“He was the firstest with the mostest.”
– Roy Orbison, about Elvis Presley
My first Death Week as a Tupelo resident, I filled my column space with a truthful tale, told with a tad of tongue-in-cheek, but certainly not taking lightly anyone’s grief 32 years ago.
Imagine my surprise – after it published – at a threatening and, of course, anonymous voice message from a reader saying “you and your kind aren’t welcome in the town Elvis was born in.”
After I’d been here two years, I wrote yet another Elvis column, this time crediting the king of rock ‘n’ roll with my landing my Journal job.
I referred to a piece of folk art I have on my desk – an oval box with Holy Child of Tupelo painted on the outside. Inside, a baby Elvis.
Again, I had nasty calls from folks accusing me of believing Elvis was some sort of deity and maybe I ought to go back where I came from.
Seems I was either not reverent enough – or far too reverent – regarding Tupelo’s native son.
Well, someone asked me the other day to please tell again my “where were you when Elvis died?” story.
I’ve been a Tupeloan nearly a decade now and have no plans to move, so, please, don’t be cruel.
August 16, 1977
The day was hot. A typical sticky, Mississippi summer afternoon.
My afternoon classes over, I plodded across campus, heading for the cool, quiet of my dorm.
As I climbed the stairs to the second floor, I heard it. Something was terribly wrong.
When I topped the stairs, I noticed a group of girls huddled tightly around the pay phone. They were crying.
Suddenly the melancholy moans of the group rose to a deafening pitch, and one of the girls let fly these most memorable words: “The king is dead. The king is dead.”
“Who?” I innocently asked.
One of the girls, my next-door neighbor, answered. “The king. Elvis Presley.”
My next move was a mistake. I knew it before it happened, but it was too late. Besides, it was not premeditated. It was purely impulsive. I had no control.
Certainly not out of any disrespect for the passing of the king of rock and roll. Perhaps I laughed from relief that no girl had lost a parent. Perhaps I laughed because I was confused by the reaction of these seven to the news.
Suddenly seven sobbing girls turned to face me and I had but one thought: Run.
I spun around, shot into my room, slammed the door and locked it.
For the next few hours, I was forced to face the music. Literally. The mourners paid their respects to the king by playing his records at a ridiculously high volume.
Things died down, no pun intended, after about a week. But these former friends and fellow students never quite warmed up to me again. In fact, I lived in fear of meeting any or all of them on campus after dark until I graduated.
I attended my 10-year college reunion. Twelve full years had passed since Presley died, and I had almost forgotten the Elvis incident.
Then I saw them – only five of the original seven. I smiled across the room. My smile was not returned. They remembered.
As the five began to move my way, I became all shook up. I considered my options and, once again, chose flight.
I didn’t want to attend this reunion anyway.
After all those years, those girls still made me feel like a dog.
Nothing but a hound dog.
Contact Leslie Criss at firstname.lastname@example.org or (662) 678-1584.
Leslie Criss/NEMS Daily Journal