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Mississippi Roots and Graceland
by Victor Johnson



I can't count the times my Mississippi roots have impacted a situation.

I grew up in Vardaman, Mississippi, three and a half hours from Graceland, before all the 4 lane roads made it a quicker trip. The year is about 1974-75; I'm 16 or 17 years old; old enough to drive. The Yankee kinfolk come to visit, including a 25-year-old cousin who, in some respects, is mentally challenged and in others a savant. (His mother had German measles while carrying him.)

Elvis is his hero, and he (the cousin) knows every song, owns every album and agrees to make the yearly exodus to Vardaman from up north with his folks (they can't leave him at home) because my dad, Uncle B, always takes him to Graceland.

It's Saturday, and I have big plans: the skating rink, the corner store across the county line where they sell little Miller ponies to anyone over 12, and other things real important to a cool, hip teenager in the late '70s. My polyester britches and turtleneck were clean and ready to go.

About 9:00 a.m., Dad says, "Come on; let's go. You're driving till we hit town."

I say, "Go where?"

He replies, "We takin' Cousin Tom to Graceland like always."

I answer, "Y'all will be fine without me. The rust bucket (my trusty '63 ragtop Impala) needs one more coat of wax before tonight."

My dad says, "You got ten minutes to have your bladder drained and the car warmed up. NOT the rust bucket! And you can call your buddies and tell 'em to go without you. We won't be back in time."

Three hours later we hit Whitehaven, and Dad says, "Pull over. I'm driving the rest of the way."

I reply, "OK, there's a gas station up ahead; we can take a bathroom break." He's now driving and keeps driving.

You must remember Elvis was still alive and kickin' in '74.

We get to the front gate at Graceland. IT'S CLOSED. Well, everybody knows if the gate is closed, Elvis is home. NO ENTRAR POR LAS NO HOMBRE. I think, What a waste! Ruined my night, and Cousin Tom doesn't even get the drive through, which is all you did back in that day. Drive past the front door and back out again.

I'm wiggling real hard by now, and Dad calmly exits the vehicle and walks up to the gate. He talks to the gate guard for about five minutes and gets back in. The gate opens, and we drive to the front of the mansion and stop; the mansion door opens. Dad tells Cousin Tom to come with him and orders everyone else to stay in the car. Cousin Tom's parents never let anyone besides my dad EVER give them orders when it came to Cousin Tom.

Dad and cousin Tom go into Graceland and stay five or ten minutes. (Time is irrelevant to me by this point as my eyeballs are floating.) When they get back to the car, cousin Tom is grinning like a Cheshire cat, and so is my Dad. I give Dad the what-the-hell-just-happened look, and he gives me the I'll-tell-you-later look. He gets behind the wheel and decides we all need to pee. THANK GOD!

When we get home and head out to do chores, I ask Dad, "WHAT the HELL happened today?"

He tells me that what he is about to reveal to me is in confidence. If I mention any of it to my buddies or anyone else, the consequences will be direr than any I can ever imagine. Much worse than when I poured salt in his coffee one morning thinking it would be funny. Then he adds that he doesn't care if I'll be raising myself in a year two, this one was for keeps.

Obviously, when we pulled up to Graceland, Dad knew Elvis was home since the gate was closed. But we had made the drive and Dad knew how much the trip to Graceland meant to Cousin Tom. He figured there was no harm in asking at the gate. Well, the gate guard was Vernon himself, Elvis's dad, and when he got talkin' to my Dad . . . well, Vardaman ain't that far from Tupelo.

They knew this gal and that one who both of 'em had actually dated, and so and so was good friend to the Presley family and was actually distant kin to us and on and on and on. Dad told Vernon why we had made the trip that day. Vernon told Dad no one was going to travel that far to see the mansion and not get to, especially shoestring kin. And since we were shoestring kin, Cousin Tom ought to get to see things others didn't. Hence, the peek inside Graceland. No, Cousin Tom didn't get to meet Elvis in the flesh, but he did get inside Graceland, something few accomplished until after Elvis's death.

And I have kept my mouth shut until now, for the most part. I mentioned this to no one until 2000. Most of the participants are gone. Dad would have been 77 this year. Vernon and Elvis are no longer with us. Cousin Tom is fifty-ish, living in his parents' home by himself and more independent than many would have ever thought he was capable of.

As for me, we did get back in time for me to get out for a while, but the skating rink action was gone. My buds had saved a few ponies for me. The hardest part was when they asked what I had done that day.

My reply? "I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you."

The other hard part is whenever I hear the word Graceland, I still got to pee!



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Victor tells us about himself -- after we insist.

"My roots and formative years were in northeast Mississippi in Vardaman or Tater Town, as it is known by many.

"I managed to get a degree in Dairy Science from Mississippi State in 1980 and spent several years managing large dairies in the southeast.

"For the past nine years, my wife of twenty-one years, three children (they just won't leave) and I have lived in Phil Campbell, Alabama, a little burg about the size of Vardaman in northwest Alabama.

"I manage to stay ahead of the tuition bills and keep Ma and me in bologna by traveling throughout North America, including Canada and Mexico, working with dairy and swine farmers on waste or manure management issues.

"My writing experience? Do a few technical papers on waste management and one article on manure management for a popular dairy magazine count?"


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