A site that I occasionally visit, where I can chat to old comrades and veterans with whom I use to serve, asked contributors to set out their “claims to fame” After some thought I penned the following piece.
That’s a tough question and deserves a bit more consideration than you would give it on a flying and brief visit to the site. So I’ve been thinking about it….
It could be my exemplary war service with the fabled laundry and bath unit in Borneo ( http://bit.ly/1y5Taww ), or perhaps the occasion when as a young schoolboy cadet I met and spoke with the Secretary of State for War, Sir John Profumo ( http://bit.ly/1qQoOJ9 ) And I should not discount the experience of sharing a crap with a four star American general in Thailand ( http://bit.ly/1m7T3ey ).
However, after giving the matter my most careful consideration and going back over all the illustrious events of my chequered military career then I will have to say that it can only be the quite extraordinary experience of meeting with, and talking to….. Elvis Presley. Yeh, I had a conversation with the King.
This is not a story that I tell too often because it so extraordinary that people have a tendency not to believe me. They mock me about the truth of the tale and suggest I am swinging the lamp. . But I have to say that if Elvis was still alive today, then he would remember the conversation, he might not remember me – I would concede that, , but he would remember the exchange between us all right, and would confirm to all those doubters out there, that what I am about to tell you is the gospel truth.
I was a young soldier, straight out of training depot and stationed in Germany, at Rheindalen, where I was a minor clerk in the great and sprawling military Joint Headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. I was a nobody really, just an anonymous squaddie delivering mail from one office to the next, making tea and coffee, transporting secret documents from here to there. Saluting generals, of which, I might add, there was a great abundance and from all kinds of armies and air forces and navy’s. Indeed there were days in Rheindalen where you would walk around the great Joint Head Quarters with your right arm in a permanent salute position, and think it was perfectly normal to do so. Life was fairly dull with the occasional respite found in bratwurst and chips (served with mayonnaise!) and fine German beers.
The day came when I was asked to courier some secret documents to an American Army base in Frankfurt. They consisted of a stack of operating and maintenance manuals for a new tank being introduced to British armoured regiments on the Great Plains of northern Germany. Three of us were sent with the documents, travelling in a long wheel base land rover, down the autobahns to Frankfurt. It was a great treat really, getting away from the dull routine of JHQ, seeing a bit of Germany, having a few beers in Frankfurt, no officers to salute.
Anyway we travelled down across the autobahns at the highest speed we could possibly get out of the old long base, down to this massive American army base just south of Frankfurt city, and delivered our cargo of manuals to the nominated American officer. We were to stay in the base overnight and travel back up to Rheindalen the following morning. They put us into a transit billet and we dined, I recall the Americans called it chow, in one of the many cookhouses on the huge and sprawling base. Most of the American soldiers were national servicemen, from armoured units, and we were made most welcome with a lot of comparing each other’s badges and uniforms and so on. Of course they loved our English accents.
That night, at the American servicemen’s club on the base, there was a concert performance by no less a star than the great king himself, Elvis Presley. Because of course, as we all know, Elvis had himself been drafted into the military. And posted to Germany. The American generals had got him to do a series of concerts to entertain the troops across their European bases. And we had struck it lucky. An exclusive, all to ourselves, Elvis concert.
We were given a small table with three seats, fairly close to the stage. There were hundreds of American soldiers sitting all over the place, on the floor of the dance space, crowed at the tables, standing on the windowsills, standing on the bar. It was jam packed and the German beer was flowing copiously.
Elvis came on to a truly rapturous reception. The drafted soldiers loved it that he was here, and for all his fame and glory, he was one of them. And he loved it too. He was in uniform; we were all in uniform, and we shared the experience in great joy and cheering. He looked incredibly smart and fit in his uniform. His hair was cut short in the American army way but he was still glowing with star quality. He brought on his backing group and introduced them one by one. They were musicians from the American Air Force band, four of them with a couple of big black guys who would provide the harmony to his songs.
And he went straight into the songs beginning with a piece that had a few German words in it “I don’t have a wooden heart” Then it was “Return to sender – address unknown” and “Heartbreak hotel” followed by “jailhouse rock” and “Blue suede shoes“. The place was rocking! A couple of G.I.’s got up and started jiving on the stage next to Elvis and he loved it. They were all drafted G.I.’s and were having the time of their lives.
He had a fine sweat on him and had undone the tie of his uniform and opened the tunic jacket. He hit us with “From a jack to a king” and with “It’s now or never”. He was looking fairly exhausted when he called on the band to go and have a beer. leaving him alone on the stage. He sat on a stool, just Elvis and an acoustic guitar, in a spotlight, alone with his soldiers. And he talked to his people, how he loved being in the army, how he loved them all and knew they were, like him, a long way from home. Asked if anyone was from Tennessee and gave them all the love from Memphis. He would sing them a ballad, “for all you lonely guys out there, especially the guys from Tennessee”
And he began to sing. It was “Are you lonesome tonight” which is possibly the finest ballad he ever recorded. There was complete and utter silence in the room as all we lonely soldiers savoured the magic of the moment.
Now if you know the song at all you will know that about half way through Elvis stops singing and starts talking the song, like a poem, still strumming the acoustic guitar, but talking to his audience, with his deep throaty southern drawl, about the intense meaning of the words of the song.
“I wonder, if you’re feeling lonesome tonight, ya know, someone, somewhere, wrote that all the worlds a stage, and upon it we must play our part…”
I stuck my hand up and shouted “Shakespeare!”.
He stopped playing the guitar and looked out into the audience in total disbelief that he had been interrupted. You could see he was bristling with anger and a hostile murmur came from the American soldiers seated around us. Elvis was staring out in anger trying to identify where the interruption came from. I still had my hand up and waved it.
“Hi Elvis” I shouted, “it was Shakespeare.., all the worlds a stage.., it was Shakespeare what wrote it..”
He looked down at the floor in front of him and I could tell he was steaming with anger. He stared hard at the floor for what seemed like ages and the room went menacingly quiet. There was total silence except for the heavy angry amplified breathing of Elvis.
Finally he looked up at our table. And he pointed at me, with his right arm. I remember to this day that he was wearing a horseshoe shaped diamond ring on the finger that was pointing at me; I thought it a bit odd that a soldier should be wearing jewellery.
He pointed, and was struggling a little for words. Then he said to me, in his deep southern drawl of a voice
“English soldier, huh, English soldier…yo don’t interrupt, you don’t interrupt me when I’m singing my songs, yo understand?”
“An tell me this English soldier, who the fuck is Shakespeare?”
The song itself: