Halloween and the Day of the Dead

Sometimes, the days organize themselves. Halloween became Elvis Presley day. The night before Halloween I drove up the Natchez trace and into Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. The Natchez Trace Parkway traverses beautiful rolling countryside, the trees now changing colors. I hadn’t expected to see colors on the trees so far south, but here were sumacs and maples blazing red, the greens of other hardwoods shading into browns and yellows. As I drove, I thought of how lucky I’d been on this trip to have caught so many different landscapes in beautiful times of year, to have been in the Northwest at the peak of Summer, in the Sierras and the mountains of the Southwest as the Autumn burst into gold, and now in the uplands of the South watching the lingering Summer move into scarlet and brown. The van has had a succession of beautiful landscapes for dance partners, each bedecked in a set of colors that show it off to striking advantage, each with its own sway and rhythm.

I arrived in Tupelo after dark, and drove around attempting to find the center of town, but was unsuccessful. I did find the camping area at Lake Elvis Presley, however, and drove the van up there. I did not put my envelope of money in the box at the gate, as I often neglect to, preferring to deal with the payment on my way out. This time, I was waylaid by the park ranger on my way out of the bathroom. He was a stringy white haired man wearing a Lake Elvis Presley Park Ranger tee shirt that I immediately coveted. He quivered with indignation. A small dog standing on the seat of his pickup truck quivered, too, whether with indignation I could not tell.

“You didn’t put your money in the honor box!” the park ranger cried.

“No,” I admitted.

“You’re supposed to put your money in the honor box if you want to stay here,” he said, overwrought, and implying, I felt, that I had brought dishonor on myself, and all my kin.

“Okay.”, I said.

“Okay what?”.

Though I was tempted to say “Okay, sir,” I merely said “Okay, I’ll stay”, and gave him the $13 dollars required to camp there. Only a little mollified, he left me chastened and quivered back to whatever ambush in which he lurked, waiting for other scofflaws and dastards who might fail in the timely use of the honor box.

The next day I drove down to the Elvis Presley birthplace, a tiny two room house, really not more than a tidy shack. It would not open for another several hours and I attempted to find anything else amusing to do in Tupelo. Failing at it, I drove out of town to Memphis and Graceland, leaving the two interior rooms of Elvis’ birthplace unviewed.

Graceland is a pretty modest structure for a mansion. It’s a three or four bedroom place with stone walls and a couple of white columns out front. But for young Elvis out of a two room shack in Tupelo, an adolescent just cresting into manhood, it must have appeared a shining example of upper middle class solidity and respectability, the very symbol of wealth and ease. Elvis was 22 when he bought it and moved in with his parents.

I drifted through Graceland with my audio tour tape player excitedly spouting details. The décor of Graceland is largely 60’s and 70’s, which is to say outlandish. But just as in the Liberace museum, it was the video that suddenly made Elvis real for me. The video was of Elvis giving a news conference on returning from the army. In the video he’s twenty four, he’s back in Graceland and at ease and – I didn’t expect this – he’s beautiful. I’ve seen many handsome men, but only a few beautiful ones, and young Elvis is one of them. Mostly it’s his smile. He looks at the camera, a little slow, maybe sullen, his eyes hooded like two dark storm clouds, and suddenly the smile breaks over his face and it’s like a glorious shaft of light from behind those clouds. It’s a smile so playful and infectious that you just want to go with him and do whatever fun thing that he has in mind. That’s the thing with young Elvis – he looks a little rebellious, but really he’s all about having fun. He’s not Brando or Jimmy Dean, born to suffer.

On the grounds of Graceland are scattered remnants of hobbies impetuously embraced and quickly discarded – slot cars, target shooting, racquet ball, horseback riding. The impression I got was that Elvis never moved much past the surge and giddiness of late adolescence or early adulthood. All the décor is in a style that made the teenagers in the tour groups say “cool!”. And his later costumes with their capes and sequins and American eagles have the bravura of adolescence.

Maybe this is why late Elvis seems so sad to me. Early Elvis is joyful, but late Elvis in the preposterous jumpsuits seems vague. Is it that his flowering young manhood was a happy combination of factors that all peaked synergistically during his time of beauty, and that later simply got out of synch with one another? Did drugs and the isolation of fame lead him out into some personal wilderness? Did he simply never let go of adolescence even when he reached middle age and could no longer hold onto it? I don’t know, but I’m glad that for a while we had young Elvis, gold lame Elvis, the joyful and sexy Sun King.

The day after my Halloween at Graceland it rained and misted. I’ve been lucky with weather this trip and I’ve rarely been rained on, but for the Day of the Dead, rain felt appropriate. I did not expect to find myself on the battlefield of Shiloh that day. I had driven out of the Buford Pusser home and museum and saw the signs for Shiloh, and so I turned the van that way.

I went into the visitor center and looked at the film that they showed, noting that General Grant seemed to have sported a beard that he purchased in a novelty store. I’ve been in several visitor centers in National Parks that show movies, and they often feel ironic. “Look”, the movie says “Here’s what you could see just outside the door, if only you were to leave the theater.” Of course, in the case of Death Valley it was so hot outside that going out of the theater meant baking your head like a potato, so staying inside in the cool dark made sense. And at Shiloh the landscape does not reveal the drama that played out for two days 137 years ago, so the film helped to set the stage.

The rain fell off and on, and white mist played over the wide meadows as I drove over the battlefield. The trees were turning rust and yellow and the landscape is rolling and graceful, hushed and a little melancholy in the rain. Here, in April of 1862, an army of 40,000 Confederates launched an attack on an army of about 43,000 Federals. They caught the Federals off guard, still in their tents, and pushed them back. Some of the Federals found a defensive position in a sunken road, and lay there firing at the Confederates. The rebels charged through a peach orchard, and were repulsed again and again by Union fire, the blossoms of the peaches falling on the bodies of the dead and dying. A shallow pond lies near the sunken road and wounded from both sides crawled there. I don’t know whether the truce of wild animals around watering holes held there. I do know that the tour says that they made there way there and they bled together and that the water turned red with their blood.

The fighting around the hornet’s nest, as the sunken road came to be called, went on all day, tirteen separate assaults surging across the fields, repulsed. Finally the Confederated lined up all the cannon they could muster – 62 pieces – about 300 yards away from the sunken road. They shelled the Federal troops until they retreated, and then they captured several thousand of them.

With that, they pushed up to where the Federal troops had formed a final defensive line. With daylight failing they waited for the next day to launch their final attack. But in the night Union reinforcements arrived, swelling their numbers, and at dawn Grant launched a counterattack that took back the land the Union had lost and forced the Confederates to retreat. In the course of two days , the same piece of land had changed hands twice, and both armies ended up about where they started. Except that in killed, missing, and wounded the Federals took about 13,000 casualties and the Confederates about 10,000.

It was warm after the battle, so General Grant ordered the dead to be buried quickly, the Union troops and the Confederate troops placed into separate mass graves. After the end of the war, in 1866, the Union troops were disinterred and placed into individual graves in the National Cemetery at the top of the hill. They left the Southerners where they lay.

I walked through the cool drizzle to the marker for the fallen Confederates. The sign said that there were about 700 men buried there. The drifting curtains of heavy mist muted the sounds of the place, and I placed a small rock on top of their collective tombstone. It was a lava rock that I had picked up someplace in Idaho, brick red and jagged, bubbles and pockmarks bearing witness to the sudden violence of its birth.

I drove back out of the park and toward Nashville where friends waited, and a comfortable bed.


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About Tom Weiser
This blog is devoted to the development of the Bad Lama's Guide to Meditation.

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