Guest Column: Serving in the Army alongside ‘The King’

For many years afterward, it would be one of my favorite gambits at cocktail parties and other venues of idle gossip.

Whenever the conversation drifted into the area of misspent youth or military service or rock ‘n’ roll or adventures in Europe, I would mention that while serving a two-year hitch in the U.S. Army, I was stationed with Elvis Presley. It was a boast that delivered real cachet and, as Henry Kissinger liked to say, had the further virtue of being the truth. 

The King and I were drafted into the Army 60 years ago last month. Although the two of us went through the rigors of basic training at the same bleak Army post — Fort Hood, Texas — I didn’t come into direct contact with Presley until we were shipped to Germany as part of something called “The Mailed Fist of NATO,” a term that perfectly captured the bellicose spirit of that Cold War era.

Our unit was located just outside the Hessian town of Friedberg, about an hour northeast of Frankfurt. I learned that our austere barracks had housed Hitler’s S.S. troops in the 1930s.

Like many other college-educated draftees, I bagged a cushy job, one that bore at least some resemblance to the journalism career I had been pursuing in civilian life. My main assignment was to write news and feature stories for the Division newspaper. But one of my less formal duties, I was told, was to be “alert to the Presley situation.”

That meant if any civilian reporters called to inquire about Pvt. Presley’s status, I was to inform them that he was being given no special treatment and was carrying out his duties, wearing fatigues, as a jeep driver.

“Our job,” said my boss, an uptight major whose face was often set in an uneasy frown, “is to keep all reporters away from here and keep that boy’s name out of the papers.”

But I soon discovered that while Elvis was being press-released as just one of the troops, a regular G.I. Joe, he was allowed to exploit loopholes that gave him special perks. The most flagrant example concerned his quarters.

The regulations required most of us to be housed in the Spartan barracks we inherited from Hitler’s S.S.

In order to live off-post, one had to have a dependent, i.e., a wife. Presley was not married, but he did have a dependent of sorts — his father, Vernon, who had recently been widowed by the death of Elvis’s mother, Gladys.

So Elvis was given permission to summon from Memphis not only his father but also his grandmother Minnie Mae and two longtime cronies, Lamar Fike and Red West.

The Presley clan was a kind of European precursor to “The Beverly Hillbillies.” They set up housekeeping in the nearby town of Bad Nauheim, a picturesque spa resort that catered to the aged and infirm who, like stricken pilgrims at Lourdes, went to partake of the healing waters.

After a short occupation of an entire floor in Bad Nauheim’s most fashionable hotel, Elvis and his entourage were asked to leave. Some of the staid and ailing guests had complained about late-night water fights and what was described as “playful acts of arson.”

Ever “alert to the Presley situation,” we were able to hush up that eviction, and things settled down after the clan moved into a large stucco house on Goethestrasse.

Although Presley rarely mingled with the burghers of Bad Nauheim, they treated him with deference. He was usually referred to as “Der Elvis,” and the flashy BMW he sped around in during off-duty hours was dubbed “Der Elviswagen.”

Other Germans were not so respectful. There were critics who decried Presley’s “primitive” singing style and viewed his presence in das Vaterland as a sinister attempt to undermine the culture and morals of German youth. My major insisted that anyone who took that position had to be “in cahoots with the Communists.”

My own contacts with Der Elvis were minimal. He knew that I was part of the official shield that had been formed to insulate him from the outside press. But he also knew that I was a working reporter who wrote stories for the Division newspaper and, for that reason, perhaps, he seemed to regard me with a certain wariness. He was always courteous, at times to a fault, but he was generally aloof in his dealings not only with me but with other troopers who had not been invited into his inner circle.

Fortunately, the cameraman I worked with had ingratiated his way onto the fringe of that circle, and from him I learned that in private, Presley spent much of his time bemoaning his fate. He was at a loss to understand why he had been yanked from his throne as the king of rock ‘n’ roll and consigned to serve two years in an Army that was not at war with anyone.

He wasn’t alone. Many of the draftees I served with in Germany complained about the policy of conscription into what was then called the peacetime Army, and to a large extent, I shared their frustration.

Even though we were subjected to a steady barrage of Cold War propaganda, most of us gave little thought to any menace posed by our Soviet counterparts, who were massed just across the border in East Germany. Our real enemy was the excruciating tedium of day-to-day life in a peacetime Army. Only in later years, long after I had returned to civilian life, did I come to realize that instead of griping, we should have counted our blessings. Serving in the peacetime Army may have been boring, but at least no one was shooting at us.

In retrospect, I came to appreciate that my generation of Americans had the good fortune to reach draft age during a brief period in our lifetime when the country was not engaged in combat.

If we had been born just a few years earlier, many of us would have wound up on battlefields in Korea. And if we had come along just a few years later, we would have faced the peril of being drawn into the Big Muddy of our misadventure in Vietnam.

If the Americans who fought in World War II deserve to be called the “Greatest Generation,” then we should probably be known as the “Luckiest Generation.”

As the years passed, I sometimes wondered if Elvis ever experienced a similar epiphany. Probably not. Kings are funny that way.

Photo credit: Elvis Presley and a roomful of other young men being sworn into the US Army as part of their induction at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The author is a frequent contributor to the Shelter Island Reporter.