Before I retired, I was head of public affairs for Newsday. It printed over half a million newspapers every day for readers on Long Island and New York City; it was an exciting, interesting place to be. However, my years there also included great devastation and sorrow.
The destruction of the World Trade Center left commuter train parking lots full of unclaimed cars, their drivers never coming home. Just before the American invasion of Baghdad, a young Newsday reporter and a photographer were taken prisoner; agonizing days passed as we negotiated their release just ahead of falling bombs and war.
My way of handling the drain of such work included getting on a plane for a rest in a faraway place. It was on such an excursion that I met two young women from Milan who had visited America.
“Where did you go?” I asked. “What all did you see?”
“We only went to the home of the King,” they answered.
The young women had traveled all the way from Italy to Memphis to visit Graceland, the modest mansion of Elvis Presley. They told me of their love of the entertainer, of his beautiful voice singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
While they reminded me of his movies and even his motorcycles and guitars, to them it was his music that made him the King. Of course, I knew his music, had danced to its rhythms, driven miles on long road trips to see my mother listening to his gospel’s promise of “Peace in the Valley.” However, I felt negligent, a bit embarrassed that I had never seen his home, had never even been to Memphis.
The memory of the young ladies and their devotion to the Mississippi-born Elvis stayed with me.
And one day, soon after retirement, I checked into the Heartbreak Hotel, set on a course to erase my shortcomings, to see Memphis, to tour the home of this King. Good friends came along. Jim and Loy Norris had heard the tale of the ladies from Milan more than once but had no qualms about neglecting Graceland. This couple just liked to travel.
We went to the Rendezvous for ribs, to the Peabody Hotel to meet the ducks. We sat on Beale Street to eat red beans and rice and listen to the blues. Loy found an endorsement for Gus’s and we pulled up our chairs for crisp chicken and fried pickles. We visited Sun Studio and rode the Rock and Roll Bus.
Then we went to Graceland. I walked on the dated shag carpets and expected to sail through, to be rather nonchalant about retracing the steps of the travelers from Italy. But after the rooms of gold and platinum records, after the images of the boy from Tupelo living in public housing, after the poignancy of the graves of his mother, his father, his stillborn twin brother, I better understood the two young women and their miles of travel to see this house, to be closer to the essence of the King.
For the past six months I have lived among Mississippians, seeing up close the world that helped create the sounds of Elvis, the images writers conjure up in their books, to experience all that rises from this place of red clay and black earth.