The closest I came to Elvis Presley was a lonely stretch of U.S. 80 in the summer of 1977.
He was in Macon for a June 1 concert at the Coliseum. I was living in a garage apartment 96 miles away in Columbus. I never got within range to hear him sing, to see his blue suede shoes or sense his royalty.
Not that it mattered. I wasn’t much of a fan. His music, his celebrity fell somewhere between my parents’ generation and my own.
That summer, I was a newspaper intern on loan from the University of Georgia journalism school. As part of my education, I also got experience sleeping on a mattress on the floor and cooking on a hot plate.
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Elvis wasn’t feeling so hot himself, but the show in Macon had to go on that summer. Before the concert, he had gone to see a local physician. On stage, he looked tired and bloated.
Two months later, he checked out permanently.
The King was dead.
I remember when the news bulletin scrolled across the small screen of the black-and-white Panasonic television I bought at K-Mart. It was one of those moments you never forget, like where you were when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and who was sitting next to you when news of the terrorist attack broke on Sept. 11.
Wednesday marks the 40th anniversary of the Elvis exit. In another two years, he will have been dead for as long as he lived. I have said many times he never really died because so many people continue to keep him alive.
In my almost 20 years writing a newspaper column, I annually circle two dates – Jan. 8 (his birthday) and Aug. 16 (the anniversary of his death) – as rich sources of evergreen stories.
Thirteen years ago this week, I drove to a century-old former boarding house in Cornelia. “Joni Mabe’s Encyclopedia of Everything Elvis,” was the creative brainchild of a woman who called herself “Joni Mabe, the Elvis Babe.”
There wasn’t nearly enough time to see the more than 30,000 Elvis artifacts. Among the oddities was the wart removed from his wrist when he joined the Army in 1958 and a vial of his sweat she purchased from a man in New York.
By far, the biggest conversation piece was the King’s big toenail. On a tour of Graceland in 1983, she plucked it from the green, shag carpet in the Jungle Room.
I’ve never been keen on cryogenics, but I was convinced Joni Mabe was trying to put Elvis back together, piece by piece.
Elaine Greene sobbed when her babysitter called on Aug. 16, 1977, to tell her Elvis died. But Elaine has been keeping him on life support in the E.R. in her Jones County home ever since.
The E.R. is the Elvis Room. She moved the contents there from her classroom after retiring as a seventh-grade English teacher at Tattnall Square Academy. She used Elvis on her syllabus as a teaching tool.
You can hardly move a muscle inside her Elvis Room without brushing against something with long sideburns. She has an old school desk from Humes High in Memphis, where Elvis graduated in 1953.
Some of her former students have told her they think of her every time they hear an Elvis song.
She mails me a postcard from Graceland every year.
Tina Dickson, owner of the popular Ingleside Village Pizza, shares the same January birthday as Elvis. And she shares him every day with her dine-in customers.
Between bites of pepperoni and mushroom, they can admire the ubiquitous King on walls, nooks and rafters. Every Aug. 16, she traditionally pipes Elvis songs though the speakers all day at IVP.
Paulette Fountain, once upon a time the receptionist at The Telegraph, may not own a pizza parlor but she used to keep a fork in her desk drawer. Elvis allegedly used it when he ordered room service at the Hilton while in Macon for a concert.
Linda Giddens, a former water skiing champion from Eastman, appeared in the 1967 Elvis movie “Clambake,” when she was 16 years old. In the skiing scenes, she was a stunt double for Shelley Fabares, who was Elvis’ romantic interest in the movie.
I have told the tales of people who sent Elvis songs they had written and named their pets after him. I have written stories of Elvis impersonators. (I was one myself, dressing up to lip sync “Hound Dog” at a benefit for the Rescue Mission of Middle Georgia at the Grand Opera House.)
Eight years ago, my wife, Delinda, and I were on our way to Memphis when, on a whim, we pulled over in Tupelo, Mississippi, to see the sharecropper shack where the King was born in 1935.
There, I met Nina Holcomb, a docent of sorts, who led visitors through the two-room house. She grew up in Tupelo, where her father ran a service station. She got to meet Elvis on three occasions.
Over the years, she had watched folks arrive at the birthplace as if was the manger in Bethlehem. Some would get so emotional they would kiss the floor. Other asked questions, right down to what size underwear he wore.
When she began describing how Elvis was born into poverty and is now “known in every remote place in the world,” I sprinted to my car to retrieve pen and paper. I had to write it down.
He was, she told me, “the most important person this side of God.”
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.