It's funny how you remember specific moments in your life. I remember my first kiss --- in third grade on the playground during recess. The James twins ---although I'm not quite sure which one pecked me on the cheek. I remember the day my training wheels came off my first Huffy bike --- and the ensuing crash that knocked the wind out of me.
Then, there are the big-moment events --- like when Space Shuttle Challenger exploded and President Reagan got shot. And I remember the day Elvis died.
Honestly, I'm not sure why I remember that day in August, 1977. I was just a little fellow, about ten years old. If my memory serves me, I recall it being especially warm, which is a gentle southern way of saying it was hotter than Tennessee William's cat on that tin roof.
The only way for a boy to escape the unpleasantries of a northern Mississippi summer was to find a nearby drug store. For me, it was the Rexall Drug Store in Southaven, Mississippi. It's orange and navy blue neon sign beckoning me like an oasis in the middle of the Sahara.
With my bicycle resting on the sidewalk, I went inside that day, greeted with a blast of God's greatest gift to the South --- central air conditioning. After a plunking down some change for a cold bottle of Coca Cola, I settled in at the Comic Book section and wasted away the day reading about the exploits of Spiderman, Superman and whatever else was readily available.
Later, I came home, jumping off my bike in the front yard and was just about to go inside when one of our neighbors from across the cul de sac came running out of her house. She was a large woman who had a fondness for polyester (sadly the fabric did not return the favor.) She was weeping and screaming and carrying on in a way that I'd never seen before. "He's gone," she hollered. "He's gone."
My momma came outside on the front porch and I asked her what was wrong. "Elvis died, honey and we're all real sad." Momma had tears in her eyes, too, but she wasn't given to hysterics. She told me to go in the house and wash up for supper.
Then, I watched through the screen door as my momma wiped her hand on her apron and walked across our yard, her arms outstretched. She and my neighbor enbraced each other by the mailbox. And they cried some more.
Even as a little boy, I knew there was something about Elvis that made him different --- the way people talked about him, the way he made folks feel good about themselves. He was the epitomy of the American dream --- a poor boy from Mississippi who taught the world to love a new kind of music. He inspired a generation to go beyond dreaming their dreams --- he empowered them to live their dreams--- and my father was one of those dreamers.
My dad was a rough and tumble character --- the James Dean of Whitehaven High School. He wore a blue jean jacket, a white t-shirt and played the guitar like it was nobody's business. And that's how my dad got to meet Elvis Presley.
Daddy grew up in the Memphis of the 1950s and 60s. He and my Uncle Jerry spent their days fishing and frog-gigging behind Graceland. Back then, the mansion was surrounding by ponds and farmland. It wasn't a big deal to find the King of Rock and Roll squeezing off a few rounds during target practice.
It was around my dad's senior year at Whitehaven High School that he and my uncle started running around with the Smith boys -- Elvis' cousins -- and in short order, they formed a band. The cousins lived at Graceland and used to practice behind the house and every now and then Elvis would come out and listen to the boys playing their music.
One day, he showed up while my dad was playing, "That's Alright Momma," an Elvis standard. Afterwards, Elvis told my daddy, "That's pretty good."
My grandparents, though, weren't all that impressed with Elvis or his gyrating hips. One morning, my grandmother was reading the Memphis newspaper when she saw a photograph of Elvis standing at the front gates of Graceland. On the other side, were a gaggle of uncontrollable female fans. But it was the boy standing next to Elvis that caught my grandmother's attention. "Jimmy," she said, "What are you doing standing next to Elvis Presley?"
She was neither impressed nor enthused. Imagine, a good Methodist boy like my dad, hanging around the likes of Elvis! My grandmother said she didn't even bother to save the newspaper.
Elvis went on to become a mega-star; my dad did not. But he never gave up his dream. Music was the rhythm of his heart, the passion of his life until he died last year. Looking back, though, I wonder if his encounter with Elvis, however fleeting and brief, may have inspired him to live his dream.
The champaigne and cavier crowd may frown on Elvis and his legion of fans, but it would be unfair to write off his career and his legacy as the caricature of an overweight, pill-popping rock star. Elvis Presley san songs that mattered and he lived the songs that he sang. People saw that and they felt it and they responded. That's why the spirit of Elvis will live on in future generations.
And somewhere tonight, I would like to imagine that my dad is hanging around the pearly gates, his guitar resting on his knee, playing,"That's Alright Momma." And Elvis is there saying, "Jimmy, that's pretty good."