Opinion » Viewpoint

Elvis and Me

More than a number — and the fact of middle age — connects me to the King.



It was a short, significant drive after the longest trip home of my life. After a year in Turin, Italy (where my parents had done research for their dissertations), my family had flown home to the States.

Following a week on the Carolina coast and another in East Tennessee, we found ourselves at my grandmother's home in Memphis. August here can be sweltering, but I have no memory of the heat on August 16, 1977. Thirty-four years later, though, I remember a short drive Dad and I made to a convenience store near my grandmother's house in Central Gardens. (If not baseball cards, my prize was likely a Slurpee of some kind.)

When we pulled back into my grandmother's driveway, Dad turned off the engine and told me something that shook my 8-year-old world: Elvis Presley was in the hospital. Dad had apparently heard a report on the radio. Unless it was "Hound Dog" or "Jailhouse Rock" playing, the radio was a distraction for a kid my age, especially with an iced beverage in hand. The news Dad had heard, of course, would shake a world much larger than mine.

The years have blurred the rest of that afternoon, though I distinctly recall sitting on the couch in my grandmother's den, her television showing a crowd gathering at Graceland. I recall Dad — sitting beside me on that couch — telling me that Elvis had, in fact, died that day. The King of Rock-and-Roll was no more. Long live the King.

My paternal grandfather had died when I was only 2 years old, and my other grandparents were alive and well. Elvis Presley became the first person I "knew" to die.

I had listened to In Person at the International Hotel (a Christmas present from a couple of years earlier) countless times. And this made the news of his death that much harder to process. (A singer can't sound more alive than Elvis covering "Johnny B. Goode" on that record.)

Dad explained that Elvis had had a heart attack. Who knows how many details were released in those first frenetic hours? Dad's explanation was the right one for an 8-year-old boy.

Part of the shock of that afternoon was learning that Presley was 42 years old when he died. The age seemed distant to me, but not as much when I considered that my dad was 35 at the time. My grandparents were all well beyond 50, and this made the math that much more difficult. How could a rock star younger than my healthy grandparents be dead?

Last March, I turned 42. I've long measured my own youth by the number of big-league baseball players still active at my age. (I've grown quite fond of Jamie Moyer over the last few seasons. Hoping he makes it back from a season lost to injury.)

But I've also long considered the number 42 — in Elvis terms — when a candle is added to my birthday cake. If a life of such extraordinary impact can be extinguished at 42, how do I measure my own impact before and after that birthday?

The answer's become easy. It takes as long as a hug with one of my two daughters.

Lisa Marie Presley was 9 years old on August 16, 1977, a year older than me. Had she enjoyed a Slurpee earlier that day? A trip to the convenience store with one of her father's famous pals? Needless to say, that day's news impacted her in ways the millions crying all around the world couldn't understand. For them, an icon had died. For Lisa Marie, her dad had died.

So I'm glad to be 42. Glad that I can impact my children for as many days beyond 42 as the Fates allow me. And I'm glad to feel young at 42. I still love hearing "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock," among the tunes that keep me young. Having lived in Memphis for 20 years now, I know how very alive Elvis Presley remains. But this year, this month — and especially come August 16th — I find myself missing him a little extra.

Frank Murtaugh is managing editor of Memphis magazine and writes about sports for the Flyer.

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