From An American Requiem
(Mariner Books / Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996)
Elvis, famously a GI by now, was stationed at an Army post thirty miles away, near Frankfurt. Word was that he drove trucks, and at a certain point a hot rumor had it that he was dating an eighth grader in the junior high across the street from H. H. Arnold. No one believed it. When even hotter rumors identified her as the daughter of an Air Force colonel, a prim girl on whom my eighth-grade brother, Brian, had a crush of his own, I really did not believe it. But I would remember her chiseled prettiness years later -- 1967, Priscilla Beaulieu -- when Elvis married her.
The main reason I could not believe that Elvis would seek out a girl that young was that it did not square with the libidinous image we had of him, or with the license he gave us to imitate it, albeit with a decidedly fifties-era inhibition. Even we straight-arrow military dependents mimicked Elvis with our pomaded hair, curled lips, slouches, suede shoes, piping on our trouser seams and cultivated air of obsession with sex. Pregenital, making-out, feeling-up, French-kissing, going-halfway sex, but sex all the same. A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer in the pants. That's entertainment.
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Those who did their double-clutching in the next decade, to the rhythm of the
Rolling Stones, could hardly sustain such heights of tension -- the point of
"satisfaction," we believed, was to yearn for it -- as the ones we approached
to the strains of (what else?) "I want you, I need you, I love you." Of course
today the truth of what drew that secretly lost young man to cute but as yet
sexless Priscilla is obvious, though we swore then that the rock 'n' roll star
was up to his olive underwear and their garters in frauleins,
madchens and schatzies. Well beyond the eighth grade ourselves,
we teenage boys knew, nevertheless, that we weren't ready for the German
prostitutes whose Marlene Dietrich gams decked every corner for blocks around
the night-time bahuhof. Still, those girls were barely older than we
were. We tested them, testing the language and ourselves, with sly, pidgin
exchanges. ("Was costen?" "Mit goumi? Funf mark." "Zu
muchen!") Then we'd hustle back to Hainerberg, great balls of fire, hoping
for a slow drag at the sock hop. The music of Elvis, like our idea of sex, was
all about dry humping.
Even so, lewd Elvis embodied the opposite of all that I'd been raised to be. The showy sexlessness of my parents' relationship and the aggressive puritanism of my parish and monastery schools had established a standard of repression that we called morality. I was dying to fall short of it. I had been conditioned, like every parochial Catholic, to an exquisite vigilance against "impure thoughts" and "illicit pleasures." Vigilance means paying acute attention, which I did. The nuns and priests had told me that temptation was the great enemy. I recognized temptation as my steady companion, and eventually as a friend. Having been so breathlessly warned against upheavals of carnal desire, I found that when they came -- whether through photos in a magazine, the sight of a classmate's bra strap, dancing on a dime with my girlfriend, or, marvelously, when the pearly gates of her teeth opened to my tongue -- those upheavals were volcanic. Recalling them later always left me feeling alone, afraid, doomed.
Until Elvis, "Hound Dog," "Love Me Tender." I was a boy with four brothers and no sisters. Elvis, like a fifth, did nothing to dispel the haze that mystified my every notion of what a girl was, but he taught me how to dance with one, how to touch her hip, and how to take the wild disapproval of parents and church, teachers and chaperons, as a signal that these feelings, as much erotic as rhythmic, were rightly ours. Because of Elvis, I found myself belonging to a new group -- not Catholics, the parish, school, or even family, not the military either, but "youth."
The American Youth Association, the AYA, was the teen club beside the high school, and every day we adjourned there for Cokes, which never tasted sweeter, and for the jukebox, the jitterbug, the stroll, and bop -- for slow dancing with our knees inside each other's thighs, the unacknowledged teenagers' braille that told me girls were as much on board this express as boys. For the first time in my life I had something that belonged to no one else in my tight family, not my parents, of course, not Joe, who would never dance, and not my other brothers, who were -- Priscilla notwithstanding -- still too young. Elvis himself, sadly, was already a musical has-been, though who could have imagined that in 1959? Eventually he would be called The King, but he was already king to me, my truest lord, the one in whom, at the AYA, I found my first identity, not as my father's kind of Catholic or my mother's kind of son or my siblings' kind of brother, but simply as me.
The AYA was for weekday afternoons. Saturday nights were for the Eagle Club and the permanent dream of seeing him, the one who'd made us who we were. The GIs and airmen who frequented the club were not much older than I was, and no more able to appreciate the glories of the physical setting. The mansion's ornate fence, curving driveway, and baroque entrance evoked the elegance of a bygone era, but the smoky interior and the dim lighting of a would-be nightclub blotted out the carved marble and crystal sconces to which the farm boys, rednecks, and buffalo soldiers would have been indifferent anyway. Jazz groups and rock 'n' roll bands performed on the stage at one end of a former ballroom. In the center of a circle of stein-cluttered tables was a dance floor, always crowded with servicemen clinging to or jumping with blank-eyed German girls, some of whom were secretaries or clerks at headquarters, some the daughters of sycophantic locals seeking contacts, and some the leggy schatzies from the shadows near the bahnhof. It was a regular shock to see the hookers here, how much less alluring they looked than the girls who might say no.
High school kids were forbidden admission to the Eagle Club, and except for some of the tougher girls who dated GIs, few bothered to try to get in. That was less a problem for me than a further condition of my joy in the place. I learned early in Wiesbaden that such rules did not apply to the general's son, especially since my father's driver, a forever ingratiating staff sergeant, moonlighted as a club maitre d'. Once I arrived with my girl on my arm, her twin sweater set a demure contrast to the hookers' cleavage. The sergeant greeted us with a mock salute and took us to a table with a placard that said "Reserved." More typically he would wink, admitting us, and we would lose ourselves in the crowd. We would drink the German beer, and dance, and lean into each other's bodies, but always with one eye peeled for Elvis. Often we would hear he'd arrived on a night the week before, just after we'd left, and that, responding to the hoots of his buddies, he'd climbed to the stage and sung a song. Calculating our arrival to be later, we would hear another time that he'd just left. We never doubted these reports, and the sexy frenzy of the Eagle Club always seemed to justify them.
When I saw Elvis at last, not long before he rotated back to the States, the single most striking thing about him was his hair -- how short it was, and how unglistening. He looked as much the straight arrow as I did. I savor the memory of Elvis leaping onto the stage in his khakis, his field hat through the epaulet on his left shoulder; Elvis swooping the microphone and diddling his leg, that pelvis thrust, and making the crystal chandeliers jitter to the mournful squeal of "Heartbreak Hotel." I savor the memory, but instead of being what happened, it's what I'd always imagined happening. In fact, Elvis walked into the smoky nightclub and, instead of his Army buddies hooting a welcome, the room fell silent, which cued everyone to look his way. I caught the briefest of glimpses before his head disappeared as he took a chair at a corner table. A buzz of amazed exchanges swept the room, but it was instantly clear to me that this crowd was no more able to think of Elvis as belonging to it than we would have been at the AYA. All the stories about his easy camaraderie were false, and judging from the stupefied air, I realized that so were the reports of his regular Eagle Club appearances. Elvis was Elvis, here and everywhere. By the time I had maneuvered my way around the room for another glimpse of the greatest man alive, he was gone.
Elvis's quick disappearance was a potent revelation that the man who'd set me free was himself anything but. It was a lesson not only in the imprisonment of celebrity but in the untrustworthiness of even our most absolute assumptions. If Elvis was not free, how in the world had I begun to think that I was?
Copyright © 1996 by James Carroll. All rights reserved.