“Please Don’t Forget Me While I’m Gone!”
“In a few weeks I’ll be going away . . .” As he spoke to the crowd of about seventy-five faithful fans who had waited for hours outside his Whitehaven mansion for a glimpse of him, Elvis Presley’s voice trailed off in a note of wistful sadness.
Teenagers clambered around his tomato-red Lincoln Continental, holding out photos, scraps of paper, sketches of him for his autograph. Silently, he signed them. The fans, too, were strangely quiet now. It was as if they, as well as Elvis, sensed that this was their last meeting for a long, long time . . .
“How’s the Army treatin’ you, Elvis?” a boy called loudly, in a boisterous attempt to break up the gloom.
“No complaints,” Elvis reported with a grin. “Have tank, will travel!” He started the motor. “Gotta go now,” he said, reluctantly. “Goodbye . . . Goodbye, all . . .”
Slowly, he drove through the gates. Then, abruptly, he stopped and turned for a last, long look at the faces behind him. “Thanks,” he called. “Thanks for everything. And please . . . don’t forget me while I’m gone.”
With a final wave of farewell, he drove on.
“Goodbye, Elvis, goodbye . . .” The shouts echoed through the quiet of the warm Southern afternoon. And long after he no longer heard them, they echoed in Elvis Presley’s heart.
He pulled up in front of the magnificent Colonial house, and got out of the car. For a few moments, he stood, looking affectionately at the lovely sight of the lush green rolling lawns; the tall, gently swaying willow trees, shimmering in the gold of the late afternoon setting sun.
Goodbye . . .
For him, there had been many partings, many goodbyes. Goodbyes to his family, when he went away on business. Goodbyes to the fans and friends he met on tour. Goodbyes to his movie co-workers.
But this was different . . .
I’ve got to snap out of it, he told himself. I’m not going to let it get me down. Quickly, he turned and walked into the house. Just time for a snack and a little rest. The folks at Paramount had kindly arranged to have a print of “King Creole” sent to Memphis for a private showing that evening for him and his family and friends. He mustn’t keep anybody waiting.
He went to the kitchen and fixed a sandwich—his favorite peanut butter and banana. But after one bite, he put it down. Funny, but he just didn’t feel like eating.
He went to his room. Carefully, he hung up his garrison cap, his sharply-tailored Army jacket. Then he sank heavily on the bed, his hands clasped behind his head, gazing at the ceiling. But not seeing it.
Again, he saw the faces outside the gates. And all the other faces, so many of them . . .
A little girl in Dallas, so tiny she was able to squeeze through the police lines and tug at his sleeve. “Here,” she said, holding up a tattered teddy bear with both its button eyes missing.
“Want me to put my name on him?” he had asked.
“No,” she had said. “He’s my favorite, but I want you to have him now.”
He just had time to bend down and kiss her before the crowd swallowed her up. . . . And the two teenage girls who had hung around for days when he was working on “Loving You.” When he finally got a few minutes’ break and went over to meet them, they blushed right to the tips of their ears and got so flustered they could hardly speak. But they handed him a beautiful scrap book they had made—it was still right there on his bookshelf—and he’d never forget the look on their faces when they gave it to him.
The bunch of fellows who’d stopped him one night when he was coming out of the RCA building in New York. At first, he thought it meant trouble. Another gang of hecklers, looking for a fight. Then one of the boys held out his hand. “We just want you to know,” he said, “that all the fellows aren’t down on you. We think you’re getting a rough deal.”
The old lady who gave him a Bible, and told how she’s prayed for him . . .
How could he say goodbye to them? And all the folks who had been so good to him. This room. This house. He owed it all, everything he was, everything he would ever be, to them.
He jumped up—he never could lie still for very long—and sat on the edge of the bed, holding his head in his hands. He had to think of something, to find a way, somehow, to tell them.
He got up and went over to his desk. Beside it were several large cartons, filled with stacks upon stacks of letters. He picked them up and looked at the postmarks. Illinois . . . London . . . Iowa . . . California . . . Tokyo . . . And this was just a part of them. He’d read as many as he could. But he couldn’t begin to answer them. He sighed deeply, and searched through the drawers for a sheet of writing paper. Maybe, if he could write one letter that could, somehow, reach them all, it could be done.
He picked up his pen and wrote “Dear Friends—” Then he stopped, and laughed. “Gosh,” he thought, “come to think of it, I’ve never written a real letter in my life! Not even to my Mom and Dad—I always phone them. How do you start? What do you say?”
He chewed the end of his pen, and looked out the window, where the hills around Memphis were already like black shadows against the fading, darkening sky.
Memphis. His home town. Right here, there were so many people he’d like to write this letter to. Miss Scrivener, his home-room teacher at Hume High, who’d encouraged him with his singing. He remembered so clearly—it seemed like yesterday—the time they had the Variety Show, and she said the one who got the most applause could have an encore. The sound of the clapping when he came off the stage, and Miss Scrivener saying, “All right, Elvis—take your encore.” The way he had just stood there, unbelieving, saying, “Oh, Miss Scrivener, do they really like me?”
. . . Sam Phillips. The day he’d walked into Sun Record Company, in his working clothes after a day of truck driving for Crown Electric. They’d thought at first he was looking for a handout. He just wanted to see how he’d sound on a record, and maybe give it to his mother for a present. But Sam didn’t laugh at him. He listened. And, for months after, worked with him to get just the right sound.
. . . Dewey Phillips, the disc jockey at WHBQ, who played his first record, “That’s all Right.” He’d been so nervous he couldn’t listen, and went to a movie. And in the middle of it, his Mom had come and told him, “Elvis, they want you down at the station right away!”
. . . Bob Neal, who put him on his first big program at Overton Park. That was in August, 1954, and it was plenty hot, but he got out there on the stage and sang his heart out. He stumbled off afterwards, dazed and shaking, hardly hearing the shouts and applause. When his head cleared, he saw Bob there, beaming, and Bob’s wife Helen, telling him, “This isn’t just another singer. This boy’s different!”
Colonel Tom Parker, who took over as his manager when Bob and Helen decided that, with their family of five boys, they didn’t want a life that would take them away from Memphis. Colonel Tom, who through the hectic years that followed had kept a shrewd eye and a firm hand at the helm of his career, and now, when the Army had whisked him off to another career, still looked after his affairs, explaining, “It’s the least I can do . . .”
And now, in a few more days, he’d be leaving Memphis. Leaving his friends here—and all his friends everywhere. He’d go back to Fort Hood for advanced armor training, then, no doubt, be shipped right out to Germany in a packet replacement for the Third Armored Division of the Seventh Army.
He looked at the blank sheet of paper before him, then scribbled a few doodles on the blotter beneath it. If only he could put it into words . . . he’d like to make everybody understand how he felt about it. “I guess,” he thought, “unless you’ve been in the Army, it’s hard to understand.”
Sure, he hated to leave Memphis. Sure, he hated to give up the wonderful life he’d had—the fun, the work, the fans. But it wasn’t the way they thought.
It was a different life, a whole new world. Not worse. Just different. Sure, basic training had been tough. He grinned wryly when he thought about it—ninety hours of weapon study, fifty-two hours of work in the field, studying close combat and day and night problems. Guard duty, map reading, first aid, military courtesy, intelligence, landmine warfare, and more.
He’d dropped twelve pounds—he was down to 172—but that didn’t faze him. The only thing that really got him was the snakes. Those Texas snakes! Man, they were swarming all over.
One night, one of his buddies found one in his tent. The next night—Elvis laughed out loud when he remembered it—he’d dreamed there was a snake in his tent, screamed in his sleep—and woke up the whole company!
“But I can’t write about snakes. Who’d care?” Elvis thought, frowning at the paper thoughtfully. “Gee, there’s so much I’d like to tell them, if I could put it into words,” he said again.
Like how it was, when he first came to Fort Hood. He knew that some of the fellows thought he’d try to be a privileged character.
The first day his name came up on the KP roster, they were looking at him when he read it. Waiting to see what he’d do.
“Ow!” he groaned—as the others had before him. But the fellows didn’t laugh. Nobody said a word.
He didn’t say anything either. He went on KP, washing pots and pans, swabbing dining room floors with the rest. He went on guard duty. He dug ditches. And as soon as the fellows saw he wasn’t going to ask for any special favors, everything went okay. They couldn’t have been nicer. They didn’t make one smart remark, or throw an insult all during training.
Oh, they kidded him a lot, you had to expect it. Especially when he got in the pay line—everybody howled. But that money meant the same thing to him as it did to them—he was trying to get along on it. He didn’t have much use for money anyway—it was a long time between leaves, and what could you spend it on?
Suddenly, he gripped his pen firmly. There was one thing he’d like to get straightened out. “That story about me having my Cadillacs on the post,” he thought, his mouth set in a grim line. “What bunk! I only have one car—the white Lincoln Continental—and I keep it off the post—I don’t get any privileges with it the others don’t have!”
Then he sighed, helplessly. He could explain from here to doomsday, and it wouldn’t do any good. It would be like always— if he tried to squelch every unfair story circulated about him, he thought wearily, “I’d have to write an encyclopedia!”
Slowly, he put his pen down. Trying to tell how it really was in the Army—it was tough. Maybe impossible. There was so much, so many memories.
Tumbling out of bed at five in the morning, when the soldier on duty came to turn on the lights and yell, “Everybody up!” Hustling around, still sleepy and grumbling, like the others, trying to get washed and dressed, have his bed made and his bunk area neat in time to fall out for roll call. That had been rough at first, but he soon got used to it. He didn’t sleep more—just at different times. Now, he got drowsy at midnight, when he used to be able to go all night.
Then, the mad rush to the mess hail. He’d hit that chow line like it was the best table at Romanoff’s! Sure, he’d eaten things he never liked before, and some things he didn’t even know what they were—but it was good, healthy food—a lot better than he expected. Anyway, after a hard day’s basic training, you could eat a rattlesnake!
Rushing back to the barracks, along with the others, to stuff some candy bars inside his shirt. Regulations in basic said “no snack breaks,” but they’d soon found out the way to get around it.
First practice on the firing range—feeling jumpy, and so afraid he wouldn’t pass. The feeling of relief when Sergeant Coley told him he’d made it.
Crawling under wire, with live ammunition flying overhead. That was the one time he was really scared stiff!
The day, after six weeks, when they were told they could sew the famous “Hell on Wheels” insignia on their uniforms. That was the one given to the outfit for its heroic deeds under General George Patton in World War II. “Elvis, you look like you’d just been handed a million bucks,” one of his buddies kidded. And he knew what he meant. He really did feel that way.
The rare time off, when they could go to the snack bar, or the movie near their barracks. To them it seemed better than an opening night at a Broadway musical.
Driving an M-48 tank—what a thrill! It wasn’t too different from his Caddies—they were made by the same company, General Motors. But put one of those babies in low gear, and it could plow right through his house!
Playing football. Back in high school, he’d given it up because his mother worried too much that he’d get hurt. Later, he’d never had time. It was such a kick—and when one of the boy s, after a particularly rough scrimmage, yelled, “Hey! This guy’s no softie,” he felt like he’d been decorated.
The nights in the barracks, sitting around on foot lockers, cleaning shoes and rifles and chewing the fat. They’d talked about the big topic in any basic training center—where they’d be sent, and what they d do.
“They oughta pull you out of tank training and put you in Special Services,” one buddy said.
“Sure, I’d like to sing,” he admitted. “But I’m not going to ask for it. I’m not going to ask for any favors.”
“You gonna make the Army your career?” one fellow kidded.
“Well,” he’d answered, “it’s gonna be my career as long as I’m in it!”
At ten, the lights went out, and the talk died down. Then, always, somebody would ask him to sing. And he did—whatever they asked for.
Sometimes, it was a rock ’n’ roll number. When you were far away from home, it cheered you up.
Lots of times, it was a love song . . . Guess that was what any soldier missed the most. girls. When he finally got passes, he’d dated Texas girls—a few—and they were really something. Real pretty. But then, you could find pretty girls anywhere. There were plenty right here in Memphis.
Girls. Yeah, they dreamed a lot about girls. Talked a lot about them, too.
“What about Anita Wood?” they’d ask. “You stuck on her, El? You really gonna marry her?”
“Aw, come off it,” he’d say. “Sure, I like her a lot. But I got no plans for engagement or marriage. I don’t think she has either. I got too much at stake and she has, too. I know the newspapers had us engaged, married, and everything else, but honestly, it just looked that way!”
“That’s right,” one of his buddies chimed in. “Anita only came down to spend three days with El. But she got to be friends with my wife, and when we went on field training, my wife invited Anita to stay with her. And that’s all.”
“What about when we get to Germany?
You gonna date those frauleins. El?” a young recruit asked.
“Dunno,” he said. “They tell me that’s the first thing a soldier does—scout around and see what the local girls are like.”
The barracks were quiet, then, until the voice piped up again: “D’you think we’re goin’ to like it, El?”
“How can you tell?” he answered.
Soon, they were quiet, dreaming their separate dreams.
But he had one dream they couldn’t share. They couldn’t know how it was. The faces he’d left behind. All the wonderful faces he’d seen these past few years that told him, a $35-a-week truck driver. a lonely only child who’d never had many close friends: We like you. We want you.
Would that dream last? His RCA contract, at $1000 a week, would go right on. He’d be able to make records on leave. The advance reviews on “King Creole” had surpassed his wildest hopes—they said he was an actor! This was important—he didn’t want to go on being just an oddity. His career wasn’t suffering.
No, it wasn’t that. It was not seeing those faces for such a long time. That was what hurt. His fans never knew what they really meant to him.
Ready, Elvis?” His mother’s voice suddenly broke his thoughts.
“Coming. Mom,” he called back.
He took one more look at the blank sheet of paper on the desk. Then, quickly, he wrote one sentence across it. “It’s all I really want to say,” he thought.
He dressed quickly, and for once didn’t bound out of the room. He turned around and gave it a last long look. On his desk he left behind this last message to his fans, which we publish here: “Please don’t forget me while I’m gone.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE OCTOBER 1958