Of the Holy Spirit, and Elvis
© Copyright 2021 by Carl Winderl
Everyone has an “Elvis & me” story, or so it seems. Especially in these glory days of the woeful by-gone past.
And, I have one, too.
Only mine, in the parlance of about every other movie these days, is based on true events.
My story’s from the by-gone year of 1971, mid-March, in Nashville – yes, Music City. Where else to have an Elvis Encounter.
I was 21 then, hardly any age to write home about. But Elvis – those were his Glory Days – long before Springsteen could sing about his.
In school there, I was a junior at Trevecca Nazarene College, on a basketball scholarship. That was my only claim to fame, if there was anything claim-worthy about being 1 of about 110 students.
But, again, Elvis – he was at the top of his game then – and everybody else’s – slayin’ ‘em in Vegas and even in Richard Nixon’s pre-Watergate Whitehouse.
Oh yeah, “those were the days my friend,” as Mary Hopkin crooned. Truly, ‘never did we think they’d ever end.’
And I know Elvis didn’t, but they did – not quite yet. But sooner for him than he could have ever imagined – or feared.
Still, his path and mine did cross on a Saturday night, in the lobby and then in the penthouse top floor of the olde downtown Continental Hotel, where everybody who was anybody in the Music Industry stayed in those days. Roger Miller, Marty Robbins, Bobby Goldsborough, Ray Stevens, Mac Davis, Jerry Reed, and other lesser luminaries in the Music City Constellation.
If you had a Top 40 Hit in those days, you stayed at the Continental. It was the Brown Derby of hotels in the Nashville Music Scene.
Only Elvis though, well, he was Somebody.
I was only even there in the lobby that night because my college roommate, Dave, wanted that evening to drop off a copy of his group’s latest LP record to Rev. Paul Martin, the evangelist at the weeklong revival at Nashville 1st Church of the Nazarene.
Rev. Martin was a long-time friend to Dave’s family. His father, Rev. Bill Blue, pastored Fort Lauderdale 1st Church of the Nazarene, the church Dave and I more or less grew up in, while Dave’s dad and Rev. Martin were fast friends from seminary days.
So Rev. Martin had known Dave since he was a little shaver.
The album itself, I think Dave would today agree, wasn’t any kind of a big deal. His ‘group,’ a college quartet, represented Trevecca on weekends in Sunday church services and at Saturday night youth rallies.
They sang gospel-style songs, with a little bit of country occasionally thrown in, and they did manage to sneak in a folk-rock track: Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
The group liked to think it was their ‘signature song’ and helped them win over some of the teens in the congregations. Their slowed down, toned-down cover wasn’t any great shakes, I thought, but it helped them not look or feel “too” out-of-it with church youth hungry for any worldliness they could find in a church service.
So, into this back-story strode the King, Elvis himself.
Not yet though.
First, we had to drop off the record, signed on the cover, of course, by Dave and his quartet-mates, at the front desk, because Rev. Martin was not in his room. He’d stepped out after the revival meeting to hob-nob with the senior pastor, Rev. J.V. Morsch, and several select members of the church board at an uptown Nashville eatery.
Secondly, that task completed, we, Dave and I, with our church dates, Dana and Karen, stood in the lobby of the Continental deciding on our next move. Where would be our eatery.
Dana and I favored Ireland’s, for their famous Stake & Biskits and Fudge Pie, warmed over, with a dollop of vanilla ice cream. But Dave and Karen preferred Shoney’s for their famous Strawberry Pie buried under whipped cream, to hide its secret ingredient: strawberry jello.
While we stood there bantering the merits and demerits of each dessert who should stride into the lobby . . . but Elvis himself.
He was resplendent, as royalty must be. Clad all in black – with a cape, an ivory-topped cane, and a gleaming gold Heavyweight-Champion-of-the-World Belt, glistening to announce his coming.
But he was not alone.
In his wake trailed an entourage of manger, record execs, bodyguards, roadies, miscellaneous hangers-on, groupies, and assorted sycophants, parasites, and sybarites; they engulfed the lobby. And us. As they swept on by.
Then Elvis diverted the flood to the news-stand where he studied and perused the sundries.
Dave, my minister-in-training roommate, whispered he felt led to witness to Elvis.
Oh how the 3 of us so doubted him. Even Dana his girlfriend, someday to be his wife, smirked – maybe even snorted, “Oh Da-vid – who witnesses to Elvis?!’
Not to be undone, he ignored her, and us. But at his invoking, we circled up to pray, close enough to hold hands, bowed our heads, closed our eyes, while he led us in a prayer . . .
Just we four there, two-by-two, and . . .
The Unseen Guest.
As if come down on some wings of a dove, from up above Asbury, apparently . . .
In a mere matter of moments, as we raised our heads from praying, the King approached us, straight on.
I touched Karen on the arm so we could step out of his way, but he walked up directly to us, stopped where our circle had been, drawling, “Heard ya’ll talkin’ ‘bout mah belt.”
It was pure Elvis-talk.
We looked at each other, trying to mask our surprise, because we hadn’t said word-one about his belt, not at all, but we didn’t let on.
So, undaunted he explained its glittering, diamond-studded, ruby-glorifying significance for him having broken the all-time solo performance box-office records in Las Vegas.
We listened in polite awe. I didn’t think it was that all interesting, but I could see the wheels turning in Dave’s head and knew he’d have a follow-up engaging question.
And he did.
“That’s really fascinating, Mr. Presley – but I have, . . . I just have a – "
“No, son. Not Mr. Presley – that’s mah daddy. I’m Elvis . . . just Elvis – call me Elvis. That’s what just about ever’body calls me. Elvis. Elvis, is fine.”
“Uhm, okay . . . Elvis – that’s good. Well – I was just wondering, Elvis . . . ”
“Yeah, son – go on.”
“Well, you see, I’m kind of a singer, too – no – not at all like you. No-body is.” Now Dave was undaunted. “But I do sing – I’m in a college quartet at my college – we sing mostly hymns . . . and gospel music – "
“Like, I did – son, . . . yeah, and some-times do. What’s your – ”
“I’m ‘Dave,’ sir. I mean – just . . . Dave, Elvis. . . . I grew up singing in church. My dad’s a pastor – so’s, Dana’s – yeah, her dad’s one too,” giving her a little sideways hug and a gentle squeeze.
And when Elvis smiled a knowing Elvis-smile at her, she blushed and hung a little off to the side, mostly because I think Dave was trying to be protective, and hold onto her.
“Well, yes – Elvis. So, I knew you grew up singing in church, and everything. And I – I was wondering if you’d have any advice at all for me – for me being a singer, too.”
Uh-oh, I remember thinking, this’ll be Elvis’ cue for an exit line.
I’d noticed how his entourage had pressed around us, closer and closer, wondering what was going on. What was the big deal about us, to Elvis.
I even half expected some woman in the crowd to reach out and touch the hem of his cape.
Elvis continued deep in thought, and then he said, “All righty . . . Let’s go,” and those clustered all around us, part of the crush, joined him as he strode away from us, left behind in all their wake.
But after not too many steps, Elvis stopped, flipped his cape back over his right shoulder, shifted his cane to his left hand, looked back at us over that shoulder.
We had yet to move at all.
He looked a little puzzled, then gestured ‘come on,’ and said to us, “Let’s go. Come on – walk with me,” gesturing again with his free hand.
I’m not sure who was more surprised – his hangers-on, or us – but we stepped into the space now behind him and followed closer up to him toward the bank of elevators.
At the one on the far right he stopped, and who we’d later learn to be his manager, fumbled for a key to insert at the call button.
When the doors swished open Elvis stepped in, his manager followed, and 1st-come/1st-serve others rushed in to fill up the car. He turned around to see us still outside in the middle of the unfortunates unable to crowd in.
I remember wondering is this what it was like for Jesus and the crowds at His heels while He traipsed all around and about Galilee.
He raised his hand, and with the back of it shooed everyone out, except his manager, with, “out – out – out.”
Then pointing at us, with only one finger gestured, “Only mah friends. Just them, only them. Come on in, – get in.”
We knew better than to ignore the command of a king.
In we rode straight to the top floor – to the penthouse suite.
The doors swished aside to open onto a huge foyer that fanned out to an even huger living space, filled with a few dozen or so partiers. And the party was happening.
When Elvis strode forward – he never seemed to just walk, like us normal mortals – the crowd receded, as if they were an unfortunate part of a red sea.
He looked back over his shoulder at us, and we knew that was our cue to follow him. Trailing behind, as the partiers stepped aside to let him and us pass, we got to see their adoring faces and eagerness for the least bit of recognition or acknowledgment from him to them. He though seemed oblivious to their fawning. He just wanted to get to where he was going.
And so we followed, walking through a semi-private sitting room, a luxurious dining area, an ultra-cool kitchen set-up, down a short hall to a large- than-large suite, where he entered first, then motioned us inside while he held the door for us but held up his other hand to announce, “Just mah friends.”
That was all it took to stop everyone behind us crowding to squeeze in, including his manager, who apparently knew to just step aside, and usher the others back out to the party area.
Elvis closed the door on them and motioned for us to enter farther in.
He shrugged off his cape and tossed the cane onto a couch. “At last – mah sanctuary. We can be alone here.”
I thought it looked, and felt, a lot more like the holy of holies.
We’d find out it was much more like that than I’d first imagined.
Elvis walked over to the foot of his fit for a king-size bed, to sit on the floor, back up against the foot of it, cross-legged, what we used to call Indian-style, so we did the same, and made another circle, a little larger than before, because Elvis sat at the head of it, with Dave on his right, me on his left, and Dana and Karen sat across from him.
I could see Dave mentally pinching himself, while Dana and Karen looked nervous and just the teensiest bit awe-struck. I remember thinking: of course Elvis. What’s the big deal – Dave and I’d bumped into and had conversations with all kinds of folk: Muhammad Ali at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Bobby Goldsboro at Lum’s over by Vandy, even Marti Robbins on a couple of occasions, once was even – after hanging out at night court for a couple-three hours – at an all-night Krystal around two in the morning with him and his manager after a recording session.
So I was not so surprised about hanging with Elvis. Although sitting on the floor of his penthouse suite waiting for snacks and Cokes to arrive from room service was a ‘little’ out of the ordinary.
We chit-chatted briefly, mostly Dave and Elvis about singing in church and the music scene in general, not what Dave and Elvis really wanted to talk about I could tell.
What we all wanted to know, Dave, Dana, Karen, and I, and so did the elephant in the room, was this: “Why us?’
Why did Elvis want to talk to us, come walking over to us, uninvited by us, not really showing any or much interest in him, when everyone else in the lobby, even his own entourage, stood around mouths open, gawking at him.
Inching closer and closer as they could, maybe just to breathe the air he breathed, or exhaled. Like it was some kind of life-giving elixir.
That’s what it might have been a little like it was with Jesus.
Although even before Elvis walked over to us, Dana observed, “I don’t really think he’s all that good lookin.” I thought maybe she was just buttering up Dave.
She would come to see him with different eyes, pretty much like everybody else.
Probably like it was again with Jesus, too.
Finally, Elvis got around to what we all wanted to know.
He looked down at Dave’s 25- or 30-pound Thompson Chain-Link Reference King James Version of the Bible, which he still was carrying around after church, even from the car to the lobby. It was as much a part of him as his outgoing, never-met-a-stranger for the Lord personality.
Elvis reached over and tapped it where it lay on the floor, between him and Dave.
“Yes, I saw you holdin’ your Bible there, in the lobby, like it was a part a you. Not in a showy sort of way. No, – " he paused to scan us all, one at a time, to meet our looks, and catch our eyes. “Here’s what I saw – here’s why I come over to you.
“It had nothin’ to do with mah belt.”
And we all kind of nodded and smiled, as we remembered we’d said nothing about it.
He grinned, and we knew he knew we hadn’t said word one about it.
“The reason I come over was – was this: you, first, were the only ones not staring like you’d never seen someone like me close up before. Oh, I get that alla time. And you weren’t startin’ to come over at me. Like ever’body else always does either. No – it was this.”
Another pause, while he took us in. “You were standin’ there – all four a you – and there was like this ‘electricity in the air’ – around alla you. And there were like these little flames – I swear, I promise – like little tongues of fire dancin’ over your heads.”
Another pause, “And then I thought – good God! Who are these folks?! I had ta know – I just had to talk to you – to see you, an’ talk to you for mahself.
“So, -- " and he shrugged again, and grinned that aw-shucks grin, “so I jus made up that story about hearin’ you talkin’ ‘bout my belt. Ever’body wants to know about it.”
“Well, Elvis, sir –” to correct himself, “Elvis, you see – we knew that, -- cause we’d just prayed, and asked for the Lord to give us an opportunity to talk to you . . . maybe about something we could share about us – and you. And get to know you – and tell you about what God’s done for us. And what He can do for you – and for everybody else, actually –” to correct himself again, to sidestep, to not be presumptuous, with Elvis, “cause that’s really what we’re just about. Like I sing, sometimes with my group, ‘what He’s done for others He can do for you, . . .” although he didn’t much sing-song it, which I know he was trying hard not to do.
So that Elvis wouldn’t think it was an audition or something.
As if taking his cue, Elvis jumped up, went over to the writing desk, picked up something, and brought it over with him to sit down again, among us.
He held out his Bible, to Dave, and all of us. “This here’s mah family Bible, given to me by my granny – my momma’s mama – I take it with me ev’er-where I go. See,” holding it out and opening it for all of us to look for ourselves at his truth.
He ruffled through the pages, and we could see underlinings, circles, squares, and scribbles in the margins, all around the edges of the pages, covering up the whiteness there.
Dave held up his Bible and showed him the same.
He and Elvis looked at each other, and both grinned.
“See, --” Elvis said, “I mark up mine all over the place – just like you. I study it ever day. Not always a lot, but I do a little, -- ever’ day that I can.”
So, I knew then Elvis knew what we knew, which was a very scary scary thought: just what those little tongues of fire were all about. Even today, typing, this I get a little chill-bumpy and humbled by what the Holy Spirit was up to.
And were we, then, ready and up to it?
Apparently we were. And Elvis wanted then to know why. And who we were and what we were all about.
I think that was the little baby elephant in the room.
But first, more about him. From him.
As it turned out, Elvis was so unreally real. Uncommonly genuine, I thought. And how I still remember him now. He talked about how he’d felt bamboozled into signing movie contracts and long-term recording contracts, that he felt obligated to have to fulfill them by a deadline, on someone else’s schedule, or take some sort of ridiculous cut in royalties for not delivering ‘on time.’ Someone else’s, not his. Never his.
He’d hated making movies, felt like he was sleepwalking most of the time, and couldn’t wait to make his last one, according to his contract, and vowed never to make another one. And he hadn’t and wouldn’t. And he never did.
That’s why he preferred his gigs in Las Vegas: because it was all set up according to his terms. And he just got to sing, only sing, because of it. That’s what he first loved to do.
“But what I really hate -- I hate people jus’ lookin’ at me, -- just starin’! – wantin’ ta come over to me – like they want a piece a me. Jus’ so they can say . . . ‘oh my – Elvis: I saw him! I did I really did – I was like this close to him’ – ” so he held up his hands, about a foot apart.
He shook his head. “They mus’ think – ‘he walks! he talks!’ But you all – not you. You were, -- you are . . . diff’rent. And I wanted to know why. . . To know ‘how’ . . . and now I do.”
At last, the mama and little baby elephants could go over and snuggle in a corner of the suite.
So, from that topic to a bunch of others, off and on, about spiritual matters, and what he hated most about just walking out in public: people looking at him like he was some kind of freak show, and thinking to themselves, as he said, “That Elvis ain’t so special – how could someone like him make movies and sing – he just thinks he’s so drop-dead handsome. I could do that too if I looked like him,” and so on and so on.
He sat there, cross-legged, shaking his head, as if he didn’t even believe it himself.
Oh, we didn’t argue. Who argues with Elvis. We could see he really wanted to be just plain folk. Just “good country people,” as Flannery O’Connor might say. And he was, and I think he thought we were too. Well, I knew I was, mostly. Dave and Dana made beautiful music singing together for the college, while I was just a dumb jock basketball player.
About that time we noticed Elvis, kind of rubbing his eyes with his forefingers, as he appeared to be tearing up.
So he excused himself for a moment and went around the corner, where we could here water running and splashing in a sink, and a minute or so later he came out dabbing at his eyes with a incredibly pure white hand towel. It must’ve been brand new. Maybe just for him, because of him.
Before he re-joined us he stopped at an armoire and picked up a little attaché case filled with sunglasses. He held up a couple of them for us to look at, then he pointed to the bridge-piece between the lens. Shining brightly in gold were three capital letters: E A P. Most of the glasses glittered that monogram.
“Those are mah initials,” he seemed to want to say off-handedly. “Know what the ‘A’ stands for?”
Dave of course piped right up, “Aaron.”
“You bethca – " Elvis seemed genuinely pleased that Dave knew.
I also knew but didn’t then have the need to be the smartest one in the room. Plus, this was Dave’s show and his ‘moments,’ so I didn’t want to get him off his feed.
“Yes, David – you’re right. My momma give me that name because she said she just knew from the day I was born I was going to have the gift of a golden voice. Said she’s never heard a baby cry as sweetly as I did. God bless, my momma.” He wiped again at his eyes, making us sure we knew the reason why he did so.
He put the sunglasses back and brought over another attaché case, also initialed by the handle in gold: E A P. From inside he pulled out a thick gold badge and a nickel-plated revolver with a sculpted ivory hand-grip.
We were all surprised, but what surprised me most was that none of us acted or looked surprised. I know we should have been, but I think now that too was the Holy Spirit guiding us, keeping us close.
The pistol he fingered a little, as if it was a toy. It wasn’t. He didn’t say whether it was loaded. I guessed not, hoped not. I’d heard he was a gun afficionado, maybe from all his movies.
He started spinning it around his fingers and twirling it around forwards and backwards, sideways and upside-down, getting the biggest kick out of his fancy-ness. Then he stopped and gave us his best Elvis grin. “Yeah – pretty good, huh? Pretty cool. I learned that in my last cowboy movie – Charro!”
He looked down at the gun, kind of pensive-like.
“I think that was the best thing I got out of that movie. That I could twirl a gun like I was part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. And – that they let me grow a beard in the movie. That was really cool. I liked ‘that’ a lot!”
Yeah, a bearded Elvis. I could see Dana and Karen were having a little trouble wrapping their minds around that image, as they sat there gazing at his otherwise drop-dead handsome face.
But what he really wanted us to see was the badge, with “Elvis Presley” engraved in black on the shiny front. And around it embossed: “Dept. of Justice: Bureau of Narcotics & Firearms.”
He seemed as proud of that as a straight-A report card. Or maybe a 4.0 GPA.
“President Nixon himself gave me this badge. It means I’m a registered U.S. marshal, a federal agent at-large. Ah am as proud a this as I am any a mah gold records.” He passed it around for all of us to handle, to touch, and feel. To know its weight in our hands. It was impressive.
Some years later I came across in a book about him after his untimely death – was there ever one death more untimely than his. Well, maybe JFK’s. I saw the photographs of him and Nixon in the Oval Office after the ceremony of his swearing in, holding the badge, before Nixon pinned it on him, on his lapel.
And he was dressed, as was his custom then, all in black. And with the diamond-studded, ruby-glorifying Heavyweight-Champion-of-the-World gold belt. I wondered if Nixon asked him about the belt.
This too is what makes this piece so based on true events.
After he put the badge and pistol and the attaché case away, Dana whispered to Dave, but we all could hear her, “Oh, David! I forgot all about in-hours – if we don’t leave now I’ll get late-minutes and might be campused. We’ve gotta go.”
Elvis looked very intrigued over what he over-heard.
“Dana – darlin’ – ” which set in motion a whole another fit of blushes, “ ‘in-hours’? gettin’ ‘campused’? – Ah think you need to educate me, little girl.”
So Dave launched into an explanation and rendition of one of Trevecca’s most hallowed and steadfast rules. In essence, female students had to be in their dormitories by 11 on weekdays, including Sundays, but were given until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. If they accumulated thirty “late minutes,” after the curfew, then they’d be penalized for a month of not leaving campus at all in the evening.
That’s what Dana was chancing.
Elvis sat in bemused silence while David explained in even greater detail the rules, along with some patented Dave Blue editorializing.
I could tell Elvis thought this ‘set up’ a bit quaint, maybe, and surely out of step with the times. I mean we’d just come through the Sixties for crying out loud and still there was a curfew with late minutes and campusing. But that was the Christian College scene in that woeful by-gone era.
The little baby elephant re-settled her head and trunk on her mother’s forelimbs.
I was impressed – Elvis didn’t rail against the system, didn’t run it down, belittle it or anything. He just quietly said, “Isn’t there somethin’ ah can do ta help?” looking first to Dana, then Dave.
Quick on his feet or in his seat as ever, Dave said, “Maybe we could call Mrs. Willwerth – that’s Dana’s dorm mom – maybe she’d give her – give Dana an extension? If I could talk to her – and explain, tell her the reason why. What do you think, Boochie? Should we give it a try.”
First off, that was his endearing pet-name for Dana. The explanation of its derivation is far too long for here. But secondly, Elvis seemed again genuinely intrigued. Even enamored by the whole situation. He was clearly experiencing a slice of an American sub-culture he could never be party to.
Except like on a night like that, with us, in March, in 1971, in his penthouse suite, at the olde Continental Hotel, in Music City.
“Well, David – Dana – what if ah talk ta her? Would that help some, maybe?”
That set me to mentally pinching myself: Elvis talking to Dana’s old-maid spinster fuddy-duddy mother superior rules-enforcer for the upper-class girls’ dormitory. I couldn’t wait to see that scenario plays itself out.
So, Elvis pulled the phone with its extra-long cord over to our circle, called down to the front desk to open his line for an outside call, a local one, and when he heard the dial tone he passed the olde black rotary phone over to Dave who dialed the campus operator and asked her to connect him with Mrs. Willwerth’s extension at the front desk of Georgia Hall, Dana’s dormitory name.
At first the resident assistant on duty answered, and Dave asked to talk to Mrs. Willwerth, knowing she too would be on duty nearby, ready to assign late-minutes to any girl daring to enter the dorm after all the doors had been locked at midnight.
Finally, Mrs. Willwerth picked up and we heard her twangy Alabama accent on the line, “Hello – who is this? Who is this, please? Is that you David Blue trying to butter me up? What are you – "
During her introduction Elvis motioned for Dave to pass the handset to him.
Oh, man, I thought, this is gonna be good.
“David? David, are you there? What’s – "
“No, ma’am – this isn’t David. No, – it’s his friend. Elvis. Elvis Presley.”
Nothing. No sound. No nothing.
We all sat looking at Elvis, waiting. He was smiling. Even raised his left eyebrow a little.
“David Blue – now you stop tomfoolin’ around. This very instant! I know you think you’re clever – and some kind of ‘performer’ – but I’m not your lil ol’ gal you can – "
“No, Mrs. Willwerth. Ah am not David Blue – I told you. I’m Elvis Presley. You can call me ‘Elvis,’ – all mah friends jus call me Elvis. What can I call you, Mrs. Willwerth – what’s your first name?”
“David! Stop it right this minute – I – "
“No, Mrs. Willwerth, ah am tryin’ . . ”
Elvis stopped, and we could all hear Mrs. Willwerth saying, maybe just over her hand, “Oh, it’s that David Blue – making like he’s Elvis Presley – givin’ me some cockamamey story so Dana won’t get late-minutes because they’ve been – "
“No, no, Mrs. Willwerth, -- it really is me, Elvis. You can call me, Elvis. What can I call you, Mrs. Willwerth?”
Dana chimed in with, “Her first name’s Beulah, Elvis. Try calling her ‘Beulah.’”
“Beulah – what a lovely name. Beu-lah – I love ta say it – jus like that. My granny’s baby sister was named Beulah. Now what can I do? How can I convince you that Dana really can’t be given late-minutes because she and David, and Carl and Karen are here with me?” He paused because she’d paused.
Dead air was just hanging there.
Then we could hear in the background, first one or two girls, then a chorus say, “Mrs. Willwerth, if it’s really Elvis – not David – have him ‘sing something’ for us – then we’ll know.”
So Mrs. Willwerth relayed the request we’d all heard.
We sat looking at Elvis, who seemed both amused and pleased, then he smiled that famous smile, shrugged slightly, and sang into the handset as if it had been transformed into a microphone,
“I’ll have a blue Christmas. . . without you, – I’ll have a Blue Blue Blue Blue Blue Christmas . . . without – "
Of course the song continued, and we sat mesmerized, but on the other end of the line we could easily hear all the shouting and screaming, in shock and disbelief: “IT’s really Elvis!!!” “Elvis is on the phone!!” “Elvis is singing to Mrs. Willwerth ‘Blue Christmas’?!?!” “He REALLY is!” “IT”S Elvis for real!!!” And so it went on for about another minute, while Elvis held the handset out to us at arm’s length, grinning but with sort of a grimace mixed in.
I could imagine the scene: a bunch of Nancy Nazarene coeds dancing in place, shaking their hands as if wiggling their fingers all loosey-goosey, jumping up and down, making their heads gyrate from side to side, as if about to lose their minds. A pretty standard picture I thought, of Elvis performing in-person before them right there in the lobby of Georgia Hall.
Finally, he said with another shrug and another slight lift of his left eyebrow, “Ah get this all the time. I’m use to it.” After a pause, still holding the phone out to us, and then with a knowing wink, “But it never gets all that old. Even though ah am kinda use to it.”
Elvis was so cool.
Actually, the King of Cool.
So Dana got her two-hour extension, til two a.m. Karen didn’t have in-hours because she lived in one of the college’s apartment dorms, and she was an upper-class student. Plus, she was a resident assistant.
Dave and I didn’t have to worry about in-hours, because we were guys. We didn’t have ‘em. I guess the administration figured once the girls were in for the night, the guys would be in soon after them. And usually we were.
As the night wore on to the wee hours, we talked and laughed, and Elvis kept getting up every now and then to rinse his eyes and come back, sit down, to talk more and more about his life and to ask more and more about ours.
Two a.m. came faster, or so it seemed than midnight, so Elvis suggested he call and get another two-hour extension, if possible.
Dana assured him, “Oh, Elvis – Mrs. Willwerth’ll do anything for you – ‘specially if you’ll sing to her again.”
And so he dialed her up, knew the drill, talked to the campus operator, the resident assistant still on desk duty, both of whom seemed halting, scared, and overwhelmed talking to the King. But Mrs. Willwerth seemed far less hesitant and appeared even to enjoy chatting him up, which Elvis himself also seemed to enjoy. Seemed like she was his kind of people.
So much so she easily gave Dana another two-hour extension.
But that was to be it, she sounded like she wanted to be firm, but we weren’t so sure, nor so easily convinced.
Anyway, at around 3:30, we were all feeling a little spacey, except for Elvis, who said he often stayed up til dawn, particularly if he’d had two shows or had a recording session.
But with great reluctance he walked us back out to the elevator, weaving our way around sleeping and/or passed out partiers and among some bleary-eyed stumble-bum others, except for a few of his staff and a couple of his bodyguards, trying to stifle their yawns, as Elvis passed by.
There he made us promise to come back, same time same place, in the lobby around 9:30, where he’d have his manager or his assistant meet us and bring us back up.
We agreed, and then he hugged us all around, Dave and me too, although Dana and Karen a little longer. I didn’t think they’d ever get over Elvis’ body pressed up against theirs.
And I figured, and Dave would agree later, that we’d have a hard time for a long long time making one of our hugs with Dana and Karen finally get over Elvis’ hugs, and lingering promise to come back soon.
Well, we all did. Or tried to.
Somehow we got back to campus, got to bed, got up the next morning, to go to church for the Sunday morning revival service. We skipped eating lunch in the college cafeteria because – big surprise – all 1096 Trevecca students seemed to know about us hanging out with Elvis – in his hotel room, no less, so we went instead to the Bar-B-Cutie greasy spoon diner down on Murfreesboro Road and ate in the car, while we tried to wait it out through the afternoon and early evening until time to go back to the Continental Hotel, and to Elvis.
Only thing though – it wasn’t supposed to happen. As right as rain was our Elvis encounter on Saturday night, but our re-meet with him on Sunday night turned out to be more like a drought.
Oh, we tried.
We went back to the Continental, same place same time, around 9:30. And the manager’s assistant met us there.
But Elvis wasn’t, and he wasn’t going to be coming back to the Continental Hotel that night either.
He was in ICU at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
We were stunned.
Apparently all his eye-washing with us the previous night had little or nothing to do with us sharing our spiritual journey, witnessing to him about all that Christ had done in our lives, how we were so transformed by His Grace, and guided by the Holy Spirit.
Well, we later pondered how ‘some’ of what we said might’ve touched him, connected him to us, and maybe somehow would re-connect him to his faith. Maybe a re-kindling of it.
The manager’s assistant said Elvis had awakened early in the morning, for him early, and had difficulty opening his eyes and seeing clearly. So he was rushed to the hospital over at Vandy and immediately sequestered in ICU. Afterall, he was Elvis.
Dave asked if we couldn’t go see him and maybe visit him, but the manager’s assistant, just shrugged, Elvis-like, saying we could try, but he was pretty sure we couldn’t see him – nobody was getting in to see him. Except for his manager.
We thanked him and walked over to a quiet corner of the lobby, and I could see the wheels turning again in Dave’s head.
Once there, he said, “Okay – let’s huddle up again – like last night, and pray. I think we – "
“Oh, David. Please, we need to – "
“No, Dana – really. I think we should seek the Lord’s guidance – "
She knew better than to argue or prolong the agony, so she reached out for his hand and for Karen’s, and Karen and Dave and I all followed suit, bowed our heads and closed our eyes. Dana gave a deep breath out, more like a sigh, and Karen and I squeezed hands, ready to listen.
“Oh, Lord, -- " Dave began, “we want to pray for Elvis right now. Be near to him, be dear to him – "
I could sense Dana smiling and shaking her head. She had a funny way of humoring Dave and letting him take the lead, but supporting more than foot-dragging. She trusted him, would trust him more than enough to marry him and begin a life-long career as song evangelists and later pastor a little olde country church out in Brentwood.
“We know, Jesus – You have a plan for Elvis’ life – and maybe, just maybe that plan includes us – so we pray – we beseech Your Guidance – and the direction of the Holy Spirit. To lead us in the path and in the direction we should go to continue to be, to the best of our ability, -- Elvis’ truest and dearest friends, -- like he said so, last night. And we pray for doctors to treat, according to Your will, Elvis’ affliction – that his eyesight might be restored, like we know You liked to do over and over again throughout Your many healings of the blind when You walked this old earth. Oh, Lord – we ask these things in the precious holy name of Jesus. Amen.”
“Amen,” we all faithfully echoed.
“That was lovely, David, -- " as Dana patted him on the arm, “short and sweet, for you anyway.”
He smiled, because I know she meant it, while Karen tugged at my hand, smiling too at me, as I scanned the room. “What’re you lookin’ at, Carl – ‘looking’ for someone?”
I tried on for size an aw-shucks Elvis grin, to say, “Oh, I was just wonderin’ who might come walkin’ over to us tonight . . . ”
She gave me a playful love tap on my shoulder, but that didn’t stop us from all looking around.
Nobody seemed though to be heading our way, so I figured lightning wasn’t going to strike twice. Maybe because it wouldn’t need to, or have to.
Anyway, as it turned out, Dave and Dana did go over to the Vanderbilt Hospital to see if they could see Elvis.
Karen and I decided not to go with them. Inside I figured ‘no way, José’ would we get past the praetorian Roman guard that’d no doubt have a perimeter around the king, no matter how we’d been favored last night, but I didn’t let on as much, especially to Dave, who I was sure was preparing to storm the barricades, whatever they were.
So, I just excused myself because I had a mid-term the next morning – I really did – in my American Renaissance Lit. class, and a paper due on Wednesday in my Survey of Brit. Lit. class. Even though many saw me as just another dumb-jock on campus, I’d made the Dean’s List the previous two quarters with a 3.5 GPA, and I fully intended to go 3-for-3. In fact, my senior year I carried a 4.0, which went a long way toward getting me accepted into grad school at the University of Chicago.
But I digress.
Karen’s excuse was less academic, more administrative. Since she was the resident assistant for her wing of the upper-class girls’ apartment, she had to be ready to start a dorm meeting at 11:15 sharp. “I have things to do to get ready for what I need to talk to them about. Spring Break’s right around the corner,” giving me a knowing look, and a little lift to her left eyebrow.
Dave exhaled hugely, but I knew our resignations were acceptable, and I could see this was a mission he was ready to go full bore on and eager to get started.
He and Dana made their way across town, and they met with pretty much what I expected.
No one was being admitted into Elvis’ presence. Only medical staff. His manager was given periodic updates, and he could see Elvis himself only once an hour.
Elvis needed complete bed- and eye-rest.
His condition: iritis. A severe inflammation of the iris, requiring immediate treatment and complete, absolutely necessary eye-rest and isolation. His eyes were both bandaged over except for brief removals to have solutions and salves periodically applied. He’d be there for several days before being released to a hospital in Memphis, and then at an appropriate time would be released to Graceland for total and complete eye-rest. And isolation from any visitors.
Dave was crushed. When he returned to our dorm room he was disconsolate.
His Big Chance had evaporated. He felt certain he was going to win Elvis for the Lord.
I tried to commiserate, tried to be attentive as he regaled me with all he’d tried to do.
What I most remember is that Elvis’ manager had indeed remembered us from the night before, and favorably too, was Dave’s surprise. He’d even been rather kind and conciliatory when he informed Dave there was no way Dave would gain any kind of contact with Elvis.
However, he did accept Dave’s offer of leaving his phone number, and even offered, or Dave surmised, that not only would he see to it that Elvis would get Dave’s number, and, in fact, would be surprised if Elvis didn’t follow up by phone, and might even offer an invitation to visit him in Graceland sometime.
Dave was ecstatic.
I tried not to be the rainmaker on that parade, so I responded that maybe Dave ought to have a color in mind should Elvis decide to give him, maybe all of us, a Cadillac for our efforts.
I think Dave thought I was making fun of it all, and maybe I was, but I kind of got the idea that that idea had indeed already crossed his mind, but I knew he’d never admit it. Nor would I, actually.
“But, room,” Dave implored me much later that night, after midnight probably, “don’t you think God had a reason for why we met Elvis – witnessed to him – got to know him so well, in just those several hours we were with him. Don’t you think – "
“Yeah, man. I do. But here’s what I think,” pausing to see if I did have his attention, full and complete, yes. But he was not totally enraptured, so I started up again. “I think – what we did – what we were supposed to do. Was -- just be ready – to be what we were – when we were called upon to – to just be ourselves, in that situation.”
He was listening, and I could tell he was agreeing, not totally, because as I surmised later, he figured there had to be more, so much more maybe, about our encounter with Elvis.
“Isn’t that what you always say? ‘Just be yourself.’ And, ‘let go -- and let God.’ Right? . . . Because too you say, ‘God has a plan for your life.’” He was listening still. “And as I’ve heard you sing a couple million times, or so, ‘I know the Lord will make a way for you.’ All we need to know and do and be is – be ready for the ‘meaning and purpose’ of our lives. Right?”
Yeah, he was listening, but I could tell the wheels were turning and churning, causing him to think, not out loud – “Room, you’re preaching to the choir here.”
So I took a hint and gave it up. For that night anyway.
As it turned out, we never saw Elvis again. And never really heard from him again either, firsthand anyway.
To be sure, three or four times, ‘someone’ from Memphis called for Dave, at the number he gave Elvis, but it was the number of the main switchboard for the campus. And all incoming calls had to be routed through that switchboard to be connected to phones in the dorms.
That was 1971, and Ma Bell had not yet evolved into AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint, or various other telecoms with sophisticated hand-held phones/cameras, etc.
But the caller always identified ‘himself,’ only as a friend of Dave’s from Memphis – but never left a number to return the call.
Oh, Dave did have that number to call, given to him by Elvis’ manager, but when he called he was never ever put right through to the king himself. Just a cheery voice that took the message from Dave that he’d called and that the note would be passed on to Elvis.
To his credit, Dave never really stewed too much about the futility and frustration of not ever getting back to Elvis. And I tried not to tell him too often nor too strongly, “Man, we just did what we were supposed to do when we had the chance. It was cool. And it was memorable.”
Then I only a couple of times delivered the haymaker. “Man, Room – I know you might not want to hear this, but you say it yourself – I’ve heard it and it’s true. ‘We’re called to plant the seed. Not necessarily harvest it.’ You remind us, all of us, ‘God calls us to be sowers – not reapers.’”
Again I’d get the ‘preaching to the choir’ look.
If I’d known at the time what I’d later learn in grad school was what Stanley Kowalski liked to say at moments like that, I’d’ve said it too: “That shut him up like a clam.”
I probably wouldn’t have really said it though, because I didn’t need to, and wouldn’t want to already hurt his squished feelings about Elvis.
Come to find out, later that spring, I’d read in my Brit. Lit. class, for the first time ever, John Milton’s sonnet “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent.” The kicker, or the clincher as was the poetic term I’d also learn, appeared in the sonnet’s couplet, in the last two lines.
But it was the very last line that “closed the deal” for the poet and for generations of readers: “They also serve who only stand and wait."
That was us on Saturday, March 21st, 1971.
That was our role. To stand, to wait, and to be ready to serve.
When the Holy Spirit descended upon us, like in the Book of Acts.
For decades after that in grad school and in my teaching career, I’d periodically be assigned that sonnet for a class, or I’d assign it for a class I was teaching.
Every time, almost every time, for sure, it put me in the mind of our calling and our being in the lobby of the olde Continental Hotel in Nashville.
But never did I share with my classes our Elvis Encounter. It was just too “out there.”
Truly it was one of those times when “you had to be there.”
Anyway, not right away, but eventually we all four of us got on with our lives that spring.
Dave and Dana, true to form, married a couple years after college and went on to have a very, very successful career as song evangelists for the Church of the Nazarene. Then tired of the road and travelling they settled down to pastor a little Methodist church in Brentwood, the ultra-cool suburb of Nashville, right next to ‘trendy’ West End.
Fittingly so, Dave continued to cross paths with notable personalities and celebrities over the years. Most amazingly perhaps was the long-time ongoing friendship with Brooks & Dunn. Episodes worthy of their own ‘based on true events’ storyline.
Karen soon moved on from me, and married up. She gained a husband and a family much more suited to someone than a professional student and fledgling writer. Her gifts and her calling led her into elementary education where her kindness and willingness to minister to the needs of those in their formative years were put into full practice and flower. She definitely and truly lived and modelled the adage: “Grow where you’re planted.” And to teach others to grow where they’re planted. And to pass that on.
Me, well one graduate school, University of Chicago, and an M.A., led to another graduate school, New York University, and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing. I know, big surprise. Really Big Surprise.
But that night with Elvis shaped us all, in ways we could not have imagined.
I’m thinking it was what God – through the Holy Spirit – had in mind for us that night in March, not what we thought we were going to do . . . transform Elvis’ life. Really, what that night was going to do was transform ours.
Oh, for a while, a couple few years after that Saturday, back in 1971, we’d try to share with others about our meeting time with Elvis. David told it for a lot longer time than I did. I guess I never could articulate it to anyone like he could, so I gave it over to really not telling it very often at all.
Until now, of course.
Instead, occasionally I’d share it – or parts of the encounter – with students in my classes – about how I turned out and what I came to do with my life: I became a life-long writing professor first at a Nazarene College in Boston and then finished up my teaching career at a Nazarene University in San Diego.
So what I boiled down from the Elvis Encounter is simply this – I came to call this my mission statement – when that was all the rage with corporations and individuals – strive to be: “In the Right Place, at the Right Time, do the Right Thing, for the Right Reason.”
“That” is what I think the Holy Spirit guided us to do and be aware of on that night with Elvis.
I now know it wasn’t what we thought we were supposed to do to Elvis at the olde Continental Hotel; rather what was It going to do to us – for forever.
Oh, and Elvis? Well, he got on with his life, as has been recorded much more eloquently and briefly than what’s been put on the pages here or with any 1’s and 0’s elsewhere.
Then one day, he “just smiled and walked away . . . ” as Don McClean came to croon.
Oh, I’d think of Elvis from time to time. Dave and Dana and Karen and I would joke and reminisce about having a re-union sometime at the old Continental Hotel – until it was finally demolished to make way for a more imposing and appropriate Music City skyline structure. So that put an end to that pipedream.
Yes, Elvis eventually joined my personal oh-I-remember-exactly-when-and-where-I was list of famous people’s deaths that stopped me in my tracks when I heard of their deaths: like President Kennedy, Princess Di, John Lennon, JFK jr., and of course Elvis, who was the headliner for my list.
And where was I?
I was a writing professor at Eastern Nazarene College in Boston, driving home from campus, late in the afternoon, with the radio on, making a left turn onto East Elm Avenue, when the deejay in a sad and somber tone announced that Elvis had died in his Graceland home.
Later I’d find out more of the details. He’d had an apparent heart attack while sitting on the toilet in one of his coveted but totally isolated bathrooms in his mansion.
And he was alone.
That last part saddened me the most.
Irony’s not wasted on me, for that news, and for what would come to me later in my life: when I too one day, at the age of 62, was sitting on the toilet in my home in San Diego.
Posed and poised as if I were the model for Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker,” I was deep in thought, my mind careening through my past, wondering about Elvis and his death throes, alone, with his final thoughts, as his life flashed maybe flickered right before his eyes.
Had anything, anything at all, been a part of his memory banks from that night in ’71 . . .
Because of that careening, I decided to put into words, in a poem actually, what all those years ago that late night meant to me.
When I finished the poem, polished it enough for public scrutiny, I sent it around to see if anyone wanted to let it be seen in the light of day.
I titled the poem, “Of the Holy Spirit, and Elvis.”
Eventually it was published. First in From Glory to Glory in 2012, an anthology under the auspices of a conference called “Poetry in the Cathedral.” The paperback version can be tracked down at Amazon.com – click on . . . From Glory to Glory: An Anthology by Poetry in the Cathedral (Volume 1). The poem appears on pages 70 and 71.
So, as Holden Caufield might say, “you could look it up.”
But as I ended the poem, I will end here, with what for me is a paraphrase of what I think was at the heart of what drew Elvis to us in the first place and what has been the reason for this follow-up piece, to query . . .
For today, “whereunto’s the Spirit Holy?”
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