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O'TOOLE: Remembering Ricky Nelson

• Jan 2, 2019 at 8:00 AM

It was late morning on January 1, 1985. My dad was driving, my mom in the passenger seat, my brother and sister and I in the backseat of our Pontiac Bonneville. I don’t remember where we were going. What I do remember is the radio announcer saying, “Ricky Nelson has died in a plane crash.”

Only 45 years old, the former child actor turned teen idol/rockabilly/rock star was flying to a New Year’s Eve performance in Dallas when his plane went down and caught fire in a cow pasture in De Kalb, Texas. The nearest air strip was just two miles away. The pilot and copilot escaped through the cockpit windows, sustaining severe burns. They were the only survivors. Rick, his fiancée, and all five of his band members perished.

All of us were silent for a moment after the announcement that Ricky was dead. Then I blurted, “Ricky Nelson died! I can’t believe it! In a plane wreck!”

I watched the back of my parents’ heads as they nodded silently. This wasn’t news to them. Of course. The accident had happened in the early evening. It would’ve been on the late news. They heard it last night. They had already had some time to take it in, absorb it. Me, I was gobsmacked. My heart slid to my toes and my heart felt heavy as a bag of sand in my chest.

I was the only 14-year-old I knew who was a Ricky Nelson fan. Most of my peers didn’t know who he was. But I had grown up listening to the same music my parents did: the music of their teen years, and that was 50s and 60s music. I had also watched reruns of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,”  the television sitcom Ricky starred in beside his father, mother and older brother David. In sixth grade, I had a crush on a boy just because I thought he resembled Ricky Nelson. And in my bedroom, I had a photo of Ricky pinned to my bulletin board.

I read the newspaper’s article about the accident over and over again. It just didn’t seem real. To make matters worse, the media speculated that Ricky was freebasing cocaine inflight, starting the fire that caused the deaths of everyone but the pilots. The National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) investigated for a year and found “no evidence of drug use.” However, newspapers buried their retractions in the back pages. To this day, I still hear people say, “Ricky Nelson? Didn’t he die doing cocaine on a plane?” It’s infuriating.

In her thoroughly researched, thoroughly fascinating book, “Rick Nelson:  Rock ‘n’ Roll Pioneer,” Sheree Homer quotes several people very close to Ricky who refute the idea that he was using drugs. His older brother David remarked, “I never saw my brother take drugs, and I never saw my brother under the influence of drugs.” The pilot who survived the accident, Brad Rank, said, “These were good people, and drugs weren’t involved.”

The NTSB concluded that a malfunctioning cabin heater caused the fire that filled the plane with smoke and forced an emergency landing. The plane, a DC-3, had a history of problems with the gasoline cabin heaters.

A firefighter on the scene said, “All the bodies are there at the front of the plane. Apparently, they were trying to escape the fire.”

It makes me sad to imagine Ricky — or anyone — terrified in the last moments of life, trying to escape a fire. So I’d rather not. Instead, I want to think about his accomplishments and his gifts he shared with the world.

He was born Eric Hilliard Nelson, second son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” was originally a radio program with child actors playing David and Ricky until David was 12 and Ricky was 8, when they debuted in an episode called “Invitation to Dinner.” Next came the movie “Here Come the Nelsons.” When that was a hit, Ozzie decided to transition to television. “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” debuted on Oct. 3, 1952 and ended Sept. 3, 1966. It’s one of the longest-running sitcoms in TV history.

Ricky was ridiculously handsome, naturally Elvis-like with perfect, creamy skin, a head of black hair, big blue eyes and pillowy lips. The icing on the cake was his rich, satiny voice. He sang rockabilly and rock ballads. He recorded his first single to impress his girlfriend. He debuted “I’m Walkin’” on “Ozzie and Harriet” on April 10, 1957.

Some of my favorite Rick Nelson songs are “Hello, Mary Lou,” “Be-Bop Baby,” “Stood Up” — the theme song of my dating life, in my teens and now, sadly — “It’s Late,” “Teenage Idol,” “Travelin’ Man” and of course, Ricky’s own song, “Garden Party.”

I was sad for a long time after he died. I spent hours just gazing at his picture. His music comforted me, though. He sounded so alive when he was singing.

I always remember Rick this time of year. I’m sad that he died so tragically and so young. But I’m happy listening to his music and watching him in “Ozzie and Harriet” and the movie “Rio Bravo.” It brings me back to a simpler, more wholesome time.

I rave on for you, Ricky.

— By Kelly O’Toole, Tribune community columnist

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