Lesson Learned Along The Way From Fame to Family

Elvis and Me

166

I believe it was the summer of my eighth year and I had braids, a face full of freckles, and a gap-toothed smile. (The photo below is when I was 10, no more braids, but still had the gap and freckles.) My only companion in a rather small, dinghy, and dusty waiting room was a deck of cards. I positioned myself, as usual, in a chair backed against a wall so that I could easily see who came and went through the front door of the small recording studio in Nashville.MeAt10

He walked through the door with pressed pants and a shirt that was long-sleeved and open at the neck. His hair was dark brown, longer on the top than the sides, slicked rather heavily so it couldn’t move. There was a thick, loose curl like an upside down J over his right eye that leaned forward, separating itself from his immobile pompadour. He had a guitar slung over his right shoulder.

He stood there, half inside and half still outside, lost in a moment of confusion, unsure where his next step should be. He looked at me and I smiled at him, and tilted my head to the left indicating the way to the woman who sat every day, all day long, at the only desk in the building. He nodded back, unsmiling, and disappeared as he moved in her direction. I waited, as I always did, for something or someone interesting to share my quiet, boring space.

It was pretty tough being a small kid sitting there in an adult world, so far from home. The only solace was that I was an important part of my father’s world. My father was a musician, a wonderful guitar player and singer. And he also taught guitar lessons, one of his students was Skippy Eddy, the milkman’s son who later grew up to be Duane Eddy, who became famous with his hit “Rebel Rouser”. But, with a young family that depended on him, he worked three jobs back home, as a car salesman, a butcher, and on weekends, he was able to play with his own band at the local ‘rod and gun’ club as well as guitar teacher. He had a tendency to drink too much and disappear for days at a time. My mother, who seemed to have a tough time dealing with her husband, finally told him he could have the next two summers free to follow his heart to Nashville. But then, he was to return home, to his three jobs and his family. She had hopes that those summers would help him “get it out of his system.”

She didn’t really understand his need for music. I did. And my dad knew I did. So, he asked if he could bring me with him that first summer. I was a bit of a challenge to my mother too, so she was glad to be rid of the both of us for a short time, giving her a reprieve from both an unhappy husband and a rather independent-minded, stubborn daughter who ‘never seemed to listen’ to her.Dad&Me1955 (photo on the right is my dad and me when I was 11)

My dad was able to call a friend, who knew someone, who knew someone else that could find him a job down in Tennessee, teaching music at the studio. And from there, he found a second job as assistant musical arranger for Tennessee Ernie Ford. ‘Uncle Ern’ was a generous man who suggested that we move from the one-room hotel room to his ranch, where we actually lived in a small house near the main house, and became ‘members of his family.’ All of this had happened quickly, over a three-week period, so we were set for the next three months. Dad was happy for the first time ever, it seemed. He now wore a smile on his face, and a joking, positive nature appeared out of nowhere. Dad still enjoyed a drink every day, but not to the excess that it had been.

All of this made me happy too, and so, that day, I sat there waiting for something to happen. And happen it did. The young man with the guitar walked into my waiting room and sat down next to me. It appeared that he wanted to be able to see who came and went too. At first, he acted as if I wasn’t there, just sitting and staring at his guitar, which had moved from his shoulder to a standing position between his knees. He started running his right hand up and down its neck, massaging the strings as if it were a person that he needed to be gentle with. His thoughts seemed to be far away. I was used to that with my dad, so I just waited.

Elvis1952Finally, he turned and looked at me rather shyly and said a very quiet “Thank you,” which I could hardly hear. Then, he smiled a rather crooked smile, and my response was to tilt my head to one side so that his smile became even. That must have seemed a bit odd to him, but his smile widened, and he tilted his head in the opposite direction so that our faces looked upside down to each other. Then, we both laughed. And the shyness disappeared and we began to talk.

“What’s your name, Freckle-Face?” he asked.

“I guess it’s Freckle-Face,” I responded, and we laughed again. After a moment, I added, “It’s really Marilyn, but you can call me Freckle-Face if you want.”

He extended his hand away from his guitar toward me, “Mine is Elvis, pleased to meet you Freckle-Face,” as we shook hands.

“That’s a rather strange name, where did you get it?” Children generally are pretty blunt at that age.

The question caught him off guard, but he recovered quickly with a smile, “My mom gave me a special name because she feels that I am a special person and will contribute much to the world.”

It sounded to me like he said those words often. I thought this a rather strange thing, but being just a kid, I simply shrugged and said, “Well, OK.”

With that, we seemed to be done talking for a bit. He went back to his guitar and continued stroking its neck. I decided to shuffle my cards on my left knee. Not a very good idea, as within seconds they had spilled all over the floor, “Oops.”

He helped me to pick them up, which I now know was the first sign of many to come that his mother had raised him to be a gentleman. As we settled back on our chairs, he asked, “Wanna play something?”elvis_sept_9_1954b

I looked at his guitar wondering if that was what he meant, ‘cause I didn’t know how to play that. But then I thought about it and realized he had looked at my cards just before he asked me, so I said the obvious, “You mean a card game?”

“Well, yeah. Some kind of card game, I guess we could play Old Maid or something.” That shy, crooked smile reappeared.

I was developing a habit out of this, as I tilted my head again, which was followed by his tilting his back in that opposite direction. We laughed again, and I felt like this was going to be fun, so I said, “OK, Old Maid it is. Unless you know how to play Gin Rummy, ” which Uncle Ern had taught me and had become my favorite.

“Wow, how old are you that you know how to play that?” I guess he hadn’t been around very many kids before.

I sat up in my chair, lifted my chin, and replied, “I’m eight and a half,” very proudly.

He moved his guitar so that it leaned against the chair next to him, turned his body so that we faced each other and said, “OK then, Freckle Face, Gin Rummy it is. I’m pretty good at Gin Rummy, so get ready.” And that crooked smile again. I moved back to the next chair so we could use the chair between us as a card table.

And so, our summer-long friendship began with a card game. We got to know each other pretty well that summer. He came in when he could, driving a delivery truck from Memphis, sometimes twice a week for guitar lessons with my dad, and we played cards and talked about everything. He wanted to learn to read music, but I think mostly they just played guitar together and Dad taught him chords. For some reason, he was very comfortable with me, acting almost as if I were his younger sister, and he told me what some people would call secrets, like his deepest feelings about losing his twin brother and his love of music.

It was a couple of weeks later when he came in and didn’t smile when he saw me as he usually did. He was wearing what Uncle Ern would have called a “hang-dog look”, a face full of sadness. And being an inquisitive kid, I asked, “What’s so sad?”

The sadness was reflected in his eyes, as he took a long hard look at me, “I really don’t know. I just feel sort of…lonely…I guess.” He was staring intently at me, and I started to feel uncomfortable.

So, I decided to do what I did best, ask a question and then shut up so he could answer. My dad was a born salesman and I learned that from him. “Do you want to talk about it? I’m a real good listener.” And then, I waited.

He bowed his head for a very long minute, then looked up, sighed and started to tell me a story. “When I was born, I had a twin brother. My mom and dad had decided to give him the middle name Garon and gave me the middle name Aaron. But he didn’t make it.” He paused to see if I understood what he was saying. I made a sad face to show him I did and to encourage him to continue.

He looked down again, another sigh, then looked up and continued, “They were really sad about it, and they would remind me about him from time to time, I guess, in a way to help me remember him. And when I was a kid, whenever I’d get into trouble, my dad would say, ‘Do you think that is something that Jesse Garon would do?’ as if I was bad and my brother would have been the good one. My mom always got mad when he did that. But, it had an effect on me.” Another sigh, and he paused.

To encourage him further, I said, “I’m sorry that happened.” And I waited.

“Yeah, well, I guess it was supposed to both toughen me up and show me the right way.” He was quiet for a moment, “My father got in trouble a lot. My mom would react by taking me off to church or find the nearest tent with a preacher in it. That was her way of showing me that I needed to have faith more than anything. And we would sing gospel music. I really love gospel music!” For a very short moment, there was a positive spark in his eyes, but it disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

“But, today, I feel, I don’t know, really alone.” He was looking down again.

I reached out and touched his arm, “I’m here. You’re not alone.” I didn’t know what else to do. Then, a thought occurred to me, “Do you think, maybe, you miss your brother?”

“How can I miss someone I never really knew?” He was looking at me a little strangely.

But I knew what I meant, “But you did know him for awhile, didn’t you?” My mother had told me once when we talked about twins that when they are growing inside their mother, they are somehow connected, and appear to work together when they move, and almost play together before they are born. This hadn’t been proven, but my mother was a nurse and had cared for quite a few pregnant women and knew these things.

Elvis took a few minutes to think about this, and a smile slowly spread across his face, “You’re right. I think I did know him for awhile, and maybe that’s why I feel so lonely so much. Maybe I do miss him.” Then, his smile gone, added, “It’s like a huge part of me is missing sometimes. And I can’t seem to control it, a feeling of deep sadness and loneliness comes over me. But, that would explain it, wouldn’t it?” He looked at me as if needing something more from me.

So, I gave it to him, “Yes, that would explain it.” As I look back on this so many decades later, maybe I knew something well beyond my years, and was able to help him identify that feeling he had so often. It certainly would explain his need for friends, for people around him to give him the feeling that he was loved.

He did have a stepbrother growing up, but apparently that wasn’t quite the same. That feeling of loneliness that plagued him all of his life was something he never seemed to learn to control. I didn’t know him later on, but perhaps it led to actions such as drug dependency, that would help numb him so he wouldn’t hurt as much. He appeared to me, over the two summers we spent together, that he was such a sensitive person, and experienced such extreme highs and lows. I saw it so many times, the closer we grew.

ElvisYoung2That second summer, he came into the studio to meet with my father not specifically for guitar lessons but more for music history discussions. One night my dad was out on the porch of the main ranch house, strumming away on his guitar and singing a song I hadn’t heard before. I asked him what it was, and he said it was a song that Elvis had taught him, it was a gospel song.

“That young man has so much talent, so much deep love for music, he just has to make it work for him,” my dad shared with me that night. With a far away look in his eyes, he was relating to Elvis, “I know that if I couldn’t do this,” he strummed his guitar for emphasis, “I’d just lie down and die.” So, he kept playing and singing.

“Yeah, he does sing pretty well, doesn’t he?” I had heard him sometimes and liked his voice. “But,” laughing, “he really can’t dance too well.” I started laughing as only a child can, as I was remembering earlier that day.

Elvis had come into the studio, very excited, “Hey, kiddo, can I show you something that I do when I sing?” (He and his band had begun getting some gigs here and there.)

And, of course, I shrugged like a nine-and-a-half-year-old shrugs, “Yeah, sure.” And waited.

He got his guitar in position across his chest, moved his legs far apart, hunched down a bit with his shoulders, and started moving his knees in and out, and lifting his shoulders up and down, and his head back and forth, as he sang a song. He would swivel his feet as his knees went in and out, so it looked almost as if he was on the tips of his toes. His guitar would move up and down as his arms moved and his shoulders shifted back and forth and up and down.

I fell off the chair, I was laughing so hard that I lost almost complete control of my body. I swear I wet my pants a little too. I hadn’t seen anything so funny in my life!

Elvis stopped in mid-motion, watching me. He had this surprised look on his face. Then, he lowered the guitar, sat down in his chair and waited for me to finish. It took a long time for me to stop laughing, because each time I thought I was done, I’d look at him and start again.

When I finally was breathless and sat in my chair, I looked at him, “That was the funniest thing I ever saw! Thanks.” And I started laughing again, but didn’t fall out of my chair this time. But, I stopped, as I realized he wasn’t laughing with me. Instead, he had this hurt look on his face.

“Uh, you didn’t like it?” He actually looked as if I had slapped him in the face. But instead of looking down, he stared at me in disbelief.

And, somehow even though I was only nine and a half, I realized I had hurt him deeply. So, I had to say something to make him feel better, “No, you don’t understand.” I searched for the right words, “I really liked it. It’s funny, yes, but it’s also…um, entertaining.” And I smiled at him, hoping I had made him feel better.

But I hadn’t. He became quiet and even though we would play cards, he wouldn’t look directly at me. I couldn’t stand it, so I tried a different approach. “OK, I’m sorry. I’m just a kid, what do I know?”

A sullen look, “You’re nine-and-a-half years old, old enough to know!”

“No, I’m not! You need to ask my dad what he thinks of your dance.” If I had made him feel bad, I knew my dad would fix it.

The sullen look continued, “I did last time I was here. He said it looked silly.”

I knew my dad wouldn’t have just left it at that. My dad tried to encourage people, not discourage them, “And then what did he say?”

Elvis looked down, waited, then looked back up, “He said I should do what I want to. I should dance my own dance if I want to.” And then, he smiled, “And then he told me, ‘And all those other people be damned!’” Then, Elvis paused and look at me, “Moving like this keeps me from being so nervous. What do you think I should do?”

“Look, I’m nine years old, well nine and a half, but I am not a normal kid. I think too much, and sometimes I don’t always think enough. I do what I want to do, even after I’m told not to. I don’t listen to anyone but myself. So, if it was me, I would do my dance, no matter what anyone said…or did.” There, I had said it. I had described things I sometimes did just to spite people, especially my mother, and usually feel sorry for afterwards. But, I always hate to admit it.

He thought for a minute, then “OK, I’ll do it. No matter what anyone says, I’m going to do my dance. Because it comes from my heart, it’s what I feel.” And a shy smile appeared.

I nodded, “That’s the way. Now, can we play some cards?”

My dad had a strange look on his face when I told him about it, there on the porch with the crickets singing in the background. “Sweetheart, you need to be careful around Elvis. He’s still very young. He’s very sensitive, and his feelings get hurt fairly easily. We both need to be careful of what we say and do. He may take criticism to heart and quit music. I couldn’t bear the thought of that,” said with a sad expression.

From that point on, I was more careful of what I said when Elvis and I were together. I don’t think it got in the way of our friendship, but I always used encouraging words instead of criticisms. I learned how to be ‘political’, something that has come in handy over the years in my career.

Did I ever see him again, after that second summer? When I said my final goodbye to him, we both cried. He and I both felt like something had really ended, something special. I was only nine and a half, but I felt my heart break for the first time that I can remember. And I’ve never forgotten it.

I wanted to remember him as I had known him then. I could never bring myself to go to a concert and see him in person, nor to try to contact him again. I know he would have remembered me, but I wanted to keep those early memories intact, undisturbed by any new memories of him. I did watch his movies and saw some of his concerts on TV, and it was with the knowledge that he ‘was on stage’, which wasn’t the real Elvis. Or at least, the one that I had known so many years ago. When he went in the service, I worried about him. When he got married, I was happy for him. When he died, I cried, as did so many. But, I’ve held on to those memories from long ago, that I hold so close to my heart. Elvis and me, when I was a child.

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