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Me ’n’ Elvis ’n’ Nato

May 2024
4min read

In the spring of 1956 a kid out of Memphis with a greasy pompadour and a semipermanent sneer, who belted a raucous and rowdy brand of what was then known as rockabilly—a combination of Nashville country and gut-bucket Mississippi Delta blues—was drawing swarms of local belles to his appearances at the “Louisiana Hayride” in Shreveport. That, in turn, drew numerous lonely young airmen from nearby Barksdale Air Force Base, like sharks to schooling tuna.

Late one Saturday evening, after fruitless cruising at the Hayride, several other sharks and I stopped for a final cup of coffee at the Kickapoo Inn in Bossier City, just across the Red River from Shreveport. It was the last allnight café on the way out of the area, a final stop for truckers and travelers heading out.

As we sat bemoaning our lack of female companionship, a mob of honking cars roared into the parking lot, accompanied by the shrieks of what seemed to be several thousand teenage girls. The door burst open, and four hulking escorts entered, forming a wall around a somewhat flamboyant late-middle-aged man dressed like Burl Ives and a sallow, handsome kid in his late teens or early twenties.

Elvis Presley seemed polite, deferential to his elders, and gracious in signing autographs for the few fans who managed to evade the front-door security. As we finished our coffee, I looked toward his table, nodded, and raised my cup in a toast. He nodded in return and lifted his cup. My friends and I departed the Kickapoo and for several months regaled the local girls with imaginative tales of how we’d had coffee with Elvis himself ! Whether or not it was a successful ploy, we did seem to have better luck arranging dates.

Almost four years later, happily married and the father of two, I was assigned to a small Air Force weather detachment at Heidelberg Army Air Field in West Germany. Our job was to provide support to the Army and, when necessary, to deploy to the field and furnish weather data from primitive airstrips. In January 1960 the largest post-World War II military exercise yet held in Western Europe was scheduled under the title Winter Shield I. A quarter of a million troops from every nation in NATO were deployed across the sprawling Grafenw’f6hr armored training center near the East German border. For weeks in deep snow with low, threatening overcast and generally miserable conditions, we froze and worked around the clock, subsisting on C rations.

Finally, in some small act of compassion, the generals decided on a stand-down midway through the exercise. All the troops were staged into the main post at “Graf” for a hot shower, a change of clothes, and some hot food at the cavernous old Wehrmacht Kaserne (mess hall). My first order of business was a steaming shower, followed by clean underwear and a layer of fresh clothes. Feeling like a millionaire, I strolled over to the mess hall with visions of steak and potatoes.

The line of hungry GIs snaked from the parade ground through the wide doors. The men were coming out as fast as they got in, and the expression on their faces was not one of satisfaction. When I reached the door and peered inside, I realized why. A long line of cooks were fishing the familiar cans out of boiling vats and clanging them onto metal trays. C rations!

I overheard the guy ahead of me talking to his buddy. ”—this—,” he said. “I’m goin’ over to the PX snack bar.”

Suddenly the thought of a great big juicy cheeseburger, heaped with onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and mayo and chased by a thick strawberry milk shake, was what I was really fighting the make-believe war for. I put down my tray and hurried over to the PX.

A double line of Brits in baggy field coveralls, French, Dutch, Danes, Turks, Greeks, Italians, Belgians, and West German Bundeswehr in Feldgrau all had had the same idea.

I was in a quandary. My truck back to the airstrip was due to leave in another two hours. It was obvious that unless some miracle occurred, I would get no cheeseburger and milk shake to carry me through another week of C rations. And then, bless him in whatever rock-star Valhalla he may now inhabit, Elvis again came into my life.

The low mutter of voices in the line suddenly changed to calls of “It’s Elvis!” A dirty jeep with two filthy GIs coasted slowly up the street in front of the snack bar. The long line melted away. Suddenly there wasn’t a soul between me and the PX door.

When his Selective Service number had come up, Elvis, like millions of young Americans before and after, had dutifully reported. Now he was serving as a rifleman with a scout platoon in an armored division in West Germany.

I strolled into the now empty PX snack bar as though I were the only man left in “Graf.” Behind the counter two middle-aged Fräuleins were bouncing up and down like frantic terriers: “Alvis! … Alvis!” But they subsided long enough to fill my order for “two cheeseburgers, with everything, and a large strawberry milk shake, bitte .” There was no delay. The unclaimed burgers and shakes ordered earlier by the horde were there for the taking. Only an older noncommissioned officer, unimpressed by “the King,” nursed a beer at the corner table and muttered about how the Army had gone to hell since Korea.

The mob began to filter back in as I finished the last of my burgers, and I strolled out onto the snow-covered front steps with the remainder of my milk shake. At about the same time, Elvis’s jeep began to inch through the crowd of autograph seekers.

As he passed by me, only a few feet away, our eyes met, and I raised the milk shake in a salute. I looked into his sleepy-lidded, tired face, grimy with dirt and stubble, and felt a kinship, born of weariness, bad food, little sleep, and bone-aching cold. We nodded, and he drove out of my life.

In 1977, as we were preparing to send our youngest off to her first year of college, the radio interrupted its normal broadcast to announce the sudden death of Elvis Presley at his home in Memphis. As a Depression baby 1 was a little too old to be a fan of rock ’n’ roll, but 1 always had a soft spot for Elvis. I’ve often wished I’d had the opportunity to personally thank the King both for improving a young airman’s romantic life and for giving him the opportunity to grab a couple of cheeseburgers and a strawberry shake one cold day when they really mattered.

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