New Year’s Eve; the year winding down past the last sunset into the quiet and the dark, to the dim glow of holiday lights and the anticipation of New Year’s celebrations ahead. I’m sitting here reflecting on the year past, and figured I would write a column called “The Year of Fireball,” but my friend and colleague Tom Wilson has reminded me that this is the anniversary of two other plane crashes that affected me deeply when they occurred. Pittsburgh Pirates baseball star Roberto Clemente crashed at sea on a charter flight on his way to Nicaragua on December 31, 1972. The other air disaster involved rock ‘n’ roll singer Rick Nelson, who went to his death along with the other members of his band on December 31, 1985, when their plane crashed in Texas.
It’s amazing that I hadn’t thought about these anniversaries until Tom mentioned them because I had been such a fan of both of these titans lost on New Year’s Eve. I grew up a bigtime Pirates fan and had met Clemente when I was a kid. He was on a first-name basis with my big sister Janet, and she would take me to Pirates games and we’d sit in the right-field bleachers for day games. It would be deserted out there, just the two of us, and between innings my sister chatted with Clemente. It was that easy to do in the Forbes Field bleachers. As a kid I saw some of those plays that continue to be shown today, plays that carried Clemente into the Baseball Hall of Fame—spectacular catches and rifle throws of a baseball 300 feet to an exact spot. I remember when he got hit number 3,000 right before the 1972 playoffs. For those of you outside our shores or for whom baseball isn’t on the radar, 3,000 is a big round number glorified by baseball fans. If you get that many hits, you are a legend. Well, Clemente was that, plus he had this dignified air about him and went around with his nose held high. He had an ego, no question about it, but he backed it up by being a terrific athlete, a star in two world series, both of which the Pirates won. Most of all he was, to my sister and to me, a quiet, polite guy with a nice sense of humor.
Two days prior to Christmas 1972, Managua, Nicaragua, was devastated by an earthquake. Thirty-eight-year-old Roberto Clemente, a proud Latin American, helped to round up supplies for a relief effort to Nicaragua, and decided to personally supervise the distribution of these supplies to head off pirating by corrupt government officials. Clemente’s plane, a DC-7, took off from Puerto Rico and crashed into the ocean for undetermined reasons—either overloading or mechanical failure or both. His body was never found. I can still remember how it felt to learn of Clemente’s passing on New Year’s Eve—42 years ago tonight. It hit me hard; I still feel it on a personal level.
Then there was Rick Nelson, former teenage television star and rock ‘n’ roll singer who for a solid 15 or 20 years reigned as the coolest human on the planet. Listen to his first number-one song, Poor Little Fool, and tell me he wasn’t cool. Check him out in the Howard Hawks picture Rio Bravo and you see a 19 year old who was comfortable in his own skin and loved what he was doing, acting with John Wayne and Dean Martin. Nelson endured the turbulent 1960s and emerged a busy performer who appeared at Madison Square Garden to play his new material but found himself ridiculed by a massive audience expecting teenaged Ricky Nelson. The result was his most famous song, Garden Party. In it, he laments his treatment by that audience but sums up his feelings with, “You can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself.”
One of the spookier aspects of Rick Nelson was that he moved into Errol Flynn’s aging mountaintop estate, Mulholland Farm. Nelson was a big Flynn fan and expected it to be a blast to live at the Farm, but the place had bad vibes (and possibly a malevolent ghost) and to this day Rick’s children think the place brought their father down. When not touring, Nelson turned recluse at Mulholland. He became obsessed with DC-3s and began building models of them at home. Then he bought one for his band to travel in, and this was the plane that crashed on the last day of December 1985. The DC-3 was unpressurized, just as they were in Carole Lombard’s day, and in winter and at 6,000 feet, the cabin was bone chillingly cold. Nelson and his Stone Canyon Band mates tried to start a portable heater, and a fire erupted. The pilot landed perfectly in a field in De Kalb, Texas, but then hit trees and rough terrain. Rick Nelson, his girlfriend Helen Blair, four other members of the band, and their sound man all died. In 1942 when Carole Lombard and 21 others died on a DC-3, the Douglas plane was gleaming new and utterly reliable. More than 40 years later, the DC-3 had maintained its reputation for reliability, but the one that Nelson bought was at the end of its useful life and little more than a bucket of bolts. His obsession with the plane had contributed to his death at only 45 years of age.
Twenty-nine years ago tonight, Rick Nelson died. I sit here in the quiet and the dark thinking about my brush not with Nelson but with his home, Mulholland Farm. I think about talking to his sons about their dad, and I got to grow close to him that way, hearing the stories from Gunnar and Matthew and others who knew this polite, gentle musical giant. One of those was Leda Carmody, a Rick Nelson fan who met him on many occasions. Leda was instrumental in helping me write the Nelson chapter of Errol Flynn Slept Here, and I can only imagine how she felt 29 years ago tonight. Leda has worked hard to keep Rick Nelson’s memory alive, and she must have done her job well as there are legions of his fans out there to this day.
Tonight, we look ahead to 2015. May it be a prosperous year for all of you out there. But just for a moment I need to pause and take a look back at two great men who left us in their prime, in the same way, on New Year’s Eve when nobody saw it coming.