southern legitimacy statement: I was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, but never learned to be a cute or sweet purdy girl, so I moved to England where surliness is appreciated.
It was 1963, an era when each and every summer all self-respecting American families were obliged to climb into the battleship Caddy, mom and dad in the front, kids in the back, and to spend two miserable, interminable weeks together on vacation. My dad always drove. My mom sat with some map or another on her lap. Why she did this was a mystery. She couldn’t read maps. My brother and I sat in the back, drawing an imaginary lines across the mid-point of the seat and daring one another to cross over. Squabbling usually ensued.
“Hush,” mama would say, “or daddy’ll take a belt to you.”
We did Texas one summer, Washington D.C. another year. At every stop, I shopped for state charms for my charm bracelet and mama bought cooks books that usually called for Campbells soup to be poured over canned vegetables. That summer we were touring our native South. My brother and I yawned our way through a tour of the Alabama State Legislature and some equally boring caverns. Our next stop was Tennessee. Mama was singing “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and my brother and I, temporarily united by embarrassment at our parents’ behavior, declared peace and rolled our eyes at one another.
At the time, Elvis Presley was somewhere in between playing state fairs and being an international mega-star. I was already hopelessly in love with him. So, we just had to go to Memphis and I had to, had to, had to see Elvis’s Memphis home, Graceland.
It is hard to believe, but dad drove the Cadillac through the open gates of Graceland and we got out and walked around. I took pictures of Elvis’s burgeoning car collection. The place appeared to be deserted. We walked around to the back of the house. And there was Elvis’s daddy, Vernon. He was cleaning the biggest swimming pool I had ever seen.
He waved and shouted “hi.” And came over and shook my father’s hand. He was only around forty years old, but he seemed ancient to me. He had enormous ears and brown hair that was poofed up and swept back in Jerry Lee Lewis style. He was not a handsome man, but you could see something of Elvis’s face in his.
No, Elvis wasn’t around. But Vernon was happy to give us the cook’s tour of the grounds. And later I got a picture of me and him standing by the pool and another one of me standing on the steps of Graceland.
He took my name and address and for years I got Graceland Christmas cards. The first year, Vernon signed it himself and penned a note.
“Come over anytime and help me clean the pool. Ha, ha.”
Tour completed, we said our good byes to Vernon and piled back into the hot car.
“A fine man,” my father opined. My mother agreed and picked up a map.
Indeed. But he wasn’t Elvis.