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