Today comes to New Zealand while much of the world is still stuck in yesterday. Last Friday, a friend mentioned it was 36 years since Elvis died. He qualified this statement by pointing out that while it was Friday 16th August when The King of Rock and Roll had his heart attack on the dunny it would actually have been the 17th in NZ when we got the news.
Not that we are slow here. Yes, it was the ‘70s, well before the internet and cell-phones, but even back then such news travelled fast.
In a similar fashion, another friend insists on referring to 9/11 as September 12th as, through our eyes, that’s when the murderous attacks happened. The same events mean different things to different people. Everyone has their own reaction.
I was ten years old when the world lost the great, tortured talent that was Elvis Aaron Presley. I was in Standard 4 at Somerfield School, a few months away from moving up to Intermediate: we were the ‘seniors’ of the school.
We had just come in from lunch on a sunny late-winter day. It must have been a mild winter as we had been playing on the field, something that wasn’t allowed if it was sodden by rain (the caretaker would put a red flag in the corner if the grass was too wet). I’m not sure what we had been playing, but my favourites were bull-rush (or barbadour, as we often called it) and forcing back, which we played with an ice-cream tub lid as no one had a Frisbee at school (I got one “from overseas” a year or two later. It glowed in the dark and was called a moon disc. I tested out the glow-in-the-dark feature only once. It was a good way to get a Frisbee in the face).
If my memory is false (and that can be the way of memory as each time we access them they are tweaked in favour of present concerns) and the red flag was out, then we would have been playing on the asphalt courts in front of the big brick building that dominated my small school.
In winter it was 4-square or pat-a-tennis or various games of our own devising. We had a seasonal love of marbles which was much more free-form than the traditional version where the action is confined to a circle. We played for keeps, like-for-like: bonkers, jumbos, cat’s eyes, ball bearings. It was like a form of chasing where you had a crack at hitting and winning your friend’s marbles. Some kids ended up with bags bulging with booty.
One day a friend lost his wee rubber bouncy ball after seeing how high it would go. To find it, I suggested bouncing mine on the same spot, at the same angle. The second ball landed beside the lost one. I felt as clever as Sherlock Hemlock.
Whatever it was we had been playing I was hot and sweaty when I made it back to my desk in Room 4 (or 14… whichever it was). I was right by the corner, surrounded by girls. My position was the result of a ‘70s attempt at streaming where they put the cleverest kids in the back two rows on the left. I’m not sure if they told us this, but if we were clever then we would have worked it out. Either that or my mother told me after I complained about not getting to sit with my friends.
So I sat there, separated from those I had been playing with (and no, I did not just play with boys. I was a child who always had good friends of both flavours. In retrospect, this clearly un-nerved some fathers who suddenly had me uninvited on more than one occasion. Mothers never seemed to mind).
Each classroom had a small, yellow wooden radio box in the corner where messages could be played. I don’t remember it ever being used for anything except for the news after lunch, but it may have been. There certainly were no ‘ding-dung-dong!’ xylophone tones announcing any announcements.
When the news came on at 1pm on 17 Aug 1977, the first words were ‘The King is Dead”.
I was shocked. Although my parents, being of the pre-rock generation, were older than most they admired his great voice and we had watched his last live performance on TV a few months before. He looked awful: bloated, sweaty, the magic dull in his eyes. My uncle said they actually had to pay people to clap. I thought this would have been very, very expensive but Elvis was a rich man, so who knows? My scepticism for such teasing statements clearly yet to form I heard what I wanted to hear, kept questioning unsaid.
In another classroom at the same school my younger sisters would have heard the same news. The youngest, just turned seven, reacted by saying “but we don’t have a king.”
I thought that was both clever and funny.
I would react in a similarly disassociated way three years later. It was a spring evening in early November and I was sitting in the lounge on our grey Conroy heater waiting for tea. Mum rushed in from the kitchen where she had been listening to the radio.
“They’ve shot Lennon!”
That I recognized her distress may be why I failed to understand what she had said. In my head I thought, but Lenin died years ago… (I have always been a history nerd).
So much steps forward when you remember the past. In my first blog I wrote about the fear of cannibalizing my fiction (which, after all, is full of real life). But a story will always take the form it demands. And if you write nothing, nothing ends up on the page.
I started writing this piece about the day Elvis died with the intention of posting it on that anniversary last Friday (or Saturday). Blogs are of the moment, I wanted it to fit tightly to that moment with the counterpoint of my sister’s reaction and my subsequent echo three years later.
But as I started writing about Somerfield School so much came back: how I ate jam sandwiches every day for a year, proudly wore shoes that had more holes than canvas, got called fly-shit face and sonny-bubbles, heard my first dirty joke from my childhood crush while sitting on a jungle gym behind the big brick building.
However, what stepped forward was my first friend who had I unwittingly insulted by the urinal on my first day. He lived in a house that had giant corgis painted on the garage door. Why did he start to dominate my memories? He wasn’t my closest or most enduring friend. He lived on Milton Street. Was I writing about a paradise lost?
It could only be because of his tragic death. He died in his first race as he joined the sport of Kings. The writer in me was wrestling a memoir into a short story. It promised to be a good one (at least, one with literary possibilities), if I did it right. So I googled his name, and even though he died long before that search giant took its first steps towards dominating the world (and became a verb) there he was, for reasons more poignant than I knew. I could not touch this piece for four days.
Maybe I have spilled all the water from this jug of memories. Maybe this blog is enough. Maybe the story of the death of a king is yet to come.
Another young NZ rider died yesterday. The connections are uncanny. Such is the nature of life and fiction.
However you name the day, Elvis died 36 years and four days ago. It was very sad. Hunter was 16. What more needs to be said?