Randy Seaver’s “Saturday Night Genealogical Fun” calls for a vivid childhood memory.
Two weeks before my birthday in 1958, we sailed out of New York harbor aboard the venerable USS General George M. Randall, headed for Bremerhaven, West Germany. Every bit of the trip was a new adventure. Leaving New York, an escort of fire boats sprayed a misty salute to the Randall as she passed the Statue of Liberty. It would be more than forty years until I saw the Statue again.
Neither of my parents had ever been on a ship before. For us, me and my siblings (including one in utero), it was the ultimate adventure.
Oh, there had been some hubbub that morning around Brooklyn Army Depot from whence we had departed. For some reason, the press was paying particular attention to one of the soldiers who was also travelling to Germany aboard the Randall; a recent draftee from Mississippi whose name was Elvis Aron Presley. The significance of this was mostly, but entirely lost on me. I was more interested in the ship itself and our new home in Germany than anything else. But throughout the voyage, there throngs of other passengers constantly surrounding Pvt. Presley. And, I’m told, he played the piano during the ship’s variety show one night. (I recall the show, but not Elvis specifically).
We arrived at Bremerhaven on schedule–on my birthday. If the significance of the presence of our fellow passenger the young from Mississippi had not impressed me before, it certainly as the sm the ship docked at Bremerhaven. This video captures the moment pretty much as I recall it, watching from the deck before we disembarked. I recall the crowd chanting, “Elvis! Elvis! Elvis!” as the ship was being moored.
After we finally left the ship, most of the commotion was still going on. My dad had taken me by the hand and we found ourselves in a small U.S. post exchange (PX). Dad said, “We haven’t forgotten that today’s your birthday, son. But under the circumstances, we really couldn’t celebrate it. So look around the store and pick out any thing you’d like.” I chose a a big package of Oreo cookies. I have no idea why. But it felt good; it felt right.
We boarded a train later that day to take us to my father’s new duty station at Frankfurt am Main.
Elvis, too, got on a train headed for a place called Friedberg. The last we saw of him at the port was as his train departed.
Although as an impressionable child, I was mainly pre-occupied with thoughts about the [very real possibility of] the Soviet Army attacking Germany while we were there, it became apparent that a major portion of the population of West Germany was pre-occupied with and idolized Elvis Presley and believed that all Americans did too. These Germans were always asking about all things Elvis and wanting buy records or Elvis memorabilia. Some would go door to door, practically begging for something Elvis.
By 1960, we had moved to Karlsruhe and Elvis was about to depart from Germany. We lived in an U.S. built housing area called Paul Revere Village. I walked everyday from our apartment on Tennessee street to Karlsruhe American Elementary School with my classmates Benny Broadwater and Delores Nelson, who both lived in our building.
One day when I was home and Dad was not, there came knock the door of our ground floor apartment. It was a generally safe neighborhood. My mother, then just 28 years old, opened the door to a young German man in a blue shirt and white pants. He was perhaps in his late teens or early twenties. His hair was oily and stringy and for those days, long.
“Ja; kann ich ihnen helfen?” my mother said in her pidgin Deustch.
“Do you have any photographs of Elvis?” the young man said in excellent English.
“Nein. No, we don’t,” Mom replied. It was a lie; I knew that we had at least one portrait-type photo of Elvis somewhere in the apartment.
I was standing directly behind my mother as she began to close the door. But the young didn’t make a move to leave and Mom hesitated for a moment.
I don’t know if I or she saw the switchblade first. The man had put his foot into the doorway. Reacting almost as if in slow motion, my mother shoved the door as hard she could against his foot. The door popped back open; the man stood there brandishing the knife. But he had moved his foot back. He said menacingly, “Give me a picture of Elvis! All Americans have pictures of Elvis!”
My mother shoved on the door again and this time, it closed completely. She hastily secured the several inside locks. Then she took a moment there in the entryway to breathe deeply and regain her composure. She went to the telephone and called the U.S. military police. No one had been hurt, and the man, who I later heard was nineteen years old was apprehended by the local polizei.
That’s a childhood memory I’ll never forget!
October 4, 2009 Sunday at 11:53 am