Tuesday, August 16, 1977— Jimmy Carter was president. Chart music included “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac and “Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffett. Theaters featured the tenth James Bond movie, “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Colleen McCullough’s “The Thorn Birds” was a best-selling book. On TV people watched, “All in the Family” and “Three’s Company.” But, that wasn’t all …
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Abilene, Texas was hot that August afternoon. My desk at Eighth and Pine Streets downtown was stacked with sales receipts, where I worked on reports. Barely audible was Glenn Campbell’s “Southern Nights” on the radio behind my desk.
Suddenly, the music stopped in the middle of the song. Abrupt silence commanded my attention long enough to hear the stumbling voice, speaking between short phrases, as if the reader was still comprehending what had happened. “This just in … from Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis …”
“Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis” was all I remember. In the silence that followed, something about the tone of the bulletin and its origin from Memphis said it all. I knew what had happened. Presumably, I heard the rest of the news bulletin, but I don’t remember. I do remember employees gathering around my desk, listening as details came in as the station played Elvis Presley’s latest release, “Moody Blue.” The King of Rock and Roll was dead at the age of 42. Within hours, evening news casts on every channel and every network focused on the life, and now the death, of one of the most influential entertainers of the era. Avid fans, casual appreciators, even those who didn’t like his music at all—the whole world knew who Elvis Presley was that week in 1977.
Elvis performed in Abilene less than five months earlier. Saturday, March 26, 1977, the marquee at the Taylor County Coliseum on Texas 36 announced Elvis was going to be “in the building” the very next day. In town for the weekend surveying the city I was about to call my new home, I got excited about the prospect of seeing Elvis. I sighed, however, knowing that the concert was likely sold out, as was every concert he performed. “Next time,” I thought, never imagining the news I would hear on an Abilene radio station in less than five months.
Fast forward ten years. Saturday, August 15, 1987. There was no end in sight as midnight grew near. Tiny flickering flames plotted a candlelight path from the crowd on Elvis Presley Boulevard up the winding driveway to the Meditation Garden at Graceland.
We had taken our place in line sometime after 11:00 p.m. and still had a ways to go. Soft candle light illuminated my daughter’s smile and highlighted the twinkle in her eyes while she stared at the magic of the dancing flame. Robin had celebrated her ninth birthday just weeks before.
A Florida newspaper reporter, one of many walking the trail of glowing candles, paused beside Robin and asked where she was from. “Center, Texas,” she answered. “How far away is that,” he quizzed her with a smile. She looked my direction for an answer. “Tell him it’s just a little over 400 miles,” I said.
“Can I take your picture,” he asked, directing the question toward me for approval. “OK with me,” I said, adding, “Robin, you want your picture in the newspaper?” She responded with a smile. “Think you might send me a copy of what you publish,” I asked the reporter as he knelt with his camera to capture the same candlelight portrait of my daughter I had seen. “Sure,” he replied, taking my business card. Desired photos done, he thanked us and walked on that humid August night in Memphis.
With the anniversary of the last time Elvis left the building coming up next week, it’s hard to believe that 40 years has passed since that hot August afternoon in Abilene. It’s equally hard to believe it’s been 30 years since the steamy Memphis night at Graceland with several thousand other close friends—a.k.a. Elvis fans. It’s also hard to believe I never saw one of his 1,684 sold out performances although I’m pretty sure I saw him at a high school show early in his career in Seymour, Texas. More about that at:
I always think about Elvis and Abilene in August. It would have been memorable to have seen Elvis in concert, but I never did. And, I always think about Graceland and Memphis in August. It would have been nice had the Florida reporter sent me a copy of his newspaper with my daughter’s picture. But, he never did either.