Sometimes, often when we are young, we decide to do somthing and just do it. That is what I did when I made up my mind to go to Memphis and pay my respects to the king, Elvis Presley.
I had been hitch-hiking around the country for a few years. I'd thumbed my way to Texas and California and Colorado. I'd slept in churches and roadside parks from Virginia to Mississippi to Illinois. I'd sung "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" in nursing homes in Ohio and biker bars in Georgia. Sometimes it was only because of that beat up old guitar I was carrying that I got a ride at all. Also, I'm sure my rendition of the Jimmie Rodgers' song, "In the Jailhouse Now", actually got me out of jail a little sooner than I expected. Perhaps the cops were moved by my poignant performance or, maybe, they could stand my off-key shenanighans no longer! In any case, I was free. Young, a little wild, and free.
One time down in Texas, in July, I headed out for Austin. Willie Nelson was having a big picnic and I determined to go out there and meet this saint of country music. Just outside of Houstin, after walking all the way across that monstrosity, a nice grey car pulled over and I got in and what a ride it was! Just imagine being a twenty somthing year old, somewhat lost and a little scared, excited and searching for who knows what (the meaning of life?) just out there being lazy and being free and catching a ride all the way to Willie's picnic, breaking out my guitar and singing "Mr. Tamborine Man" and fourteen other Bob Dylan songs and thinking, "oh my God, I am rolling across Texas in a Rolls Royce!"
That little whim, the picnic, turned out to be a fine idea. The great Merle Haggard was there and I got to meet him and Willie both. When it was over and I walked back out to the highway, I didn't get a ride in a Rolls, but I was happy. Happy, inspired, and free.
I made my back across Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and on down to Ft. Lauderdale, in the Sunshine State. I worked odd jobs. I goofed off at the beach, partying and playing, and waiting for spring break. Well, spring break came and one night, around a campfire on the beach,after not making too big a fool of myself by singing one of my own songs, I met a pretty girl. Her name was Pansy and she was only a few inches taller than me and we fell in love pretty quick. We sang and danced and had the kind of time that only the young can have, really. But then, rather sudden, the air got cool, downright chilly, when she discovered that I was really just a sort of a hobo, hanging out, broke, and living in a pup tent in a vacant lot just down the road.My young heart was broken for a few days, but then I was saved by another wild idea...I realized the only thing to do was to make my way to Memphis. I must go to Graceland!
Well, this time I decided to go in style. I called my older brother, collect of course, and begged him to wire me enough money for a train ticket. He was in the Air Force in Alaska and had a steady income. Besides, what are big brothers for? He agreed and in a few days I was showing off in the club car on the Amtrak bound for Elvis Presley Boulivard.
Guess what? We had a three hour layover in Nashville and I thought I'd take a little walk up Westend Avenue. Three hours later I made another fanciful decision. I saw a help wanted sign hanging on the door of a place called Tortilla Flat. I took the sign off the door, walked into that dive, and said, "I'd like to work here". The old man, Wild Bill was his name, put me to work. I swept the floor, made greasy tacos, poured cheap beer into mason jars, and sang Hank Williams, Dylan, and, by now, quite a few of my own songs.
I had never lived anywhere, in my whole young life, more than a year or two, but I stayed there, in Guitar Town, almost ten years. I never made it to Graceland, but I still have full intentions of going there.....someday.
I went to live with Grandma and Grandpa in late spring. She was eighty-three and he was eighty-two. Grandpa was still more active than most folks his age. He worked almost everyday, or at least when he wanted to, on his tree farm. He could still shoe a horse and drive his jeep, but he was not as well, physically, as he'd once been. He had fallen off a horse the year before and now had to use a cane. Grandpa was not one who cussed often, but he cussed that damn cane. His mind was sharper than ever. He had a keen wit and his eyes looked at you knowingly and with clear direction.
Grandma, on the other hand, was kind of the other way around. She could carry a bucket of coal from the coalhouse out back the fireplace in the livingroom. She could go for a walk down the road or through the woods on the pathway Grandpa had made for her. At the same time, her mind was slipping somewhat. She might, for a moment, think it is 1948 in the autumn when it is actually springtime in the 1970's! Grandpa just kissed her sweetly and went on reading or doing whatever he was doing at the time.
Well, growing up, us brothers and cousins... the grandkids, had a sort of theory concerning Grandma and Grandpa. We all agreed that if Grandpa went first, which probably wouldn't happen, poor Grandma wouldn't last another week. She would just not be able to stand life without Grandpa.However, if Grandma died first, which probably would be the case, Grandpa would grieve and be sad for awhile, but then he would be okay and just keep going on. It's not that he wouldn't miss Grandma terribly, but he was just stronger and more able to cope with such a loss.....well, we were wrong.
It is a hot day in July now and I am twenty-one. I'm driving Grandpa, in the Willy's Jeep, over to Aunt Olga's house, five miles away. We're going over to fertilize some baby Hemlock trees. Now I am walking along a few feet behind him. He's carrying a bucket and spreading the fertilizer by hand. When the bucket gets low I pour it half full from a fifty pound bag. We are nearing the end of the last row and his bucket is almost empty and there's not much left in the bag either. I say to him, "is it going to work out alright, Grandpa?" He turns and says to me, almost laughing, "my boy, everything will work out just fine." My cousin, Paul, is talking to a friend, a boy we called Moose, in the field just a few feet away. The old man walks over to the boy and thanks him for helping out earlier in the summer. Moose had helped Grandpa build a splitrail fence. Grandpa reaches in his back pocket and pulls out his wallet saying, "I wouldn't want leave here owing anybody any money." He takes out a five dollar bill and, as he is handing it to the boy, Grandpa sways a little to the side and begins to fall backwards. I try to catch him, and almost do, but I go down with him and his head is now on my lap. He takes a deep breath in and then out and Paul and I are looking at each other. One of us, I don't remember which, says, "Grandpa's gone", and so he is.
Grandma is shattered when told the awful news and we all worry about her, but the days turn into weeks and months and years. Nine more years as a matter of fact. And although Grandma could no longer live by herself, she was "at home" at Uncle Fred and Aunt Marge's. She may not know what she'd had for breakfast an hour ago, but she'd talk about a Saturday morning in 1904, when she was a girl, like it was yesterday. And, sometimes, I was my father when he was a little boy. And, often, Grandpa had just gone down to Griffie Morton's store to get some milk and butter and he would be back in a few minutes.