The story of my encounter with Elvis has made its way into the folklore of the college where I teach. Sometimes my students ask whether I really met Elvis Presley. When I reply, "Yes, he came up to meet me on an airplane," they beg me to tell the story.
In the early '70s, I was a flight attendant with American Airlines, based in Dallas. While on vacation one February, I picked up a pass to visit friends in Arkansas. As I walked down the concourse to the gate for Flight 438, it was obvious that a celebrity was at Love Field.
A ticket agent waved a piece of paper; running to a colleague, she cried: "I got his autograph!" I had already met the Beach Boys; the Beatles were back in England, and no one else was of interest to me. I never understood why otherwise normal people would revert to such foolishness when a famous person was near. Perhaps it was to be noticed. I had met, or at least seen, many celebrities on my flights, but I never gushed over them, and I certainly never asked any of them for an autograph. In fact, I shielded them from autograph seekers when I knew they wanted only a meal, a drink and a few minutes' rest before reaching their destination.
The flight to Little Rock was a late-nighter with a light passenger load. I boarded, selected a magazine and took my assigned seat, 6F, a window seat in the first-class cabin. The last passengers to board were a group of men, and the head flight attendant let them to their seats. As they approached me, I glanced up from my magazine. My eyes locked with his. My first thought was that Elvis was much better-looking than his pictures. Immediately, I dropped my eyes back to the magazine, not wanting him to think I was staring. I had never been a fan; I had seen his early movies (who hadn't?), but I never owned a single record he made.
He and one bodyguard sat behind me. Another bodyguard and his manager sat across from them. Takeoff was delayed while luggage was loaded, and I became engrossed reading my magazine, trying to tune out the noise around me.
I could not ignore the hand bedecked with rings that came between the two seats and the deep voice that said, "I want to show you something my fans gave me." The other hand came forward and pointed to a stunning carved jade ring in the shape of a lion, inset with diamonds. I turned and saw Elvis, sitting forward on his seat and smiling at me.
I admired his ring, and then _ because I could think of nothing else _ I showed him the ruby and opal ring I had just bought in the Virgin Islands. After commenting on my ring, he asked to sit next to me. He asked who I was. (He needed no introduction.) Searching for something to say, I continued the conversation about rings. I had noted a Masonic ring on his left hand, and I said, "I see you are a Mason."
"No, I'm not," he replied. "But when I was younger, before people knew me, I wanted to buy this ring, and the store owner told me I couldn't because I wasn't a Mason. But later on, you know, when people did know me, I went back to that same jewelry store and bought the ring. The man never said a word."
He told me a little about the other rings he was wearing. He took a silver and turquoise one off of his little finger. "Here, you can have this one," he said, slipping it on my hand. Not until the flight attendant came by taking drink orders did I realize we were in the air.
She said: "Oh, you've moved! I was going to come back and talk to you after I finished the beverage service." He gave her one of his winning smiles, but no response. She gave me a look that could crash a Boeing 747. I ordered vodka and tonic, and he said he'd have the same. Sipping our drinks, conversation came easily now, and he talked of many things. He had never had a singing lesson and didn't even read music. His voice had naturally gotten lower with age, and he had adjusted his singing. He was interested in learning about all religions. He was always amazed that people made such a big deal over him.
"I'm just human, flesh and blood," he said, holding out an arm. "See, touch me!" I did. He asked about my trip to the Virgin Islands, and I talked of the many places I had traveled. I was incredulous to hear that all of his movies were filmed in the studio and that he had barely traveled anywhere that was not an engagement. He complained that he had never been able to travel where he wanted or learn to ski and surf or do anything that might injure him, for fear of a broken contract.
Even his time in Las Vegas was restricted. He couldn't go into the casinos to gamble or see shows because mobbing crowds prevented him from enjoying even that. The time between performances was spent in his hotel penthouse.
"I wish I had been able to enjoy these things before I became so well-known," he said wistfully.
I realized we were close to touchdown when the flight attendant came by, picking up glasses. I finished my second drink and noted that he had drunk only half of his first.
"I really don't drink much," he said.
During final approach, I handed him my boarding pass and asked for his autograph. He wrote: "To Nancy, It was nice talking with you. Elvis Presley." The final "y" was wavy because he finished as the 727 touched the runway. It was the only autograph I asked for in my six-year career as a flight attendant.
When we stopped, and the first-class passengers began to get off, we said our goodbyes. He asked me for my phone number, and I gave him my card. Putting it in his wallet, he said, "I'll call you when I come back to Dallas. I know you don't believe me, but I really will."
Now the coach passengers were filing by, and he stood to let me out of my seat. As I passed in front of him, he reached his arm around me and kissed me _ one of those long, drawn out kisses you see in the movies, definitely well-practiced. All I could think was how embarrassed I was that everyone on the plane was watching me. I think I was even glad when he stopped!
He never did call me, and he diedjust a few years later.
After I had reached the end of the story, a student raised her hand and asked, "Dr. Anderson, do you think Elvis is still alive?" I started to join in the class' laughter, but then recalled his great desire for a normal life to enjoy the things most people did. I thought: Perhaps a staged disappearance, and then maybe, just maybe . . .
Nancy A. Anderson lives in Lutz and is an associate professor of education at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.