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Being Stationed With Elvis

By Mark Bennett - The Tribune-StarAug 12, 2006
Don Maloney learned a lesson that night — never go to the snack bar of the PX at Camp Wildflecken, Germany, with Elvis Presley if you’re really hungry.

But it was dinner time, and the guys from the U.S. Army’s 32nd Armored Division had just arrived at the base for a month of training. So Don, Elvis and a few other soldiers decided to sample the PX cuisine. No big deal, unless the guy in line ahead of you is the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.

“Them German women seen him — and they knew who he was — and just went crazy. And that’s using the word mildly,” Don said of that moment in 1959. “But the rest of us always kidded that we could’ve walked off with the whole store, because they were just flocking around him. We couldn’t even get a sandwich.”

Even in his younger days, Elvis obviously cast a big shadow.

But Maloney wouldn’t complain then or now. He spent 18 months serving in the Army alongside Earth’s most enduring pop icon. And even as the 29th anniversary of Elvis’ death next Wednesday nears, those days still give Maloney lots of stories to tell at the Ford garage in Clinton where he works, or around St. Bernice where he lives.

“I tell people that’s the only famous person I ever knew and probably ever will,” Maloney said. “But I also tell people he was a nice guy.”

When they first met, Elvis was already the King, but his official title was “private,” just like Maloney. They were both 23 years old when they entered the Army in March 1958 and were sent Fort Hood, Texas for basic training. That fall, they got shipped to Friedberg, Germany to serve in the 1st Medium Tank Battalion’s Headquarters Company.

Elvis drove a Jeep as a scout driver. And aside from having two civilian bodyguards, Pvt. Presley was an Average Joe, Maloney said this week.

“He was just like any other ordinary G.I. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m Elvis Presley’ or anything,” he said. “He drove a Jeep and did his duty and didn’t get any special treatment that I know of.”

Except for those bodyguards.

And Elvis also couldn’t perform for his fellow soldiers, Don recalled, because of contract limitations. But on a base of 2,500 servicemen, he and Presley talked to each other about a half-dozen times before they returned to the States early in 1960. Sometimes they hung out at a bowling alley, or a German movie theater, or that PX snack bar full of fawning Frauleins.

“He always had time to stop and talk,” Maloney said.

By then, Presley already was a superstar who had introduced the world to rock ’n’ roll with “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Love Me Tender.” And he’d filmed four movies before an Army barber buzzed away his familiar black pompadour. Like the rest of the planet’s population, Don obviously knew who Elvis was, but rock ’n’ roll wasn’t Maloney’s favorite music.

“I was a country fan, and back then he hadn’t been singing too long. Thing is, I wish I knew then that he was going to be that big,” he said. “I would’ve taken more pictures.”

Instead, Don posed for only a few snapshots alongside Presley. And sadly, they’ve gotten lost over the years.

He also wishes he’d acted on his temptation to kid the King about picking up his weekly Army paycheck. “I always wanted to ask him how it was to stand in line for 60 bucks,” Don said. “But I never got up the guts.”

After their stints ended, “I never even seen him again,” Maloney said.

Don is 71 years old now, and is semi-retired from a 43-year career on the railroad in Indiana. Presley would be 71 years old too, had he not died on Aug. 16, 1977 inside his Graceland mansion at Memphis.

Presley’s death hardly dampened interest in his music, movies and life. Graceland draws 600,000 tourists a year, and its “Elvis Week” celebration — running from Tuesday through next Wednesday — will account for 10,000 of those visitors. His old military buddies, though, don’t usually show up en masse, for whatever reason.

“You’re not going to see a group in Army fatigues from the 1950s here,” said Kevin Kern, the 28-year-old media coordinator at Graceland.

Nonetheless, Elvis still appeals to people of that vintage, as well as twentysomethings like Kern who weren’t even born when Elvis died. Half the people who visit Graceland are under 35, Kern said.

And there’s no apprehension about arranging Elvis Week festivities around Presley’s death date.

“While it’s sad in his passing, it’s a festival-like atmosphere here as Graceland celebrates his life,” Kern said.

Some of those visitors take a 90-minute tour bus ride to Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, Miss. That more modest home, purchased by Elvis after he performed there in 1957 and donated to the city, is now a museum. Three hundred and 50 people stopped in on Tuesday, explained its executive director, Dick Guyton. This restored, white building draws 80,000 fans a year and is Mississippi’s largest tourism attraction.

Guyton is 67 and grew up in Tupelo, just as Elvis did until his family moved to Memphis when he turned 13. But he never knew Presley.

“We were just two little boys growing up in Tupelo,” he said Wednesday. “Even if we had passed each other, I wouldn’t have known him and he wouldn’t have known me.”

Don Maloney suspects Elvis might not recognize him either, if Presley were alive today.

“He wouldn’t remember me,” Don said. “But he sure would remember some of the places we were at.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at mark.bennett@tribstar.com or (812) 231-4377.
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