Forrest Gump, Elvis and Me . . .

September 25, 1994|By CURT MATTHEWS

Looking back over my life, I have rubbed shoulders with a few people that everybody knows . . . guys like the late Richard Nixon (we shared a few flights on his plane), the late Justice William O. Douglas, Al Haig and Elvis Presley.

Yes, Elvis Presley. I was Presley's "press officer" during his final two months with the 3rd Armored Division in Germany. I got the job as part of a deal I cut with the division information officer, Capt. John W. Mawn.

I was an infantry platoon leader with the division and desperate for reassignment to the Berlin Command. But when Mawn discovered I had a smattering of journalism experience, he wanted me to work with him at division headquarters in Frankfurt. The bait was Elvis. (Actually, Mawn had my transfer to Berlin rescinded and let me work with Presley as a consolation prize. But he never admitted it.)

The reason I mention all this is that I feel compelled to set the record straight about an important event in Presley's life . . . and maybe to illustrate how little we may really know about recent history.

You see, just as many of us will always remember where we were on December 7, 1941, I also remember with rock solid certainty where I was on March 2, 1960.

It was a rainy morning. At 0700 hours, I was standing in a street outside the headquarters building of Combat Command C, 3rd Armored Division, in Friedberg, Germany. I had just called to attention a group of young soldiers who were scheduled that day to rotate back to the United States after completing two-year tours of Army duty in Germany.

One of those soldiers was Sgt. Elvis Presley.

My mission that day was to put Presley and the other men in the detail on a plane that was to depart from Rhine-Main Airport near Frankfurt at about 1000 hours.

After a brief inspection to make sure I had the right soldiers, I boarded a bus with the group.

I sat next to Presley and we chatted a little during the hourlong trip to the airport. I have never been good at small talk or breakfast conversation. And he was not so big on it himself.

I do recall expressing my admiration for the way he handled himself during a news conference I had arranged the day before and, on behalf of the U.S. Army, for the way he served his country throughout his tour of duty in Germany.

Presley was a "good soldier" in the fine military sense of that definition, and I told him I respected that.

When we got to Rhine-Main, I shook his hand and wished him well. I assembled the detail once we got off the bus, and then turned the men over to an Air Force noncommissioned officer who marched them in rank step toward a waiting airplane.

I was the last Army officer that Sergeant Presley had to deal with in Germany.

A large group of admiring young fans had come to the airport to see Presley off, mostly wives and daughters of military personnel stationed in Germany. They were being held at bay by a row of barricades and a squad of Air Police about 20 yards from where our bus had stopped.

As the detail made its way toward the plane, one young woman ducked under the barricades, ran across the tarmac and gave Presley a hug.

I was surprised that she had been ignored by the Air Police. I mentioned it to one of the Air Force noncoms and he said simply, "That's Priscilla." On the bus back to Friedberg, it was just me and the bus driver.

The only purpose for bringing all this up is that no one seems to be able to get it right.

When Priscilla wrote her book about Elvis back in 1985, there was a picture of her and Elvis in the back of a car. The photo caption said something about how sad she was as they rode to the airport when Elvis completed his tour of duty in Germany. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

I sat next to Elvis as he rode to the airport to complete his tour of duty in Germany, on the right side of an old army bus, third seat from the front.

Now comes a new book by one Patricia Jobe Pierce called, "The Ultimate Elvis." Sure enough, she got the date right. She's even correct about the time and place of the press conference the day before Elvis's departure. (Although she left out some entertaining details, but that's another story.)

Unfortunately, she notes that "Elvis left Germany from Wiesbaden Airport." Wrong, wrong again. Unless he missed that C-130 that I saw take off, Elvis left from the Air Force terminal at Rhine-Main near Frankfurt.

Now if we can't get the simple facts straight about someone as important as Elvis Presley, what does that say about our collective knowledge of some of those other guys I knew, like Nixon, Justice Douglas and Haig?

Curt Matthews is the information officer for the Maryland International Division, and a former Washington correspondent for The Sun.

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