legs and bare arms bright red for hours. I didn’t know I had a choice, but to remain perched atop the red and white swing set until he decided to go home. Usually, I ran around with my crew of other 10-year-olds from the neighborhood, but if I was out by myself, I was at risk. Parents of that era were the antithesis of today’s helicopter parents; they just didn’t get involved in their kids’ squabbles. It was an unwritten rule of being a latchkey kid in the seventies, you were pretty much on your own.
Then, one particularly dark winter day, the game got much darker than willow trees or fiber glass swing sets. My best friend and I were kicking along the snow-covered practice fairway of the golf course, which adjoined our neighborhood. Our eyes were peeled for the occasional stray range ball and any other hell we could find to raise. Exploring some new residential construction was a favorite of ours, and there happened to be a new home going up along the fairway, just across the street from the Dwyer home. Kirk must have seen us enter the framed-out house, and knew he could trap us inside. There was a sump hole in the basement, which had filled with water and was glazed over with ice. Appearing out of nowhere, towering over us, Kirk demanded the golf balls we’d found. One after another, with violent throws, he punched them through the ice and into the chilled water. Then he demanded that we retrieve them for him. We removed our knitted mittens, pushed up our sleeves and got down on our hands and knees, sinking our arms well past our bare elbows to retrieve the golf balls. Our compliance was met with another round. Only this time, he upped the ante and demanded that we remove our clothes, down to our underwear. Picture it: two frightened ten-year-old boys. Stripped bare to our Fruit of the Looms in a north Iowa winter. Forced to retrieve golf balls from frozen-over, ice-cold water. Over and over and over. Our pleas and efforts to negotiate got us nowhere. Both reason and compassion were lost on our captor. We were in tears. Kirk didn’t relent. By now, our hands and arms were scraped raw by the ice, and were turning blue from the water. We were shivering so badly that we were losing dexterity. He threatened to hurt us if we tried to run away, which is what we eventually did.
With a glance, we quickly grabbed our clothes, slipped between the 2-by-4 studs, and ran for our lives from the walkout basement toward the undisturbed snow in the middle of the practice fairway, 150 feet away. We hurriedly pulled our pants and shirts back on, put on our coats, and quickly ran the 200 yards toward my house. Like so many bullies, when challenged by bravery, however modest, Kirk came up empty. He didn’t pursue. We looked back toward the framed house and saw him standing there. Watching. He asserted his will privately. I don’t know that anyone knew, apart from his victims, and for all I know, my friend and I were his only victims. Kirk wanted control. He wanted to know that his will mattered. That HE mattered.
He was a bully of magnitude, to be sure. But why? Some would say the ‘why’ doesn’t matter, but it does. The ‘why’ always matters. I speculate that in the season of Kirk’s birth — February or March of 1959 — his father was distressed. Deeply so. He had seen the taillight fall to the horizon from the tower of the Mason City Airport. He had heard the radio silence of his pilot and friend. At dawn, as he piloted his own aircraft along the scheduled flightpath of the fallen Bonanza, he was the first to see the ball of wreckage in that barren, snow covered field. He witnessed the evidence of a kind of death, unimaginable to most. Bodies broken. Skulls split open. His company, and by extension his reputation, had become forever attached to the failure of that Beechcraft Bonanza to safely reach Fargo that February morning. Jerry Dwyer was a good man, an outstanding aviator, and yet this thing happened on his watch, and it troubled him deeply for the rest of his life. The elder Dwyer passed away in January of 2016, and though I know he was a good man, he was just a man, and, I know from family accounts, he fought against the distress of the Buddy Holly crash for some time. This was the man young Kirk would know in his early formative years. The man from whom he wanted so much; needed so much, but who was, himself, struggling to reconcile what had happened to his friend Roger Peterson. And to those young musicians, taken too soon from their families and adoring fans.
I forgave Kirk years ago. But I’ve also cried tears of regret for him; In McClean’s words, “Something touched me deep inside.” Something went missing in the cornfield that February night for Kirk. Something he couldn’t have known had gone missing. And thirteen years later, armed with the best tools life had given him, he is confronted with a number one song on the pop charts, stirred into the cocktail of his adolescence, that would bring it all around for him again.
My arms and hands and heart recovered. I’m not sure Kirk ever could.