Elvis Aaron Presley - January 8, 1935-August 16, 1977
Beginning 32 years ago today - early in the evening - Mrs. Thomas took to her room after crying out, quickly calling her mother and telling her to, "get the hell over here" and plopping her 8-year old son in front of the television to await his grandmother's arrival. Mrs. Thomas didn't come out of her room the rest of the night. Nor did she come out the next day. Nor the following day, either. It was only on the fourth day after the sudden death of her beloved Elvis that she emerged finally emerged. Her hair was a tangled mess. Her eyes were red with traces of days-old mascara running up and down her cheeks. She showered, got something to eat, and returned to her room for two more days before emerging.
I know this because I was an 8-year old witness to much of it. On the evening of August 16, 1977, I was watching television when CBS News ran one of their 30-second national news briefs. A photo of Elvis Presley was in the upper right corner of the screen as the anchor - probably Roger Mudd or maybe Morton Dean - said something to the effect of, "Reaction continues to roll in from around the globe as news of the death of Elvis Presley today at the age of 42 has brought a throng of thousands of grieving fans to his home in Memphis..." I remember turning to my mother and saying, "Mrs. Thomas is going to be in trouble."
I was friends with Mrs. Thomas' son, who lived across the street from our first floor duplex apartment. It was from my friend and his mother that I first learned about Matchbox cars, NASCAR racing and Elvis Presley. Shortly after the Thomas' moved in I was invited over to play. In a tour of the apartment - which took about 7 seconds, although at the time I was too young to know that we were just barely making enough income so that we were always just a little bit behind - I saw an enormous portrait hanging over Mrs. Thomas' bed. "Who is that?!?" I said to my friend. I heard a gasp from behind me, where Mrs. Thomas must've have overheard me. If I'd have said the same thing about the enormous portrait handing across from Mrs. Thomas' bed - that of Jesus Christ - she would not have been as upset with me. "Who is that Evil?!?! That is Elvis Presley! How have you gotten this old [seven, at the time] not knowing Elvis?!?!" Ok, so she didn't call me 'Evil' - although no doubt she called me worse over the years. Other than that, though, that's pretty much what she said.
I'd put that about mid-1976. Over the next year or so, then, it was rare for me to be over the Thomas' apartment and not hear Elvis on the stereo, or see Elvis on the TV - as the Thomas' were the first people I ever knew with a VCR. Which is funny because they had no more of a pot to piss in than we did, yet there was this incredibly expensive primitive video player. Might not have been called a VCR, as I don't remember any tapes. Anyway, Mrs. Thomas had every single one of Elvis' movies - whatever format it was in - and they were always on.
I remember not liking the movies terribly much - even at that age I realized it was essentially Elvis Presley playing himself in some unrealistic setting like Hawaii or a 19th century western town. The music, though. Well, the music was incredible. I can't tell you the first song I heard, but the one that I remembered liking immediately was "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck". Just a great tune, with every element of Presley's talents all over it. Never liked 'Heartbreak Hotel' [still don't]. But all of the others I soon knew pretty well. It became 'normal' to see the large bust of Elvis that rested on Mrs. Thomas' bureau, not to mention that painting, and just accept the fact that Elvis was that important that of course you'd have a bust and portrait of him in your house, you idiot. It was vintage 1970s, in retrospect: I swear that damned painting was on a velour canvas. I just remember it was fuzzy to the touch [although we never let Mrs. Thomas know we touched the damned thing, believe you me].
So it was on that mid-August night 32 years ago that I saw what was going on there on the TV and told my mother that Mrs. Thomas was going to be in trouble. What I meant, of course, was that she was going to be a holy emotional fucking wreck. I just didn't know some of those words at the time, so 'in trouble' was my way of saying, 'she's going to be majorly fucked up by this news, mother.'
And, indeed, she was. It was too late to walk across the street to check on my friend and Mrs. Thomas - at least that's what I remember my mother telling me. I remember looking at the window across the street at the Thomas' second-floor apartment front window. The room was black but I could see the neon-like images of what was the television screen in the living room. By that time, I figured out later, Mrs. Thomas had plopped my friend in front of the TV and retired to her room. The next day, early, I walked over and sure enough there was my friend and his none-too-happy grandmother. She, no doubt, figured her days of raising an 8-year old had long passed.
I asked my friend's grandmother how Mrs. Thomas was doing. "Not good," said his grandmother. "She's crazy. She wasn't this upset when her father died." Just then, I vaguely remembered one time when I overheard Mrs. Thomas calling her father something along the lines of a 'lazy, no-good boozing prick'. I chose not to share that with my friend's grandmother that morning. At first, I was scared for my friend. I could hear Mrs. Thomas crying in her room over the sounds of Elvis' music. My friend and I went out to play [back in those days, 'what are your kids doing this summer?' meant that moms across the country simply opened their front doors, turned to their off-spring and lovingly said, 'Get out!']. We came back for lunch and the soundtrack - Mrs. Thomas' shrieking with Elvis providing back-up - were still going strong. Same thing at dinner. By this point, my friend's grandmother looked like she wanted to strangle her daughter but was afraid to open the door to her room to begin doing so.
The next day, when it continued, I remember asking my friend what he thought of all of this. How did he feel about Elvis' death? "He's Elvis, man," my friend said. "He's Elvis and he's dead. It's too weird." That was about as introspective as we two 8-year olds got that summer. When, about a week later, Mrs. Thomas was well enough to go back to work and slowly resume what now seems, in retrospect, to have been a very sad and mundane life raising a son as a single parent, I noticed that more Elvis memorabilia had somehow been acquired. Maybe it'd always been there and I'd never noticed it. More likely, Mrs. Thomas had instructed her mother to bring the stuff with her, as her mother still lived in the house where Mrs. Thomas grew up a young girl in love with the 1950s Elvis.
Over the years, I've encountered others who had a similar Elvis-worship. While I thought the Elvis portrait Mrs. Thomas possessed had to be a one-of-a-kind, amazingly a few years later I saw the same damned thing over another friend's mother's bed - no lie. I guess that was the painting you put over your bed. While I encountered other Elvis-worshippers, Mrs. Thomas is the one I recall most vividly simply because she was the only one I witnessed suffering in the aftermath of Elvis' actual death.
As I say, the music was something I dug right away, and always have. Throughout my life, I've maintained that if you don't like Elvis, and you are American, then there is something very, very wrong with you. In your soul, I mean. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it's my blog. Elvis is so quintessentially American, that to not like the music [hey, I agree: the movies suck], the persona, Graceland, etc, meant that somehow you'd missed the whole point of America. At least as it existed in the second half of the 20th century. I can't quite explain why - in words - that I feel that way. It just is.
So, today, on the 32nd anniversary of The King's death, I think of him and his music. I think of Mrs. Thomas, too. All of these years later - assuming she's still alive - I wonder if this day still fills her with the kind of grief it did back then - the shock of it aside, of course. Now that I'm just two years younger than Elvis was when his head hit that porcelain toilet as his heart finally gave out, I still love the music, and the persona [the movies still suck, though]. I also still think that Elvis is as quintessentially American as any other icon of the 20th century. That he'd only be 74 years old also reminds me just how young he was when he died.
And, just how young I was, too.
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