Saturday, May 28, 2005

Elvis Has Left The Building, But Not Our Hearts

Scott Johnson at Powerline has a heartwarming post about an Elvis song and the comfort it brought to a man whose wife died of cancer at age forty.

I was reminded of my own encounter with Elvis' legacy. How? In 1997 I accidentally visited Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Just how does one visit Graceland by accident? Glad you asked. Here is how:

I was flying out to Dothan, Alabama to a Sony facility to do a instrument install/customer training gig. My job was to set up the instrument we sold to them and train their employees how to use it. It was an instrument that aligned the read/write head in computer tape drives.

There was an hour and a half delay in Los Angeles due to a mechanical problem. I had to catch a connecting flight in Memphis to get to Dothan, so I was a bit concerned I would miss the connection. Still, I was hopeful I might make it.

I deplaned at the Memphis airport to catch my connecting flight to Dothan, and immediately spotted an airline employee. I walked directly to him and asked if my connecting flight was still boarding.

Sadly, he informed me that I missed my connecting flight by FIVE MINUTES. The next flight to Dothan? In SIX HOURS. There were only two flights a day to Dothan and I had JUST missed the first one. So here I am at the airport with six hours to kill until my connector flight. That would put me into Dothan at about 11:00pm. What to do for six hours?

Wait a minute...

This is MEMPHIS. GRACELAND!

I strolled up to the airport counter and asked the woman there, "how far is Graceland from here"? She replied "oh, about fifteen minutes." I said "where are the cabs"? She directed me out the doors to where the taxi queue was, and I went straight to them. I approached the cab. Behind the wheel was a middle-aged black man, slung low in the seat. He was listening to the Blues on the radio. No Hollywood screen writer could have written that scene more perfectly. I got in the cab. "Where ya goin' today, sir"? he said. I said, a smile on my face, "Take me to Graceland."

After about a fifteen minute drive, I got out of the cab and paid the fare and tip. I walked to the pavilion where tickets are sold. The pavilion is across the street from those famous white wrought iron gates with the musical notes on them. To buy an admission ticket, one queues through a line with velvet ropes like a line at an amusement park. The facility is clean and modern looking, like a hotel or an airport. At least two of Elvis' planes are parked outside the building.

When one reaches the ticket counter, one is offered the various attractions a' la carte. One may choose to visit the mansion, the aircraft, Elvis' automobile collection, or other attractions, or a combination of the above. I chose only to see the mansion.

They have it down to a science. They bring tourists to the mansion in groups of fifteen. They count off a group and lead you to a staging area where a shuttle bus will take you across the street, straight through those famous gates. Yep. One has to take a shuttle ride of about thirty seconds that only crosses the street. One is handed a tape recorder with headset, and is instructed to NOT turn it on. After the shuttle ride across the street, you disembark from the shuttle right before the front door. A tour guide gave us some instructions, and they took us right through the front door.

First stop: the living room. The tour guide gently informs the group that the house is watched through hidden cameras. HINT: no souvenir taking, please. There is a well-defined path where one is allowed to walk, with a plastic runner on the floor. Without it, the carpet would be shot inside a month, I would guess. We were instructed to put on our headphones and told as a group when to turn the tape player on, on the count of three. After a few seconds the voice of Priscilla Presley simultaneously fills our ears. She directs us to the right. Fifteen heads turn in unison. The simultaneous turning of heads reminded me of birds or fish moving in formation. I could not help but notice that the crystal knick-knacks on the tables were epoxied down to the tables.

We moved on. As we stood in front of the dining room Priscilla told us that Elvis always had four or five friends over for dinner...every night. He always had to be surrounded by his friends.

Onward to the kitchen. Elvis had a machine that would automatically spread peanut butter and jelly on bread. Ahhh...an automatic peanut butter and jelly sandwich maker. I like this guy.

Onward to...The Jungle Room. So called because there is a room-width planter at the end of the room filled with all manner of large plants. It even has a small waterfall. On the floor is this carpet...well, GREEN shag carpet. The ceiling is also carpeted with the same carpet. Priscilla informs us that Elvis recorded his last album in the Jungle Room. Whenever he recorded his albums, Elvis always held the microphone in his hand as if he were on stage. Most artists sing into a microphone on a stand, with a plosive shield in front of it, suspended about eye-level, wearing headphones. Not Elvis. He wanted a "live" feel to his records, and achieved it by hand-holding the mic.

Onward to the TV room. MERCY! One needs sunglasses in this room. It is finished in canary yellow. There are a few hundred (at least) vinyl record albums on shelves. There is a bar with matching canary yellow barstools. There are THREE TV sets installed into the wall at the end of the room. Priscilla tells us that Elvis was at the White House during an election night and saw the President watching the election returns on three TV sets (on TV set each for CBS, NBC, ABC). Elvis liked that so much that he had three TV sets put into the walls of the TV room.

Onward to the "museum" portion of the tour. They lead you past all of his gold records. At the time I was there, he had over 100. It is MIGHTILY impressive. The tour guides call it the "humility room." Why? Because many rock bands with one or two gold records come to Graceland as a sort of Rock n' Roll pilgrimage. They are arrogant and loud until they behold the sight of all of Elvis' gold records. That always shuts them up.

There are a plethora of gifts Elvis received displayed under glass. There is everything imaginable, from firearms to police badges (Elvis was a favorite in the law enforcement community), perhaps fifteen or twenty of them. One of his trademark white jumpsuits with rhinestones on it stands on a mannequin. THE CAPE?! They have THE cape here?! When I was young, Elvis did a show on TV. At the end of the show, he took off his rhinestone-studded cape and hurled it into the crowd. I remember the reaction of my mother and sister when he did that. The man that caught the cape willed it back to Graceland in his last will and testament. And there I was, a few feet away, staring at that very cape that so captivated my mother and sister and me.

Out the door we went to Elvis' office. On a television set there is playing an interview with Elvis after he returned to civilian life after his stint in the US Army. It felt strange standing in the same room I could see on the television, watching Elvis answer the interviewer's questions.

Out the door and past a stone smokehouse we went. The stone smokehouse is directly in line with the back door of the mansion, and we were informed that Elvis and his friends used to set up targets in the smokehouse and fire guns from the back door of the house at the targets. The stone smokehouse would keep any stray bullets from hurting anyone. Past the smokehouse is a field with several horses. The horses are direct descendants of Elvis' horses. Beyond that is a building that houses a handball court. Elvis did not get to use it much (if at all) as it was constructed only shortly before his death. On the wall are another set of gold records that a record company gave to Graceland to commemorate his record sales.

The final stop on the tour is the garden where Elvis is buried, next to his mother and father. Up to this point I was a bit bemused by it all. The decor of the house is, well, '70s kitsch. Then you see the gravestone. ELVIS AARON PRESLEY it reads. The woman next to me stood there with her hand over her mouth, tears streaming down her face. To my surprise, I felt a bit choked up by it myself.

Now at the head of the driveway before boarding the bus back across the street, we are surrounded by huge floral wreaths. I was there in August of 1997, the twentieth anniversary of Elvis' death. It is Graceland's policy to accept all floral arrangements and display them until they fade (if real flowers) or until they are unsightly (if artificial flowers). We walked back to the bus along the driveway, a corridor of floral wreaths on both sides of the driveway. Year round, Graceland still receives something like twenty of these a week.

We boarded the shuttle bus again, and we were taken back to the sprawling installation on the other side of the street. A visit to the gift shop, and a call to my mom and step-dad followed. Had to call from Graceland!

A cab ride to the airport and a wait of about two hours. There was still that connecting flight to Dothan to take.

I still have my ticket stub to Graceland, held by a magnet, attached to the side of a filing cabinet near my computer.

When I returned to work I submitted my cab fare and the cost of my ticket to Graceland for reimbursement. Even though I explained to our accountant what these "expenses" were, she still authorized a reimbursement.

How sweet it is.

Below is a scan of my ticket stub:

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