It was time to leave The Garden at Graceland that early Monday morning. The bus would be leaving for Tupelo by 9:00 a.m. There I was, going from final resting place to birthplace. It was my third day in Memphis, and it would be a full one, spending the day in Tupelo, Mississippi, then coming back just in time to make the annual Elvis Presley Memorial Dinner Charity Event at the renowned Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis.
The early morning walk-up to the Meditation Garden and the gravesite had been profoundly moving and ethereal. But now it was time to move on to where all this that we were here for had begun.
I had always pictured Tupelo in black and white. The tiny house, the surroundings, the sky, the trees, the family... It would be different on this day, because the sun was shining and everything was in color. Especially green.
The tour guide greeted us as we settled onto the "Southern Stages" tour bus, ready to go. She did a head count and a survey of where we were from. We were from Chicago, Germany, Nicaragua, and Iowa. We were from France in the person of Chris, a young man in his mid-thirties who had made the trip to Memphis three times before. There was a couple on the bus from Tennessee who surprised her. "We'll have people from Afghanistan, but not from Tennessee," she said. "We have a real mix of people," the tour guide went on, "which is typical of our Elvis fans." Then she went on to say, "The fans are the most friendly people in my groups that I do all year." She must have been to Tupelo a hundred times, doing her job as tour guide, but her descriptions sounded fresh and her enthusiasm was sincere.
The bus was comfortable and they had video monitors throughout. She put on an audio tape of the “1968 Special” for us to listen to as we rolled out of the Graceland Plaza back parking lot and on toward Mississippi. When "Blue Christmas" sounded over the speakers, she laughed and said, "Elvis singing this song is the only Christmas music I can listen to in mid-August!"
Memphis to Tupelo, located in NE Mississippi, is about 97 miles. We headed south on Highway 78. As we rolled on, I was struck by how green everything was. I'd seen lots of green countryside before, of course, but somehow this seemed greener than most places. Well, that made sense, I would learn, as the tour guide explained that we were traveling through the Mississippi Delta, which starts at Memphis and goes down to Natchez, Mississippi. This was the most fertile land in the United States we were told. Here were the cotton fields of the South that you only read about in books if you're up in Yankee country like me. These miles were infamous for their place in American history. That's what it was, today, I thought. I trip into history.
There's probably not much special about Tupelo, but for the fact of who was born there. The story of Tupelo is now the stuff of American folklore, and this, as best as I know it, is how the story goes.
Vernon Elvis Presley and Gladys Love Smith had both come from poor but proud, large sharecropping southern families. They met one Mississippi afternoon in Roy Martin's grocery store in Tupelo. She was 21, with black hair and luminous dark eyes. She worked grueling 12-hour shifts at the local Tupelo Garment Plant, but was notorious at the town's dance halls for her moves on the dance floor. She moved and danced as the spirit moved her and was considered wild in those days. Scandalous almost. She was also a religious woman who was fervent in her Baptist beliefs and who believed in omens.
Vernon was a handsome young man. He was tall, with blond, wavy hair and blue eyes and a finely chiseled face. He was only 17, but had already developed a suave demeanor and a way with women, much like his father Jessie Presley. Vernon worked on a farm owned by a Mr. Orville Bean.
Vernon and Gladys became smitten. They would become a familiar twosome at the First Assembly of God Baptist Church in Tupelo.
Not long after they met, young Vernon proposed to Gladys and they would elope the very same day. Vernon had to borrow $3 for the marriage license, and they had to lie about their ages to get that license.
He continued working on the farm of Orville Bean and she in the Tupelo Garment Plant and would spend much of their free time sitting on the front porch and singing spirituals with friends and family. It was the midst of the Great Depression in America. And cotton was still being picked by hand in Mississippi.
Gladys became pregnant and with the pregnancy became even more fervent in her religious beliefs. She continued to work despite having to wrap her badly swollen legs to survive the 12-hour shifts at the plant.
Vernon would build them a home, a two-room house that would be situated next to his father, Jessie, and mother, Minnie Mae, Elvis Presley's beloved grandmother "Dodger" who would, years later, come to be buried next to her grandson at Graceland.
Vernon borrowed $180 from his landlord, Mr. Orville Bean, and built himself his house. The home was called a "shotgun shack," because its front and back doors were completely aligned, allowing for a straight shot through the house. It would be a house with two rooms. A bedroom and a kitchen. That's it.
There would be no running water and no electricity. There would be an outhouse. This was not the good part of town. Among the working southern poor struggling to pull themselves through the Great Depression were the moonshiners and grifters.
A bad storm was hitting Tupelo. Sleet was pelting much of the northeastern part of Mississippi the early morning of January 8, 1935. It was before the dawn.
The doctor, a "welfare obstetrician," arrived in his Model-T Ford at the house when Gladys was in her tenth hour of labor. The labor wasn't going well. The others present were Minnie Mae and a midwife, and they were worried about Gladys making it through the morning. At 4:00 a.m. a boy was finally born, but Jesse Garon was dead. Vernon Presley would recount years later that it was his father Jessie who put his hands on Gladys' stomach and announced that there was another baby in there.
Elvis Aaron came into the world at 4:35 a.m. that rough winter morning in Tupelo. According to his father, who would tell and retell the story years later, the storm broke and a thin horizon of blue sky appeared atop the Mississippi hills. This baby boy was alive and well.
Gladys would continue to maintain the belief that when one twin dies, the living baby would live for two and would inherit the strengths of the deceased child.
The doctor, whose $15 fee would be paid by welfare, wanted the new mother hospitalized, but she refused until Jesse Garon was buried. The Smith and Presley families gathered in the tiny kitchen, with the tiny coffin on the table, and gave the stillborn son a proper memorial, ending it with the mournful hillbilly "songs of the dead", a sign of respect for the lost soul. He was laid to rest in the Priceville Baptist Cemetery, in an unmarked grave. The Presley's could not afford the $3.50 needed for a headstone. There were no flowers, only the “hillbilly wails” bidding farewell.
Gladys would go to the hospital and would remain there for almost two weeks because she was bleeding so badly inside. Elvis Aaron, whom she would nurse, would remain with her in the hospital's charity ward. It was there that the first bonds between mother and son were forged. The young mother would not be able to bear any more children. Her doctor would tell her that her son's survival was miraculous given the conditions of her labor. Gladys Presley would continue to maintain her belief that her surviving son was extra special until the day she died. From the time of that January morning in Mississippi onward, she would continue to fervently believe that God