Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The King and I

I had a busy day-- another day of on-the-job training, with a triumphant return to a hospital I had clinical training at. Post to follow.

Today, though, I was reminded, on the television and radio, of the fact that it was the anniversary of the death (or disappearance) of Elvis Presley.

On August 16, 1977, I was working a shift at my very first job, as a stock clerk at a Walgreen's, when a woman woman walked in and said that she'd heard that the King was dead. Since the tabloids (readily available near the check-outs at the Walgreen's) had nearly daily stories about the death-- or alien abduction-- of Mr. Presley, at first I dismissed the story. Soon, more customers came into the store with the same story. Alvina, our bookkeeper, turned the radio in her little office in the corner of the store to the news station and we gathered and listened. The King was, indeed, dead.

I have always been and will always be an unabashed Elvis Presley fan. His fusion of gospel, country, blues and of course good old rock and roll is irresistible. His magnetism, his kindness, the stories about him-- he'll always be a favorite. And of course, the infamous road trip some friends and I took to Graceland in the Spring of 1985 will always remain one of the highlights of my life. A couple of years ago, I reconnected with my friend Alan, who was the driver on the road trip. Recently, I mentioned that trip to him, and he commented that it was one of the favorite memories of his life. Mine as well.

There is one other memory of that date, in 1997, exactly twenty years after we lost Elvis. August 16, 1997 was supposed to be the date of my first wedding.

In the Spring of 1997, I was preparing to do my student teaching. I'd had to apply for it two years earlier. I was dating someone seriously, and embroiled in an ugly custody fight for my son, who was then four. I had asked the woman I was dating to marry me. I was crazy about her. My friends, I later discovered, were not so much. Maybe they saw things I didn't. She and I had planned to marry on August 16, 1997, specifically because it was the 20th anniversary of Elvis' death. With the custody fight and my preparations for student-teaching, we decided to move the wedding date up to April 19th. Had we known that it was the anniversary of the Branch Davidian fire and the Oklahoma City bombing, we might have reconsidered. It turned out that April 19 was a day of disasters.

As my custody fight got more heated and ugly, my wife decided that she didn't want to be a stepmom any more, and that she didn't want to be married any more. She asked for a divorce on July 4th, 1997. This led, of course, to one of my most infamous stories, and a life-long standing joke, "It's all fun and games until someone gets an eye put out... and then it's REALLY funny..."

But the irony was that it was on August 16, 1997, the day we had originally chosen for our wedding day, that I moved out.

I was to begin student-teaching, the last step to becoming a teacher, in a few short weeks. I had little time and even less money. And that's when people stepped up to the plate.

First was my lifelong friend Viktor Zeitgeist, my partner-in-crime in the July 4th story. He Fed-Ex'd me a check to cover the deposit for an apartment so that my son and I were not homeless. And then there was Mike.

Mike was my friend Tas' boyfriend. I had met Tas when I was working at a racetrack one summer. She was half British and half Pakistani, but had grown up in a suburb of Chicago. She's full of the proverbial "piss and vinegar," and is one of my favorite people in the world. Her boyfriend at the time (she's now married to a Chicago cop) was Mike, a Korean immigrant who defied easy categorization. He was a tech geek, stoner and the best rock guitarist this side of Hendrix. And he was the sole volunteer to help me move that day.

The only place I was able to rent a truck that day, at the last minute, only had trucks with manual transmissions. This was no problem. I learned to drive with a stick shift.

Mike and I loaded up the truck at the apartment I'd shared with my wife. As we finished, I noticed storm clouds brewing in the distance. As we raced to my new place, I looked in the side mirrors of the truck and they seemed to be following me. I parked the truck, and Mike and I furiously unloaded my stuff into the bottom of the covered back porch of the building. Just as we got the last boxes in, an epic deluge poured forth. I hugged and thanked Mike, who had to run off to a band practice.

Looking back to that day-- and the incredibly difficult days that were to follow-- I see that the storm clouds were foreshadowing. But that day, between Viktor and Mike, I had enough to get me through the travails of that day. Today, as I was driving home from my day of work, "Suspicious Minds," a song we played repeatedly on that infamous road trip, and a song that's been a favorite since I was a kid, came on. For a moment I thought about the long trip of this life. I remember back in 2003 when I turned 42, the age Mr. Presley had died. I'd always thought I'd die young. I passed his age, then made it to 50 this year. I feel like everything from here out is bonus. I feel like I've lived long enough to discover what I most love and am really good at, being a parent. I've lived long enough to find a career I really like and will allow me to provide for my family well.

In the course of the move, I've had a chance to re-organize my stuff. I've found things that got buried with old bills and other miscellania. One of the things I came across was the paper copy of a thing I started maybe 8 or 9 years ago. I've alluded to it before in this blog. It was inspired by a story I'd read in the New York Times about a woman who had been killed in the World Trade Center in 2001. Her parents, who were farmers, brought the stuff from her apartment home, they'd looked at the contents of her laptop and discovered a "bucket" list. I was fascinated-- and inspired-- by this. I've been looking over the list and starting to take some concrete steps to fulfill the wishes on it.

So remembering Mr. Presley this day, I think about the enjoyment his music has given me over the years, and will for life. I consider the fact that my genetics and dietary and exercise choices I've made over my lifetime have given me more years than he got, despite the fact that there were some hard miles in my case. I don't even dream that I'll ever sing "Kentucky Rain" remotely as wonderfully as he covered the Eddie Rabbit/Dick Heard composition. But I'll sing it nearly every time I pick up a guitar. I'll always dance a little when I hear "Burnin' Love" or "That's All Right Mama." He packed a lot into those short 42 years. His art and life give me joy and inspiration every day. He reminds me with both his life and death that you've got to dream like you'll live forever and live like you might die tomorrow. Thanks, Elvis.


Majid Ali said...

Please for Christ sake help this poor boy from Haiti.

SkylersDad said...

I am having a peanut butter and banana sandwich in your honor.

Churlita said...

I was living in Alsip, Illinois. In junior and dusting my aunt's living room when I head Elvis had died. Weird that I still remember that so vividly.

Erik Donald France said...

Wow . . . epic. Here's to the King, and crazy love and keeping onward.

I was married on the day of Chernobyl, and that social bind also went into meltdown, with a dash of radioactive spew. Good idea to keep an eye on those details, certainly.