The Day the Music Died
There are few dates from my youth that I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. Most people can tell you where they were when JFK was killed-I was sitting in science class though I don’t remember if it was 7th or 8th grade.
I am (or try to be) a restorer of people and things. July 16, 1981. I was in my garage working on the first piece of furniture (An oak dresser that I still use) I ever refinished. Working alone, I usually have a radio on for companionship. A news bulletin interrupted the normal programming. On the Long Island expressway, near Jericho, the exit I often use these days when I go to work, Harry Chapin had been driving his VW in the fast lane when it started crapping out and he started to move to the right that he might get to the shoulder when a truck rear ended him, killing him instantly, or so I hope. Harry would have been 39 that December.
Harry, for those who did/do not know him was not just an “Old Folkie.” Harry was an ambassador. He believed in this world and he believed in the people who inhabit it. While he made his living writing songs and singing them whenever he had the chance, Harry was committed to ending world hunger. Hungry people don’t just live in foreign lands, they live here, too. You just don’t see them on the late night commercials. Here, on Long Island, little was being done to resolve the problem and Harry knew it. So, he went out and got a grant for $50,000 and World Hunger Year and Long Island Cares were born. They still exist today because Harry died that day on the Long Island Expressway. I never knew Harry all that well. For most of his career, I was off in college somewhere listening to “Taxi” or “Circle” or “WOLD.” But, I am still convinced today that the Harry I did know would have ended world hunger once and for all. I mean that—world hunger. once and for all. Harry would have found a way.
If you ever saw Harry on the streets of Huntington, you’d have thought that he was the mayor. Not that Huntington has a mayor. IF Huntington HAD a mayor, it could have been Harry. If he had woken up one morning and announced “I’m the Mayor,” he would have been. No one would have argued. Everyone would have applauded. But the only applause Harry heard (or wanted to hear) was when he was onstage.
They say suburbanites are the stiff upper lipped/stone faced type. Perhaps there is some truth to that for we live where we do because, well, because we don’t want to be on top of our neighbors. Often, we really don’t want to have much to do with them either. But, Harry was a different sort of subrubanite. He seemed to treat everyone as his neighbor, in the the best definition of the word, a stranger was a friend he’d not yet met. If you saw him on the street, he’d always have a big smile on his face, greeting everyone he passed by. There are times still, on Main Street, just outside of Marsh’s Men Store, where I think I see him yet. Once you met Harry you’d never forget him.
I know that Harry lives on. Not just in his brother Tom’s or daughter Jen’s music, but in the hearts of those who met or knew him and in the lives of those who still work for Long Island Cares. Harry’s dream of eradicating world hunger unfortunately lives on, if only out of necessity. A sad, sad necessity.
Harry once (and probably more than once) said, “Our lives are to be used and thus to be lived as fully as possible, and truly it seems that we are never so alive as when we concern ourselves with other people.” Before he tragically died, Harry was never so alive.