Viva Fort Hood
Before he morphed into a light-comedy star and bloated Vegas entertainer, Elvis Presley drove tanks, chased women, and cruised with the locals in Central Texas, where he spent six months as an Army private.
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Imagine him running—from the highway, through the brush and weeds along Nolan Creek, up the rise, through the back yards, and then hopping over the fence. He’s tanned and sweating; his dirty-blond hair sticks to his head in the summer humidity and his dark eyes peer out from under his helmet. Even in his Army fatigues he is impossibly beautiful. Dogs bark. Women wave. They sit out on porches to catch a glimpse as he chugs past. They know his schedule; everyone in town seems to, especially the young girls, who dog his steps. He flirts with them and jokes with the boys, talks about his mother and his day under the Texas sun. They can’t believe how humble he is, how much time he makes for them. This is the king of rock and roll, the destroyer of the world of their fathers. He sells millions of records. He has been censored on television. He’s trouble, he’s sex, he’s—their parents shudder at the insinuation in the sound of his name—Elvis. He is also, at this curious moment in his career, called something less intimidating: Private Presley, just another sweaty soldier cursing the heat at Fort Hood. In memory and imagination, Elvis Presley always seems to be moving, playing some kind of action-toy role—Rocker Elvis, Race Car Driver Elvis, Cowboy Elvis, Indian Elvis. In 1958, at the height of his early fame, Elvis got drafted and the role became real—GI Elvis. He wasn’t thrilled about spending two years away from his fans, but the peacetime draft was a fact of life, and Elvis was a religious country boy at a time when you did what your government told you to do. For Elvis, rebellion only went so far. Besides, his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was trying to leave all that juvenile-delinquent nonsense behind and make mature music. Spending two years in the Army looked like a good career move.
Compared to the rest of his well-documented life, this period—especially his six months at Fort Hood, near Killeen (he spent the rest of his hitch in Germany)—is a black hole for historians. It’s also a kind of DMZ for fans. On one side of the gap is the young, gorgeous rebel who forged wild new music out of moldy old country and blues—who put the pop in pop culture. On the other is the light-comedy movie star, Vegas entertainer, and drug-addicted fat guy who wasted his talent, hid from his fans, and became a bloated, bored victim of his own improbable American dream.
“Elvis died the day he went into the Army,” said John Lennon upon hearing of Presley’s death in 1977. Musically, this is almost inarguable. But in other ways, Elvis—a 23-year-old man-child struggling to get some footing in a world he himself was turning upside down—came to life in Army fatigues, finding the best of himself on the tank ranges of Fort Hood and in the quiet streets of nearby Killeen. He would also explore some of the bad habits that would eventually lead to his lonely ruin. In truth, Fort Hood and Killeen—Squaresville by any measure in 1958—would turn out to be an ideal place of self-discovery for a guy who was, deep down, a square. Perhaps Elvis was aided in his quest by the beautiful girlfriend who flew in to visit him whenever she could and by the girls chasing him everywhere he went, squealing his name. But it was his new career, soldiering, that stirred him the most. He had never been popular in school, but now he was one of the guys, doing what was expected of him, fitting in instead of being the crazy outsider. Elvis wasn’t just a soldier; he was a good one.
And his mother, the most important person in the world, doomed to die before the summer was over, knew it. She was waiting at home in Killeen with his supper ready. Running in the brush along the creek through other back yards and finally into his own, Elvis Presley would never again be happier.
Fort Hood, with 335 square miles, is the largest Army post in the United States. It is bigger than most Texas cities. The base, originally called Camp Hood, was created in 1942 out of ranchland and farmland so American soldiers could learn to fight the German Panzer tanks rolling over Europe. The terrain is much like Germany’s, with long, sloping hills and lush green gaps, though the fatherland doesn’t have as much live oak and sage grass. The prettiest part of Fort Hood is that on which the soldiers spend so much time practicing destruction—the huge northern section. Down south are the barracks, administration buildings, and rec centers where, these days, some 40,000 soldiers and their families live and work. There are no monuments or plaques along Tank Destroyer Boulevard honoring Elvis nor other joes like baseball great Jackie Robinson. It turns out that most of the old wooden barracks are gone anyway and newer brick ones have been erected in their place. According to Charlie Moore, the command historian at III Corps and Fort Hood, there is no record of where Private Presley lived. “The Army doesn’t try and distinguish between soldiers,” he says. Ceilia Stratton of the Fourth Infantry Division Museum says that when she got to Fort Hood, she spent six years trying to find anything about Elvis, but she found little. The Army prefers its soldiers to be anonymous; that’s why they get buzz cuts and wear uniforms. It’s all about the individual melting into the mass. In 1958 the most unique individual in America did just that.
He had come from Memphis, where on March 24, 1958, at the induction center, nearly five hundred screaming and crying girls had said good-bye. “Heaven knows I want to live up to what people expect of me,” Elvis, classified 1-A and wearing pink-and-black socks (his favorite colors), had told a reporter. From Memphis he and a busload of recruits went to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, where he got his shots, his famous haircut (“Hair today, gone tomorrow,” he’d said to the 55 newsmen and photographers), and his orders: Fort Hood, the Second Armored Division, General George S. Patton’s “Hell on Wheels” wild bunch. The bus, with thirteen recruits now, was followed by caravans of fans and reporters all the way to Texas. After a lunch at a Hillsboro diner, girls fought for Elvis’ chair.
At least thirty newsmen awaited the bus when it arrived at 4:34 on the afternoon of March 28 at Fort Hood. Elvis was the second man off. They crowded around and asked questions, which he took pains to answer. They asked him to salute and he did. After a press conference and his first Army meal—fish and French fries—he was off-limits to the media. From that point on, Elvis would be “just another soldier,” said an Army spokeswoman. As if to prove her wrong, a dozen teenage girls gathered outside the mess hall. “Let us see him and we’ll go away!” they yelled. The military police were called to disperse them.
On March 29 Elvis woke up in a large barracks with five dozen other men. The millionaire entertainer, suddenly earning $78 a month, was desperate to be accepted as one of the guys. Dorton Matthews, a sergeant in the barracks, remembers how every arriving recruit had received $20 in cash to get another haircut and buy toothpaste and other necessities: “One of the sergeants told Presley, ‘Presley, give me that twenty dollars—you don’t need it.’ Presley said, ‘Sergeant, I’m broke.’” Elvis was also desperate not to be given any favors. His comrades were skeptical. Rex Mansfield, who had started out with Elvis on the Memphis bus, remembers the gibes thrown Elvis’ way: “Where’s your hound dog?” and “Aren’t y’all lonesome for your teddy bear?” “If anything,” wrote Mansfield in a memoir, “it was harder on him, because he was being watched all the time by everybody.”
Elvis had never lived away from home before, and he was miserable, homesick for his mother, Gladys. “He needed someone to look out for him,” Mansfield says, “and Sergeant Norwood was a good one to do that.” William Norwood, the master sergeant, saw the despair in the kid’s face and took him home so he could call his mother. “When you come in my house, you can let it all out” was Norwood’s fatherly advice. “But when you walk out of my front door, you are now Elvis Presley. You’re an actor. You’re a soldier. So, by God, I want you to act! Don’t let anybody know how you feel on the inside.”
Basic training is exactly that—the fundamentals. Reveille blew a little before five, and in the mornings Elvis and the other six thousand recruits sat in classrooms. In the afternoons they exercised and marched five, ten, and twenty miles at a time. They shot rifles and pistols and practiced hand-to-hand combat with bayonets. They inched along on their backs over fields of sharp stones and barbed wire with machine gun fire zipping over their heads. Then they did the course on their stomachs. At night they did it again and watched the tracers shooting by overhead. Elvis, who had been in ROTC in high school, was made an acting squad leader, as were Mansfield and another Tennessean from the bus, William Norvell, Elvis’ next-door cot-mate whom he had nicknamed Nervous. As acting squad leaders, they were also corporals of the guard, in charge of the men pulling guard duty. They wore armbands and saw that orders were carried out. Like most of the men, Elvis got his share of shooting medals: a Marksman medal with the rifle and a Sharpshooter with the pistol. Elvis the perfectionist studied his field manuals late into the night, and he witnessed his first karate demonstration, put on by his sergeants. His hair, naturally dark blond, got lighter in the Texas sun.
Elvis loved all of it, says Dorton Matthews: “The organization, the people, the everyday life, the routines. You get up in the morning, you knew what you were gonna do tomorrow morning and the one after. No big surprises.” And as soon as they saw he was just another recruit, he became one of the guys. “I thought he was gonna get special treatment,” remembers another private, Simon Vega. “But he did KP, guard duty, everything, just like us. Did every detail we did.” The teasing had stopped by the end of basic. Of course, Elvis did get minor special treatment when no one was watching. He could, for example, sneak out of the barracks and go see Anita Wood, his girlfriend, if nothing was going on. She had arrived one night from Jackson, Tennessee, and she was conveniently staying at the home of Sergeant Norwood. Elvis saw her often.
Elvis didn’t bring his guitar, but several of the other recruits did, and some nights they would sit around and play. “It was like when people in the country get together and play music,”remembers Matthews. One afternoon the platoon was in formation with time to kill before a march. Elvis went into the day room and began playing the piano. “We were all standing there listening,” says Matthews. “Finally a colonel came looking for us and yelled at us to get going. We had to double-time it there. We told him, ‘Don’t you ever play the piano again.’” Elvis’ homesickness was perhaps alleviated by the 15,000 fan letters he was getting every week. And the girls who chased him every day. Fort Hood was (and is) an open base; anyone could drive on. “We chased him all the time,” remembers Sandra Oslin Bright. “And he was always so cordial to us.” Jane Levy Christie, then a junior in high school, remembers, “One of the pastimes was on weekends my friends and I would go out on the base and try to find him. Some of the freshmen and sophomores went squealing after him. We thought that was kind of gauche. But it was okay to drive around on Fort Hood and look for him. Once we found him and took him for a ride to the Dairy Queen, which our boyfriends didn’t like very much.” The girls seemed to know where he was, as if they were sending secret messages to each other, fired by hormones. It helped that the Army kept a schedule, so they knew, for example, when Elvis would go to the telephone building to call home. They would be there, waiting. And inevitably he’d come out, talk, sign autographs, and kiss someone on the cheek. Matthews remembers the only time they had a problem. “One night I heard a commotion. It was around midnight. We ran out. There were fifteen or twenty women in the barracks looking for Elvis. We had to have guards after that.”
On May 31 the recruits got a two-week leave before their next phase of training began. Elvis drove to Memphis with Mansfield and Nervous Norvell. He recorded five songs in a Nashville studio, his first session without longtime partners Scotty Moore and Bill Black. And he hung out with his buddies at Graceland. He wore his uniform often, and when a reporter asked him why, he replied, “Simple. I’m kinda proud of it.” Upon his return to Fort Hood, he found out that, since basic was over, he could live off the base—as long as he had dependents living in the area. Within a week, Elvis’ mother and father—Gladys and Vernon—as well as his grandmother Minnie and one of his right-hand men, Lamar Fike, were living in a three-bedroom trailer near Fort Hood. They outgrew that in a hurry and soon found a large three-bedroom home in Killeen for rent from Chester Crawford, a lawyer who gouged them for an outrageous $700 a month. Elvis didn’t mind—he could afford it.
Killeen, born on the railroad line in 1882 and forever partnered with Fort Hood, is a confident place, one that wouldn’t know modern evil until 1991, when George Hennard smashed his pickup through a Luby’s window, got out, and methodically shot 22 people dead. If he is Killeen’s dark memory, Elvis is the sweet, nostalgic bond. Almost everyone in town seems to have some connection, however thin, with him: the waitress at the Hallmark Restaurant whose old boyfriend served with him; the friend of the librarian who had taken the receipt with “Elvis Presley” on it out of the back seat of his open Cadillac and still felt a little guilty; the former baby-sitter who slid over on the front seat of her car and let Elvis drive his buddies to the post theater and still recalled the incandescence of the moment 42 years later. Polly Peaks-Elmore, a cheerful 69-year-old, saw Elvis at the Heart O’ Texas Coliseum in Waco. She wasn’t, she insists, one of the screaming girls. “Oh, no,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. “I was married with two sons.” Now she’s driving along Oak Hill Drive, a street that winds along a rise just above U.S. 190. “At one point,” she says, “Oak Hill Drive was the elite street in Killeen.” Most of the houses here are trim and neat one-story brick—red, beige, or white. The house at 605, lawyer Crawford’s place, is beige with a four-foot base of red brick along the bottom. It sits back from the street and has a large front yard with trees. Inside, the carpet has been replaced, the fireplace has been remodeled, and the walls have been repainted, but the counter tile in the kitchen is the same blazing Pepto-Bismol pink it was 42 years ago. The toilets (now burgundy) were once pink too. This, you would think, made Elvis very happy.
Immediately after he and his family moved in, the crowds began showing up, usually around the time he’d get home from the base. They’d sit in the lawn or stand in the street, talking—most of them knew each other—and waiting. When Elvis got home from work, he’d stand outside and talk to the fans, sometimes for hours. “He was a sweet person,” says neighbor Joan Weiss. Kathy Wells Gilmore was ten and waited one day with her aunt and cousin after everyone else had left. Elvis drove up. “He came out to the street where we were standing and visited with us for a long time,” says Gilmore. “He acted like we were the most important thing in the world. Then he kissed me on the cheek. I didn’t wash my face for two months!”
Elvis had always treated his fans with affection. At Graceland he would often come out and sign autographs for hours. “They’re my life’s blood,” he would say about his fans, though in Killeen, if he’d had a long day, he would have his driver let him out down on U.S. 190, then he’d climb the hill and sneak his way into his back yard. Or he’d detour through Bob Young’s deer pen on the east side, after Young gave him a key. Or he’d just cut through the yards on the other side. Once, says Janie Sullivan, who lived two doors down, he had his driver let him out farther down the street. “He was coming across our back yard, and he got his neck caught in our clothesline. Just then, Victor, our son Gerry’s dog, hit him. Got him by the pants leg.” Almost always, though, after he had gone inside and relaxed, he would come out and visit with fans.
Not everybody thrilled to the sight of Elvis. “I was raising a family, and I was busy,” says Razz Duncan, who lived next door. “I liked to hear him playing the piano and singing, but I’m not going to go panting after him.” Other Oak Hill residents called the police one night about all the dust raised by cars coming down the street and turning around at unpaved Young Circle. Teenagers petitioned the city council to change the name of the street to Presley Drive; the motion, said officials, was tabled for further study.
Elvis had visitors—Colonel Parker, Vic Morrow, some Hollywood buddies. Mary Jane Craig, who currently owns the house on Oak Hill, tells the story about the guy who’d been working on one of Elvis’ cars. He delivered it to the house and rang the bell to get the invoice signed. He got no answer but rang again and heard a woman’s voice call out to come in. He did, and she called, “In here!” from the bathroom. He entered and an arm appeared from behind the shower curtain to sign the paper. The arm belonged, he later learned, to Natalie Wood.
During the long days at Fort Hood, Elvis was in the middle of advanced individual training, learning to be a tanker. This was Patton’s division, and they trained on the sixty-ton M48 Patton Tank. (Elvis was gung ho about the general. When one of his lieutenants in Germany quoted to him Patton’s famous line, “I don’t want to die for my country; I want the other son of a bitch to die for his country,” Elvis replied, “Damn right!”) The soldiers cleaned tanks and fired them out on the range; they took the engines out and put them back, changed the tracks, and ran formations. Elvis placed third in tank gunnery. He liked tanks—perhaps they reminded him of his beloved Cadillacs—and he liked being in charge. Dorton Matthews remembers how once, after he put Elvis in command of a tank, the other recruits begged him to put someone else in charge. “He’s working us to death,” they complained.
Most of all, he liked working with his hands instead of his hips and being in the company of men, not young girls. It was easy to get the teenagers’ approval—he did that every day when he went home. It was harder with a bunch of soldiers. Sometimes he took over the company drum, keeping time while the men marched. He played football with the others. He took ribbings and dished them out. “I learned a lot about people in the Army,” Elvis said later. “I never lived with other people before and had a chance to find out how they think.” When GIs from other companies razzed Elvis during marches, Sergeant Norwood would stop the proceedings and dress the offender down. “We would not let people bother him,” Matthews says. “Maybe that was our special treatment of him.” Elvis was, everyone agreed, a good soldier, one of the best in the company. “He loved the Army,” remembers Mansfield. “It was a way to express himself and find out who he really was.” “At Fort Hood,” Anita Wood said later, “he had finally found himself.”
To lose himself, Elvis would go to Waco, about forty miles away. There’s a plaque in the grass outside the home at 2807 Lasker Avenue that reads: “In loving memory of Elvis Aaron Presley 1935-1977. A loving home away from home. Waco, Tx 1956-58.” Like Elvis’ own tombstone, the plaque misspells his middle name (it’s Aron), and like many monuments, it exaggerates the time frame. But Elvis did sleep here in the summer of ‘58—often. The home belonged to Eddie Fadal, a former DJ whom Elvis had met in Dallas in February 1956 on one of his frequent Texas tours (see the sidebar “On the Road in Texas,” at the end of this story). In October 1956 Eddie had gone to see Elvis at a show in Waco and invited him to his home afterward. Elvis came at about one in the morning with his buddies and his band, their instruments strapped to the roof of the car. Eddie’s wife, LaNelle, fixed a meal of bacon and eggs, and the group stayed up late, talking and playing records. Later, when Elvis was stationed at Fort Hood, Eddie drove down and visited and invited him back to Waco. Elvis came at least six times that summer, sometimes with friends, often with Anita. Eddie even added on an extra room to his house and decorated it to Elvis’ fancy, with pink-and-black cabinets, plush black-and-white carpet, a hi-fi, a glass cigar box filled with the Hav-a-tampa cigarillos Elvis loved to chew on, and a couch. It was a place for Elvis and Anita to relax in private. Janice Fadal, Eddie’s daughter, still lives in Waco and, along with her brother, still owns much of the Elvis memorabilia her father, who died in 1994, had collected over the years. It would eventually wind up in a museum that took up the family’s two-car garage (“The largest Elvis museum west of the Mississippi,” Eddie used to say). In her living room she sifts through several boxes of the King’s artifacts. One is full of scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings (“Pres. of Elvis fan club calls Waco a town of squares”) and photos, many of her father with Elvis and other fifties rock and roll stars. Another yields a black motorcycle cap (size 7) with a white star—the same cap on Elvis’ head in a photo on the wall at Waco’s famous Elite Cafe. Elvis bought it in Fort Worth. He got it, says Janice, because he thought it looked like the one Marlon Brando wore in The Wild One. Janice pulls out another hat—a cloth one bearing Elvis’ face and several song titles—and a tiny covered wagon showing his name and “1956,” from the first year of Elvis merchandising, which would lead to 78 Elvis products and gross sales of an unbelievable $55 million by the end of 1957.
Down at the bottom is something Janice’s father never expected anyone to see: Two bottles of prescription drugs, both about 42 years old. The first is made out for “Elvis Pressley,” the second for “Elvis Presly.” The first holds the powdery remains of a dozen or so odorless white, gray, and pink pills; the other has about the same number of gooey black lumps, stuck together like so many Good & Plenty candies that have had their shells sucked off. They smell sweet, like lost chemicals, and after several attempts at odor identification, one’s teeth begin to rattle. Perhaps it’s just the thrill of sticking your nose into Elvis Presley’s pill bottles.
“My father knew all the doctors in town,” says Janice. “It was easy to get a prescription filled.” Uppers? Downers? “Yeah. He’d say, ‘Elvis needs to sleep.’” The man who would shake America from its dormancy in the fifties would become, as the country went wild in the sixties, a complacent, drug-addicted boor. It was either during his time at Fort Hood or just before that Elvis developed a fondness for amphetamines. His mother was taking speed to control her weight, and it has been reported that Elvis’ drug use began when he got into her diet pills. However it came about, Elvis believed prescription drugs were harmless, and he took them often (in Germany he would graduate to buying quart bottles of speed from the base pharmacist). Needless to say, the bottles weren’t part of the official Eddie Fadal Elvis Museum. “My father was always trying to protect Elvis,” says Janice. “I don’t do that.”
Elvis felt at home at the Fadals’. “We were a Lebanese family,” says Janice, “warm and welcoming.” On his first visit, during basic training, Elvis had called home to his mother. Eddie later remembered the phone call: “When he got her on the line, all he said was, ‘Mama …’ And, apparently, she said, ‘Elvis… .’ And from then on, for a whole hour, they were crying and moaning on the telephone—hardly a word was spoken.”
Eddie lived for Elvis. “Whatever it took to make him comfortable,” he once said, “I’d do it. When he said, ‘I want a banana cream pie,’ brother, I rushed down to the Toddle House and got him a banana cream pie.” Elvis would go with Eddie to drive-in movies but would stay in the car when Eddie went to get concessions. Elvis couldn’t go anywhere in public and would rent out theaters after-hours and invite friends. Neighbors and tourists would park on Lasker Avenue and wait for a glimpse when he came home.
Janice remembers, “I’d sit at a table in the back of the house, coloring. Once I saw a bunch of limos pull up and I ran screaming through the house, ‘Elvis is here!’ Dad was excited but Mom freaked out. She knew that she had to cook for Elvis and the people with him.” Her mother, she would later learn, resented Elvis. “He became my father’s focus instead of us—the family. Elvis didn’t mean to. It’s the way people reacted to him.” Still, LaNelle learned to cook Elvis’ way—burnt bacon, hard fried eggs, and fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches. Once she prepared a steak dinner for Elvis and his troupe, but Elvis told her, politely, that he didn’t eat steak. Did she have any bacon? LaNelle was nearly out, so she ran down to the corner store, bought a pound, and brought it back and cooked it. While everyone else ate steak, Elvis dined on a pound of bacon.
Eddie made home movies (silent but in color) and recordings, both quite rare in 1958, of his friend. After Elvis got out of the Army, in 1960, every photo would be posed and every movement choreographed to display maximum confidence and appeal; in 1958, Elvis wasn’t nearly as guarded or polished. In an early scene he sits surrounded by people at the Fadals’. A record was on the hi-fi, says Janice (“He didn’t want to hear any of his music, always what was hot at the time”) who, at four years old, is dancing (“Dad would say, ‘Dance for Elvis!’”). The camera—run by LaNelle—cuts to a shot of Elvis’ feet jiggling uncontrollably, then back to his face. LaNelle tries to get Elvis to smile, but he won’t, so she slides the camera back down again to his feet. When it comes back up, he gives a quick, forced smile and laughs and sits down and sips his drink. He self-consciously jokes with someone off-camera while LaNelle records his discomfort. Then he turns and says something to the camera. It looks like “I’m sorry.” He pauses for a second and reverts to the expression that always won over the girls: the sneer. This time it failed. “My mom thought he was arrogant,” says Janice. “After that night, he never again called her by her name. It was always Mrs. Fadal.”
There’s footage of Elvis—tanned and in uniform—with svelte Anita and Elvis kissing Janice on the cheek while he’s eating sweet pickles. Elvis chewing on a cigar on the couch in his pink-and-black playpen in front of several framed photos of himself, mugging for the camera. Elvis singing at the piano with Nervous Norvell. Elvis spent a lot of time at the Fadals’ piano, and on one of his early visits, Eddie turned on a tape recorder. Elvis is relaxed, playing the slightly out of tune piano with more feeling than technique. You can hear Janice and her brother, Dana, crying and playing in the background as Elvis plays and sings “Please Understand,” then “Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby,” with Eddie feeding him the words. Later Eddie puts on the single of the Tune Weavers’ version of the song. Elvis harmonizes with the low part, then a high one; he keeps asking Eddie to replay the song as he sings the low harmony, playing with parts and trying to get it right. At one point he says, “I like to sing bass, boy!” After another time he says, “I goofed up. I gotta have it one more time.” He sings the song eight times. It turns out that this, the unofficial Elvis, was as much a perfectionist as the official version, who would redo his vocals over and over in the studio. Indeed, the living room session is a small mirror of how they did things back at Sun studios only three years before, when Elvis, Scotty, and Bill stuttered and improvised their way endlessly through various songs before coming up with proto-rock and roll on “That’s All Right.” Elvis ends the tape by getting back on the piano and playing a jaunty version of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” while Dana cries loudly. The song ends and Elvis calls out something like, “Oh, now, hea!” And then you hear him humming another harmony as the tape fades out—as if he couldn’t stop singing.
Throughout that summer of 1958, Eddie would drive down and visit the Presleys in Killeen and bring banana cream and chocolate cream pies from the Toddle House diner and new 45s, both of which Elvis would devour. He sometimes ate a whole pie. Elvis would bring his parents up to visit the Fadals. On some weekends Elvis hit the road with friends, going to Dallas and Fort Worth, where they would go girl-watching at the Sheraton and the Quality Inn, a place that stewardesses were known to stay. Then—it was almost too good to be true—they heard about the American Airlines Stewardess College, the country’s first and only, in Fort Worth. One of Elvis’ people called and they visited. Ronnie Anagnostis was the house mother; her husband Nick was in charge of the building, grounds, and security. “I got a call saying he’d be coming,” she remembers. “I was looking out the window and saw him drive up. I got on the P.A. and said, ‘Girls, guess what? Elvis Presley is coming through the front door!’ I never heard such a commotion—running all over the place and screaming. The only thing they didn’t do was fly over the balcony.” In his book, Mansfield describes the scene in the giddy tone of a young man agog—driving up in a limo, young ladies opening the doors, and being escorted into a huge lobby with available beauties everywhere. “It was like something you would only see in the movies. Here was Elvis the King and us surrounded by a harem of beautiful women.”
All the while, Colonel Parker did his best to keep Elvis in the public eye. “Hard Headed Woman,” recorded during his two-week leave, was released in June and became a number one hit. The movie King Creole came out in July, giving Elvis the best reviews he ever got—even the New York Times gave him a nod. It was a good time to be Elvis.
And then his world ended. In early August the recruits began the final phase of their time at Fort Hood—basic unit training, a more refined tank training. Around the same time, Gladys, an alcoholic with a speed problem who had never been comfortable in the Texas heat, began feeling poorly. She was losing her color and her eyes got a yellow tinge to them. When she took a turn for the worse, a local doctor recommended sending her to her regular physician in Memphis. Elvis put her on a train on August 8 and soon followed. On August 14 she died of a heart attack, brought on by acute hepatitis. Elvis was inconsolable. One of his first calls was to Sergeant Norwood. They talked until four in the morning. Elvis called Eddie and told him, “I’ve lost the only person I ever really loved.” His leave was extended five days, and he wandered around Graceland in a daze, babbling his grief. At the cemetery, as he was led away from the casket, he cried out, “Oh, God! Everything I have is gone!”A grieving Elvis went back to work at Fort Hood on August 25. His dad, Vernon, grandmother Minnie, cousins Gene and Junior Smith, as well as right-hand man Lamar Fike, were there to keep him company. Colonel Parker and Anita Wood visited. Minnie cooked, and the bunch spent the nights playing and singing gospel songs until late. The whole country mourned (more than 100,000 cards and letters poured into Parker’s headquarters). The men at Fort Hood did too. “Things were never quite the same again at Fort Hood,” wrote Mansfield. “We all suffered.” They became even more protective of their friend. “After his mother died,” Matthews says, “we saw to it that nobody interfered with his privacy. He got a lot more serious. I doubt he was ever as happy after she died. I don’t think he ever got over it.”
During his last week at Fort Hood, Elvis was promoted to private, first class. That week, the crowds outside the Oak Hill Drive home were the largest of his stay. Some nights a hundred people kept vigil. On his last night, reported the Killeen Daily Herald, “a very nice, orderly group” lined the yard but left the driveway clear so Elvis could leave for a dinner date. “Only a scream or two from teenage girls disrupted the orderly way in which the crowd greeted Elvis.” Later that night Elvis’ gang got together at the house one last time. Elvis asked Eddie to lead the group in prayer, and then he drove to the troop train that would take him and 1,360 other GIs to Brooklyn, where they would sail for Germany. “I just feel sad,” Elvis told a reporter as he waved to Anita, Eddie, and a dozen fan club presidents who stood in the light rain. They had tears in their eyes, and so did he. Earlier that night Elvis had told Eddie, “Eddie, I really feel this is the end of my career. Everybody is going to forget about me.”
Like that was ever going to happen. The truth is, Elvis spent the next seventeen years abandoning his fans, making movies in which his action-toy roles seemed to mirror his increasing personal confusion, recording banal albums, and isolating himself more and more with drugs and his Memphis mafia. His mother—his moral and emotional compass—was long gone, as were his Army buddies, the last men to whom he would ever feel accountable. At the end, he had nothing left to prove and no one to prove it to, and it killed him, at age 42. If, as Elvis lay bloated and dying on the bathroom floor at Graceland on August 16, 1977, he saw pieces of his unbelievable life pass before his eyes, you’d like to think that he dreamed of himself as he used to be, as the young, gorgeous rebel whose greatest joys were music, his mother, and pleasing his fans waiting out on the street. You hope that he imagined himself one last time, walking from his house up the long driveway to the street where the girls stood, breathless. He’s at ease, talking to everyone, listening, calming their teenage nerves. He smiles, holds their hands, kisses them, and sends them away feeling like he feels—chosen. Then, when everyone is gone, he goes back inside, where his mother is waiting.