The day we said good-bye to Elvis

As I write this, I’m just hearing it announced on television that today, if he were still alive, Elvis would have been celebrating his birthday.

That just sounds wild to me. The thought of Elvis being 85-plus is so strange, because he’s just really been immortalized in our memory, hasn’t he?

I remember that pivotal day, the day he died.

I remember it as if it were yesterday — although it was nearly 42 years ago. It was a really hot summer day, and we’d been out in the garden all afternoon.

We went inside the house, which didn’t have any air conditioning. There were fans running everywhere and Mom said we could take a break — which consisted of folding diapers on the couch while watching television.

So I was sitting on the couch, doing just that, watching something very generic (since we only got one channel, out in the middle of nowhere).

That’s when I saw the words run across the bottom of the screen.

You have to remember that ticker-tape messages were pretty rare back then. Today, they’re everywhere and almost make it impossible to watch news channels because we’re so busy reading. But 42 years ago, that technology was only used to publicize dire situations, big news that affected the world. And storm warnings.

I read the words, but I couldn’t believe what it said. I read it again, and again, before I yelled to Mom who was in the kitchen.

“Mom! Mom! On the TV . . . they are saying that Elvis is dead,” I yelled.

“What?” she said, drying her hands on a towel and looking at the screen. “Oh no. It can’t be.”

After a few minutes, she handed me my shoes and said, very seriously, “Melanie, you have to walk out to the hayfield and tell your dad. I can’t leave, with the baby sleeping and I’ve got all that tomato sauce on the stove. You have to run out and tell him, he doesn’t have a radio.”

With dread, I put on my shoes and headed to the end of the field, which was about a 1/4 mile away. I could see him out there, with the loader, putting hay in the big round cage. Grandpa was raking the alfalfa into windrows, and waved at me, signaling he wanted that water jug I was carrying.

I felt like I was carrying the weight of the world, because I had to tell my dad that his hero was dead. To many people, that would seem strange. But to understand how my father felt about Elvis . . . it was going to be devastating.

My dad was a musician on the side — he had a band that played gigs at a place called Harold’s Club on Friday nights. They did parties and events, and we did a lot of singing at home. That’s when my dad came alive — he wasn’t a dead-tired dairy farmer when that guitar was in his hands and the microphone was turned on. He was a gyrating, crooning dude who had so much natural talent.

I don’t think my dad ever really aspired to “make it big in the biz.” He was content with where he was — and didn’t have any illogical dreams about stardom. But he admired that Elvis came from a background of little means, short finances, a controlling mother and big dreams — Dad was just like him in those respects. And Elvis had magic when he picked up the guitar and started writing or singing music — just like my dad. I guess they had something in common, and that’s why my dad admired him so much.

From the first moment I can remember, our house was filled with Elvis. My dad would sing his songs, my mother would play his records while we were cleaning the house. And when it came time for the winter holidays, there was very little “Jingle Bells” — it was all “Blue Christmas.”

I handed the water jug off to Grandpa, who drove up to me.

“What ya’ doin’ out here?” he asked, wiping sweat from his brow.

“I have to tell Dad something,” I said.

“Huh, want a ride over there?” he asked.

I declined — that would just get me there faster. I wanted to think about how I was going to tell my father.

As I walked across the newly-cut stubble, the sun stinging my eyes, I felt so sad. My father was going to be so sad, and that’s the last thing I wanted.

Over the noise of the loader, he looked at me and loudly asked me what I wanted.

“I have a message from Mom!” I yelled.

He put the front end down to the ground and jumped off the seat. His tall, lanky body was moving toward me and I was going to have to spit it out.

“What?” he said, taking the water jug from my hands and getting a swallow.

“Dad, it was on television that . . . well . . . Elvis, they found him dead in his house,” I said.

“What?” he said, eyes wide. “What did you say?”

I told him again.

“Oh, okay,” he said, wiping the water from his chin. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, and Mom wanted you to know,” I said.

“Get Grandpa to give you a ride back up to the house,” he said as he walked back to the loader and kept putting up hay.

He had nothing to say. But I saw him rub his eyes — it could have been sweat, but I suspected a tear.

My mom kept watching television that evening, as she canned tomato juice, getting all the details about how this rock icon was no longer alive. Her friends kept calling, to see if she’d heard the news. This was their guy — they grew up screaming, dancing and falling in love, with Elvis there all the while.

That night, my dad pulled into the yard after milking. He arrived home a little later than usual — it had already been dark for a while. All the kids were in bed, and Mom told me she was going to go out and talk to Daddy. If anybody woke up, I was supposed to just rub their backs and they’d go back to sleep.

I watched her go out to the old blue pickup, parked by the house. My dad was still in the driver’s seat, truck turned off, with the radio on. Elvis music was pouring out the window. She slid into the passenger seat and scooted to the middle, to be closer to him. And they just sat there.

I watched them for a while — just sitting in that junky pickup, listening to that music, occasionally talking, mostly being silent. He probably had his hand on her knee — he always did that.

The man who was originally so much like my dad was gone — and tragically, dying in a way that almost negated what made him admirable. Elvis went for the big time, got it, and then lost it. I think that made my dad even more sad.

I went to bed that night, having a heavy nine-year-old heart over a man I never knew. And a heavy heart over the one I loved so dearly, who was sitting in that pickup listening to “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” in the dark with my mother.

I guess they were just saying good-bye to Elvis . . . and thinking about how much that music had meant to both of them.

That was a long time ago. Yet it seems like it was yesterday.




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