Schooled in the Jungle Room (My Life and Death Struggle in Memphis)

May 1987. Memphis, Tennessee.

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I’m standing outside the gates of Graceland Mansion with my friend Wess. I tell him I think this whole Elvis thing is a joke. He warns me that the people who’ve come here this afternoon most definitely do not. As we view Elvis’ private 707, the Lisa Marie, our young tour guide tells us that the seat belts on the aircraft beds were an FAA regulation and not Elvis’ idea.

“Yeah right,” I say.

Wess counsels me again.

“The Lisa Marie is a sacred to these people.”

“Relax,” I say. “They’re just a bunch of ignorant assholes.”

Outside the mansion itself, I pretend to cry.

“Sir, is everthin’ awright?” the tour guide asks.

“Guess I’m just thinkin’ bout the King, ma’am,” I snicker and say, and inside the Jungle Room I blurt out, “I will never forget Elvis’s immortal words…” Then I sing a Beatles song.

“I read the news today oh boy. About a lucky man who made the grade…”

Mid-verse, I’m jerked away from the group. I can smell bourbon on the breath of a big man, 6’3″, maybe 6’4″ — all muscle and bone, as he whispers just inches from my face, “I’m gonna take you outside and fuck you up sooo bad!”

His grip tightens on my arm, cutting off the circulation as he drags me outside, the veins in his neck bulging and blue. And then, perhaps only seconds before he rips my larynx straight out of my neck, I have this miraculous revelation:

Oh my God. I’ve done something stupid and very hurtful here today. I’ve turned Elvis, a man of flesh and blood, into something other than a human being. I have disrespected his memory in the very place he lived and died. Maybe… I’m the ignorant asshole here.

I look up at the man and with great earnestness I say, “As long as I live, I will never again make fun of Elvis Presley.”

He stares at me for a moment, spits, shakes his head, and lets go of my arm.

“You fuckin’ better not,” he says.

Back inside Graceland, I see him watching me as I move back through the Jungle Room and past the pictures of Elvis and Nixon. He studies me as I ponder each weapon in Elvis’s vast handgun collection.

Elvis’s grave rests in the garden behind the great mansion. I’m kneeling now, humbled, as I think about the immense joy Elvis brought the world with his music. I think about his tragic end at the age of 42 on a cold bathroom floor — in this very house.

As I look back over my shoulder, I see the man who just minutes ago might actually have killed me. I nod at him — ever so slightly. He nods back. And then, he turns and walks away.

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