Planes to Catch; When Accidents and Altruism Converge by Gavin Lakin – Post “21”

In 1972, when Harry Chapin debuted his song “Greyhound” on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, history was made: Carson asked Chapin to come back the following evening for an encore. Johnny had never done that with any of his performers up to that time. The song struck a chord in the nation’s viewers, and kick-started Harry’s career. Additionally, another work of magic, Chapin’s “Taxi,” a tale of fate, dreams and the sudden return and subsequent loss of love was set in San Francisco and based on a true story—though not in a cab and not in California.


The New York troubadour was a master of examining what he observed happening around him and transforming it into evocative musical narratives.

Sometimes I get this crazy dream, and I just take off in my car, but you can travel on ten thousand miles and still stay where you are.

Chapin’s late 1973 LP release Short Stories featured the song W*O*L*D.”  This one painted a picture of a career DJ and how radio, which once ruled the day, was fading away into obscure background noise like its narrator. The song peaked at #36 and inspired the iconic TV theme composed by Tom Wells, WKRP in Cincinnati’s (1978-1982) creator, with Hugh Wilson’s lyrics and sung by Steve Carlisle.


As I hung up the phone it occurred to me, he’d grown up just like me, my boy was just like me.

From his album Verities & Balderdash (1974), Chapin reached the top of the charts in December of 1974, with a full circle expression of undeniable love between father and son, Cat’s in the Cradle.Originally a poem written by his wife Sandy Gaston, the song is layered with imagery pertaining to childhood like the nursery rhyme “Little Boy Blue,” silver spoons (gifts) and the myth about the Man on the Moon. Deftly, he juxtaposed innocence with the unavoidable, demanding reality of growing up. Later, Chapin would comment that this piece took on an autobiographical life of its own, paralleling his relationship with his son, Josh.

~ 21 ~

In December of 1972—actually, its final day—tragedy struck in the Caribbean.


In Puerto Rico, during the early 1950s, a narrative of an entirely different kind featured a young man gaining notice from baseball scouts. Opening doors just a few years earlier, the courageous Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers on the playing field and by doing so, placed himself on the firing line of the racial divide in a country that claimed freedom for all.


As the 1955 MLB season opened, Roberto Clemente Walker, of Puerto Rican and African heritage, would be a full-time member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Players and broadcasters called him “Bobby Clemente”; he did not like how they freely dishonored his name, and with it, created a false perception. He chose his uniform number, 21, for the exactly twenty-one letters in his full name.

On December 23, 1972, Managua, Nicaragua, was demolished by an immense earthquake, spurring Clemente into action. This was hardly unexpected by those who knew him well; growing up in Puerto Rico, watching mill workers scrape enough money together to watch a ball game—there was never a doubt that an individual in his position would not give back on a grand, yet humble scale. Clemente learned that cargo planes carrying relief supplies were being rerouted and taken by the corrupt government leadership. By the very act of boarding a plane, with his all but canonized status to Latinos and Spanish speaking people of all cultures, his presence would ensure the safe arrival to the needy victims.


Fellow MLB player, Tom Walker, was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. Like many others, he joined in the effort and was ready to board the DC-7 with Clemente. By then a superstar in the league, the Pittsburgh Pirate insisted that Walker, single at the time, have an enjoyable time in New York. Whether this was the sole reason, or a selfless act of fending off more extra weight on an already overburdened suspect cargo plane, Walker remained behind, later to share that story.

~ 21 ~

Throughout the ‘70s, Harry was involved in a multitude of charitable causes. According to his family at one time, “Harry was supporting 17 relatives, 14 associations, 7 foundations and 82 charities. Harry wasn’t interested in saving money. He always said, ‘Money is for people’ so he gave it away.” It was altruism, plain and simple. He walked to his car.

~ 21 ~


Roberto Clemente was an NL All-Star from 1960-1967 and 1969-1972. He led the NL in batting average in 1961, 1964, 1965, and 1967. He won the Gold Glove every year from 1961-1972. He won the MVP in 1966 and World Series MVP in 1971. After the 1972 season, the man could have just lounged in his home with his family, rested up for the next season, however all he clearly knew was compassion. His purported credo that God had specific plans for him, that his life could end at any time, therefore, enjoy it now—this was synonymous with helping others much less fortunate.

~ 21 ~

When you comin’ home Dad, I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, you know we’ll have a good time then.

Harry Chapin was on his way to perform a free concert in New York City’s Eisenhower Park. As he drove his VW Rabbit along the Long Island Expressway, he lost control and a truck crashed into him. Chapin was rescued from the flames and airlifted to a hospital where doctors worked heroically but unsuccessfully to save the music legend. Death was attributed to cardiac arrest, with no way of knowing if it happened before, during or after the accident.

~ 21 ~

The engines rumbled and with 4,200 pounds of extra weight, it taxied to a takeoff position. We can never know Clemente’s final thoughts, nor if he even had time to conceive of any; the poorly maintained airplane crashed into the Atlantic near Isla Verde just after takeoff. Only the pilot’s body was recovered; all others perished.

~ 21 ~

Every generation, blames the one before, and all of their frustrations, come beating on your door.


These sage words are the opening lines from “The Living Years” (Mike & The Mechanics 1988). If Harry and Roberto had ever met, they would have had much to discuss. They were cut from the same uniform and troubadour cloth. In their day, altruism was more rule than exception. Today, being selfless, hat in hand, appears to be trending downward. If we blame the generations before (or after), then let me have it, too. I am a Boomer, a late one, but all the same, as a product of Earth Day and the once flourishing middle class and the so-called derisive “Me Generation,” then I am party to the transformation to blur and narcissism in which we live. Yet doesn’t it follow that we are all to blame, no matter the generation represented—for the uptick in aggressive human behavior, xenophobia, divisiveness, and for climate change, where our disenchanted planet is jolting us from below, drenching us from above, burning us with fires from all corners?

Erica Jong, she of the head-turning erotic literature presents an intriguing viewpoint:

Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.

It’s easy to sit back on the couch with the bag of chips. Yell at Fox News. However, taking action takes initiative. And a whole lot of energy. Funny thing: empty carbs don’t typically provide any of the four basic food groups or healthy vitamins and minerals. The Chapin family could have outright blamed the truck that was the direct physical reason for Harry’s death. Roberto’s wife and children could have blamed God’s plan—but not many practicing believers let him take it on the chin. It would be much more practical to blame the faulty cargo plane and its supposed poorly trained flight crew.

Jeffrey A. Kottler’s book Beyond Blame (1994) asserts that blame only leads to escalation, rarely forgiveness or resolution. As an elixir, the psychologist offers that one must first look at oneself: understand and confront the issue, identify triggers, take responsibility, and be prepared to alter one’s role. Pretty heady stuff for the average bear. Do you vaguely remember the woman who sued McDonalds for when she burned coffee on herself? Guess she didn’t like her Happy Meal toy. Enough said.

The last line in the choruses of Stevie Wonder’s “Blame it on the Sun” are: “But, my heart blames it on me.” Well, it’s a step in a positive direction.

Singer-songwriter, musician and poetess, Joni Mitchell, from her critically acclaimed, landmark LP Court and Spark (1974), though not blaming herself, she is pleading with the character to whom she speaks to take responsibility:

Everything comes and goes, pleasure moves on too early and trouble leaves too slow, just when you’re thinking you’ve finally got it made, bad news comes knocking at your garden gate, knocking for you, constant stranger, you’re a brute, you’re an angel, you can crawl you can fly too, it’s down to you, it all comes down to you.

~ 21 ~

For we everyday mere mortals, there will always be “planes to catch and bills to pay”; and unequivocally, there will always exist the option to follow the beatific examples of two saints belonging to the ‘70s, belonging to the ages: Harry Chapin and Roberto Clemente.

To donate to victims of the recent hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico, click here.



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