A tribute to a legend and a visit to an artifact of the last hours of her existence, published at the exact minute of her passing + 55 years.
I’ve always had a queer fascination with youth and death.
Is it the great senselessness of this? That by rule, we’re all supposed to grow old and reminisce about our youth and what we should’ve done differently? Once you roll the celebrity aspect into it, you’ve got youth and death involving someone that in theory has more monumental life experiences in six months than the rest of us do in a lifetime. And perhaps that’s where obsession begins.
I find it quite strange that it took me as long as it did to find out how Patsy Cline died. And when.
Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ sort of spoon-fed the story of Buddy Holly and The Day The Music Died to anyone whose parents had that radio in the basement, with the missing tuning knob, permanently set to the oldies station. My curiosity for that one took me first to the nightmarish autopsy reports of those three singers sudden, violent ends, and then to a much more healthy end, a 2009 pilgrimage to the exact spot of the wreck in a field in northwest Iowa.
I knew Patsy’s hits. They’d cycle through that same oldies station here and there. But I think they (perhaps purposefully) branded her as a minor ‘crossover’ star in the early rock era, not as one of the biggest stars in the history of an entire genre of music.
As you start to dig in a bit, one finds out things that teenage boys just melt for in the concept woman; a public classiness cloaked in just enough mystery to allow for a secret, just between the two of yas, offset by an offstage reputation of being able to keep up with the boys in the three categories we’re taught to hallow the most: cussin’, fightin’, ‘n drinkin’.
And then one day I watched Sweet Dreams, which is one of the less cliche-laden musician-biopics and one that most folks probably haven’t seen. Regardless of whatever dark-haired country girl infatuation I had with Patsy, I went into this movie not knowing how she’d died.
SINGIN’ ‘THIS’LL BE THE DAY’…
12:30 PM CST, 5 March 1963: Patsy Cline checks out of the Town House Motor Hotel, Kansas City, MO
2:00 PM: pilot Randy Hughes takes off from Fairfax Municipal Airport, Kansas City, Missouri, with passengers ‘Cowboy’ Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Virginia ‘Patsy’ Cline.’ Aircraft is a Piper-PA-24-250 Comanche
Mid afternoon: plane lands at Rogers Municipal Airport, Rogers, Arkansas to refuel. Flight takes off 15 minutes later
5:05 PM: after making contact with the Dyersburg Regional Airport, Dyersburg, Tennessee, pilot Hughes lands there for a weather briefing for the remaining 152 aerial miles to Cornelia Fort Airpark, Nashville, Tennesee
5:55 PM: Patsy Cline uses the Crosley payphone at Dyersburg Regional Airport
For someone who’d assuredly googled ‘James Dean’s Porsche’ and ‘Clear Lake Holly Bopper bodies,’ I was flabbergasted that I didn’t know she’d gone out in such a rock ‘n’ roll forever way. I demanded to know exactly when it happened. And where. Where is this mountain that was the last thing Patsy Cline screamed [coincidentally my first name] at before god pinched out her flame between his fingertips?
In reality, it was not a mountainside that got her. Their pilot was not properly instrument-trained, and in darkness and poor visibility, the treetops of a rural forest outside Camden, Tennessee shredded the Piper Comanche, instantly killing all on-board. They were 70 miles from where they took off and 82 miles from Nashville; halfway home.
I have enough business and pleasure in Memphis and Nashville that I was determined one of those times down there to make a side run to the crash site. To the remote spot in the Tennessee woodlands where there’s a marker and, no doubt, an always-refreshed pile of tributes like hairpins, guitar picks, whiskey bottles, and whatever else a fellow old soul may have left to bask in the aura of where her earthly energy left off. But even if I’m yet to line it up to visit the crash site, my business does occasionally take me to Dyersburg, the small Tennessee city whose airport served as a refueling stop on a flight from Kansas City back to Nashville on March 5, 1963.
So ahead of a work trip that included the Dyersburg area, I figured I’d at least research the Dyersburg airport. Perhaps there was a plaque, or some backstory.
What I found out was so much more significant than that.
It turned out that the Dyersburg Regional Airport still had the payphone from which Virginia Patsy Cline made her last phone call! A call which was, for about another hour, a nondescript phone call to her mother in Nashville. As far as anyone knows, the call was bereft of ‘the sky belongs to the stars’ or ‘no one gets out alive anyways.’ It was closer to ‘just letting you know I’ll be home for dinner, mama.’ Five minutes later, at approximately 5:30 PM, her plane took off for Nashville, some 155 aerial miles away. When asked, hours later, staff at the Cornelia Fort Airpark in Nashville confirmed that there was still one plane unaccounted for. They left the runway lights on through the night. Just in case.
Flash forward 54 years and the lady at the maybe-one-car-available Hertz franchise at Dyersburg Regional Airport asks us what we were doing wandering around the 1000-square foot building she shared with every other function of the two-runway airfield. I conveyed that we’d read somewhere that they had the payphone from which Patsy Cline made her final phone call. She conveyed that she thinks it used to be in the old airport building, immediately next door, which had been converted to a restaurant that was now kaput…but that it might also have been moved to the city museum in downtown Dyersburg.
We had to make a few more stops to pin down the exacts on this nefarious museum. The beauty of seeking out something like this is that the closer you get to finding it, the better peoples’ directions get. The last question we had to ask was of two of Dyersburg’s whom answered our question of ‘this door, or that door?’ with ‘that one.’
It was set off by itself in a corner of a space that was part local artifacts, part active police training class. To our tremendous shock it wasn’t behind glass. It wasn’t behind a velvet rope. There wasn’t even a sign that said ‘do not touch.’ It was right there for any old soul to take into his hand and put up to his ear, just like Patsy did at this exact moment, 55 years ago.
Look, I know by the very essence of me writing this it might create a situation where too many people chase her ghost and go fondle the phone and interrupt a police training class. I just can’t think of anything else of such pop culture and Americana significance that isn’t in one of those glass cases with the humidity gauge or whatever, never again to be touched by anyone not wearing proper museum employee identification and rubber gloves.
So I lifted the handset and imagined what Patsy had said into that same mouthpiece a half century earlier:
“I’ll be home for supper, mama, but get it started for me…
“Fine, but no more of that greasy shit, mama, I’ve got three more shows next week and these dresses don’t wear themselves…
“Yes, I’m sorry for cussin’, mama…it’ll just be good to be home…
…ope…plane’s ready! Gotta go…we’ll see ya in a jiffy.”
6:07 PM: after refueling, passengers and pilot reboarding the Piper Comanche, and Pilot Hughes requesting another weather briefing by radio, plane taxied into position and took off
6:29 PM: an aviation-qualified witness, about 4 miles (6.4 km) west of Camden, heard a low-flying aircraft on a northerly course. The engine noise increased and seconds later a white light appeared from the overcast, descending in a 45° angle.