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Rounding Third: Early travels with the king

Elvis Presley boarded my airline flights. Twice.

In the 1960s, most country stars, Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, Eddy Arnold, Jimmie Rodgers, Chet Atkins, the Everly Brothers, and more, were all professionally based in Nashville, the Music City. But Elvis lived in Memphis.

The first time we met, he boarded my morning flight from Los Angeles to Memphis. The downhome boy, by then over 30-years-old, routinely traveled with two or three high school buddies from Memphis. They were his age, but in my mind, they were still juveniles. One step up from delinquent. On that particular full flight, “the guys” were seated in the coach section, Elvis was in first class.

Elvis was taller than I expected, slim and almost shy. His smiled quietly, sort of an “Aw shucks, Ma’am,” demeanor. He did call me ma’am. He settled in his last row seat, engrossed in a magazine as the crowd of passengers trudged onboard. An older businessman claimed the seat beside Elvis, exchanged polite pleasantries, and opened his briefcase for a morning’s work. I’m still not sure whether he recognized the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Maybe he lived under a rock.

Elvis stretched his legs after breakfast. “Ma’am, is it possible to get a Dr. Pepper, please?” That’s just how he was, incredibly polite. And I had to disappoint him. I don’t remember what he accepted, probably a Coke, but I could tell it just wasn’t the same. We chatted briefly about the film he had just finished. He couldn’t wait to get home.

There was no rude, self-important Hollywood star in that nice Southern gentleman. But there was still some boy left. I learned about that on our next mutual flight, more than a year later.

It was a night flight from Memphis to Dallas. He boarded with “the guys.” Their first-class seats were scattered through the four rows totaling 16 seats. The other dozen passengers were all executive businessmen, standard in those days.

After we were airborne, and everyone had cocktails and a snack, many men were still reading or working on their tray tables. Elvis’s guys were loud, yelling back and forth to each other. A few passengers had turned out their light, hoping to drop a hint, I think.

“The groupies” all wanted another drink – stupid combinations like Scotch and orange juice, Bourbon and Bloody Mary Mix. Back in their seats, they began throwing their drinks across the aisle at each other, whooping and hollering. They wanted the drinks only as weapons.

Flying in the first position, responsible for all passenger safety and comfort, I had to be the heavy. It was a good thing Elvis was with them, or I would have been meaner.

Trying to be both quiet and forceful, I demanded they cease their unacceptable behavior immediately. “Stop it! There are working and sleeping passengers in this cabin. STOP behaving like fourth-graders!” When they asked if they could refill their now empty glasses, I said no. They were lucky I didn’t demand that they get on their hands and knees with cleaning towels.

Elvis was embarrassed, but he didn’t intervene or chide them. The cabin was dark and quiet, his posse finally subdued. He came into our galley to stretch and chat. “Sorry about that, ma’am, he said.”

Dressed in jeans and a plaid sport shirt, he could have been any guy off the street, not a world-renowned mega-star. His shirt was unbuttoned twice at the collar and I noticed on his neck a large quarter-sized scab that he was scratching. I couldn’t imagine what disease produced scabs that big. Wondering if he was contagious, I said, “That looks sore…are you alright? Do you need a bandage?”

“Nope. This was just the guys and me horsing around again.” Seeing my reaction, he explained, “We were playing chicken.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “What kind of chicken?”

Then a little embarrassed, he added, “We all get in the shower and hold lit cigars against each other’s skin until ya yell ‘Uncle.’ We got a little out of hand last week,” he added as he showed me others on his chest, stomach and inner arm. “They make sure not to do my face or hands.”

I was somewhere between horrified and amused. “Really? Is that fun?” I asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” he stammered. “Well, sorta.” And he laughed, behaving like the quiet country man I met on the first flight.

He put his arm around me and said, “Thank you, but don’t worry, it’s OK,” and he headed back to his seat. I was, by then, a married woman, but I can honestly say I enjoyed that.

His momma did a good job. He was nice. He was just Elvis.

Marcy O’Brien is a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. She can be reached at Moby.32@hotmail.com

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