Jim Croce And Model Plane Dogfights In Basement Skies

This morning, I headed out to run errands and, as often is the case, Paloma had left the station tuned to the adult alternative station. One of the DJs hosts a flashback show on Saturday mornings, so I left it on to see if the year being highlighted hooked me.

Jim Croce’s Operator was playing.

The song by the late singer took me back to childhood – small memories both good and bad, and one that I’d truly forgotten.

Jim Croce died in a post-concert plane crash on September 20, 1973 as he was finally achieving widespread fame and success. I wasn’t even in grade school, yet Bad, Bad Leroy Brown had been one of the first singles I owned and I recall his songs on the radio, especially in the wake of his death.

As Operator played, my mind conjured up the memory of a cold, dark winter morning not long after Croce’s death. It was my birthday, but, early that morning, my father received a phone call with the news that a co-worker and one of his closest friends – like Croce, named Jim – had been killed in a car accident.

I remember accompanying my father on several occasions to visit his friend’s widow and how empty the house seemed, how it seemed provide no shelter from the howl of the wind during those December days, and how there seemed to be no light, nothing but shadows in black and white.

Then, my mind remembered the model planes, something of which I had not thought in twenty-five years or more and something so vague in my immediate recollection I briefly considered that the memory was not real at all.

But it was.

I couldn’t pick the face of my father’s friend from a line-up of people I have barely known, but the model planes came into clearer focus as Jim Croce sang on the radio.

The planes – scale-replicas of World War II aircraft -had been given to my father by his friend’s widow and were hung by wires from the ceiling of the basement where my brother and I played as children.

Of course, we were children and the planes – hanging just beyond our reach, frozen in imaginary dogfights near the laundry room – were irresistible to us and, as often happens when children lay their hands on fragile items, the results were predictably disastrous.

The planes were subjected to small-scale carnage no less damaging than their real-life counterparts might have experienced over the skies of Europe decades earlier.

No lives were lost and all my brother and I received was some relatively minor punishment. To us, at that age, they were just mere toys and their destruction was was just another day’s work as kids. We didn’t – and couldn’t – understand that their value was far greater than the other items that had met their demise at our small hands.

Operator ended and the DJ began to babble about weather and traffic and such. Soon, he was touting the opening of a local pizza joint as though having some commerce-inspired fit of Tourettes Syndrome sans the profanity.

Someone has something for sale – something his listeners need to buy.

All I could think as I opted for the iPod and searched for another Jim Croce song was that not everything is for sale, not everything can be bought, and not everything lost is always lost for good.

Listening to Jim Croce is like the sweater that I pull out often as the weather gets colder (the one for which Paloma would happily host a retirement party should I remove it from heavy rotation). Here are four songs from the late, great singer…

Jim Croce – You Don’t Mess Around With Jim
from Bad Bad Leroy Brown: The Definitive Collection

I remember my dad quoting the advice given in You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, so I might have heard the song when it became Croce’s first hit in late summer of ’72. It’s a rollicking number much in the vein of Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, which would be an even bigger hit the following spring.

At one record store where I worked, five or six of us had a bookie named Stick Daddy.

I never met Stick Daddy, but Jim Croce probably did.

Jim Croce – Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)
from Bad Bad Leroy Brown: The Definitive Collection

Even though Bad, Bad Leroy Brown was such an important song in my childhood and even though the guy did some wonderful upbeat stuff, when I think of Jim Croce, I think of the more somber songs.

(which, given the circumstances of his death, is not surprising)

There’s too much humor in the songs of Jim Croce, though, to think he was some melancholic singer/songwriter. Maybe I think of the more somber songs because of the brilliance of tracks like Operator.

Jim Croce – Time In A Bottle
from Bad Bad Leroy Brown: The Definitive Collection

Inspired by the birth of his son (and future musician) A.J., Time In A Bottle became a posthumous number one hit for Croce in late ’73 when his death gave the song an added measure of poignancy.

I’ve heard the song so many times that, when I hear it, I don’t always hear it. But, truly listening to it again, it’s undeniably lovely.

Jim Croce – I Got A Name
from Bad Bad Leroy Brown: The Definitive Collection

I Got A Name was the title track from the album that Croce had just completed before his death and would be one of three hits – with I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song and Workin’ At The Car Wash Blues – from the record.

There’s just something about I Got A Name that I’ve always loved. The melody is engaging, the vibe is determined, and, in an economical three minutes and change, the song never fails to leave me feeling that everything is going to work out.

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6 Responses to Jim Croce And Model Plane Dogfights In Basement Skies

  1. WZJN says:

    Great post with a great story to go along.

    When I think of Croce, I have ‘Photographs and Memories’ stuck, and memory rewind goes to ‘the one that got away’.

  2. agedhipster says:

    I loved Croce, and when I go to San Diego, I visit the restaurant that bears his name, opened by Ingrid Croce (A.J. sometimes plays there, too!) I play his music from time to time, especially “Time In A Bottle.”
    Great post.

  3. whiteray says:

    Folks like to talk about the unfinished business of Janis and Jimi and John Lennon and others; I’ve always had a sense that Croce’s career would have been just as great, possibly better. And a couple of his songs are stamped on moments in my life: “Time In A Bottle,” which I think touched everyone who ever heard it, and “Hey, Tomorrow,” which was on the same album. Good post, and yes, a great story.

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