...and Mistakes Made Along the Way An excerpt from a memoir
by Fred Beauford
Chapter Seven — Elvis
Before I formally begin this chapter, in the spirit of full disclosure, there is a very important, and highly interesting reason why I entitled this chapter “Elvis,” when I could have just as easily entitled it “The Great, Life-changing I.Q. Test,” or “Becoming Fred Beauford.”
One day, during the 90’s, while I was still an Associate Professor teaching my Media History class at SUNY/Old Westbury on Long Island, I was droning on and on in class. I looked up from my notes and noticed that many of my young students had that familiar faraway look on their youthful faces that clearly said: ”When the fuck is this boring ass shit ever going to end!”
For some reason, I then mentioned that I had served for two years in the army with Elvis. To my knowledge, this was the first time I had ever shared this information with anyone. It just never seemed that important, and who the hell cared, anyway.
I didn’t think that it was terribly important then, but for some reason it had just slipped out.
The impact of that statement was immediate. All of a sudden, all of those bored black, brown and white faces were fully awake, staring intently at me, clearly eager to hear more.
I was sure that it would have not had the same impact if I had told them that I walked with Martin Luther King Jr., broke bread with Gandhi, or once lectured Stalin on his evil ways.
Needless to say, I duly took note, and henceforth, managed to slip Elvis’ name -- who semester after semester had now become “My friend, Elvis,” “My main running buddy, Elvis,” “My dear, dear best friend, good old Elvis“ -- into lecture after lecture when discussing the history of Rock and Roll in this country.
I just hope that now, dear reader, this shameless bit of pandering and name-dropping will perk you up as well.
But before we get to Elvis, I arrived at Fort Dix, New Jersey on March 16, 1958, for army testing and processing. I thought of myself as being very clever at signing up in March, as I would avoid the heat of summer and the cold of winter while I endured basic training. I was sent to the barracks along with many other men; and when I say men, to me that’s what they were, because the average age to be drafted back then was 24, and they were all draftees, with the possible exception of me. I had joined up just a few months into my eighteenth birthday, a mere kid and a fresh-faced teenager, compared to everyone else.
In a few weeks at Fort Dix, there was something else that I discovered, now that everyone called me Fred Beauford, not Fred Morton, a name I had known all of my life. I received this new name because the people at the enlistment office would not let me join without a birth certificate. When my mother finally showed me my birth certificate, the truth came out.
My name was Fred Beauford, not Fred Morton.
As I stood staring at the official document, my mother explained to me that she wanted all of her children to have the same last name, since four of us came from three different fathers, with Rob and I, full brothers.
I do not remember being taken that aback by this new discovery. In fact, I loved my new name. It had a nice ring to it. But first I had to learn how to pronounce the name everyone was now calling me. Was it BEEUford, or was it BOford? I had never heard anyone pronounce it before because it was a French name, swimming lonely in a sea of English or Spanish names.
Most people called me Beeuford, while a few others called me Boford, which is of course the correct French way to pronounce it.
I learned to respond to both, as I was unsure which was correct at the time. The issue was finally settled for good when I got to Germany, and a crusty old white-haired Staff Sergeant kept calling me Boford.
One of the young grunts had the nerve to correct him. “His name is Beeuford,” he said to the Sergeant.
“Goddamit, you dumb ass fucking dickhead, I ain’t blind. It says right there on his Goddamn jacket, Boford, you stupid shit-ass dickhead!”
Back then, it was not only okay for noncoms to call a recruit every insulting name they could think of, but they could also go hard upside his head if he still didn’t quite get it.
From that day on, it was Boford.
For over a week at Fort Dix they gave us test after test. They were mostly about associations, using symbols and circles, and things like that. I had only had a year of high school before they threw my black ass in the streets, so I was glad these tests did not include math or English. It was called the army aptitude, or army I.Q. test.
I was later told that I scored 149. 149 sounded like an awfully low score to me, and I wasn’t about to tell anyone that I was practically an idiot with a lowly I.Q. of only 149!
Little did I know then, that according to white society, with its classifications and so-called scientific measurements of human potential, I, the same person who was shown the door at Evander Childs High School after one year, and who didn’t pass a single class the short time I was there -- was amongst the smarter people in the world.
The white boys test had said so, not me!
I soon noticed that the barracks around me were slowly emptying, as the new soldiers were given their assignments and sent to units around the country. Soon, I was the only one left in my large barrack.
I started becoming very lonely. “What’s going on?” I asked one of the Sergeants.
“Don’t worry about it, son. You should be getting your orders soon. They’re just trying to find a place for you.”
After a few more days of sleeping alone in an empty barrack with no one to talk to, that place they finally found for me was the Second Armored Division, at Fort Hood, Texas. After my first plane ride ever, we arrived at Fort Hood. I still remember a jack rabbit running across the runway as the plane made its landing.
The next morning the company commander addressed us.
“Tomorrow, I want you troops to know, Elvis Presley will be joining our company. I want ya’ll to treat him just like any other soldier, and this includes the officers, noncoms and men. If I hear of anyone treating him in any other manner, they will answer to me. Am I understood?”
“Yes, sir!” we automatically roared in unison.
“I said, am I understood, ladies!”
Needless to say, it didn’t take long for that order to be ignored, first at Fort Hood, and later, in Germany. High-ranking officers all openly coveted Elvis’ friendship, including the Air Force Captain who introduced him to his thirteen-year-old daughter, Priscilla.
I first saw him as he was unloading his duffel bag into his locker a few bunks down from me. I started staring at him. I couldn’t help myself. He finally looked up and winked.
I was so embarrassed I lowered my head. If I had been white, I would have blushed a bright red.
Looking back, it is hard to imagine today a poor black teenager from the Bronx sharing the same Army barracks with say, Brad Pitt, or for that matter, any celebrity. The draft, which all American men from the ages of 18 to 35 faced in the 50’s, was the great equalizer, and drew people together from all races, classes, and degrees of fame.
Just a year ago, I was watching this same cat three bunks down on television, and listening to my brother Richard yell, “Did you see that? That white boy actually moved!”
Elvis was indeed a sight to behold. He was acting like some white mutant. White boys didn’t usually move much when they sang, but instead stood stiffly, like Eddie Fisher, only occasionally and awkwardly throwing out their arms. This guy moved around the stage so much, and with such skill, that the press nicknamed him, “Elvis the Pelvis.”
As most of you know, when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, he was shot from the waist up, for fear of shocking the nation with his wild gyrations.
But here he was, sleeping near enough to me that I could hear him snoring, and there I was.
Basic training, as anyone who has put on a uniform can attest to, is a hellish nightmare so most of us quickly got used to Elvis, and were simply worried about keeping loud, foul-mouthed Sergeants out of our face and getting enough sleep. But we couldn’t help but notice that when we fell out in the morning, already in the distance, large crowds of girls had gathered. We could vaguely see them, but we could hear them shouting, “Elvis, Elvis!”
At the PX, when other soldiers from around the large base found out that he was in my outfit, I was offered cameras to take back with me to take his picture, and some offered to pay me if I got an autograph.
If I had had even the slightest bit of business savvy back then, I could have gotten over like a fat rat, as the saying goes.
Instead, I turned down the offers, feeling an interesting sense of privilege, because everyone on the huge base now knew that I slept with the great Elvis, so to speak, and they didn’t.
I respected his privacy, and never even asked for an autograph for myself. However, I have often wondered, especially watching over the years America’s unending love affair with him, just what an autographed picture of Elvis and me sitting together on his bunk would fetch today!
Elvis was not allowed to sing for us in the barracks. He explained that the contract he had with Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, forbid him from even humming in public or else he would forfeit his $600 dollar a week.
“$600 dollar a week!” someone said to him. “Shit, man, I’d stand on my fuckin’ head for two years for that kind of money!”
We all cracked up, and even Elvis laughed, but I still couldn’t conceive of anyone making $600 dollars a week, even Elvis.
On the troopship SS Randall, on the way to Germany, they put on a show. The crowd groaned, as we had previously heard in the barracks, it was once again explained to us that Elvis couldn’t sing for us because of his contract with Col. Parker. Elvis did, however, sit down to the piano and played a mean boggie woogie.
In Germany, we were briefly assigned to the same company, but in a few months I was transferred to another tank unit as a driver.
The last time I saw Elvis I was on an alert, which sent my tank company, dashing somewhere in below freezing weather, me still in my blue suit as I had to run from a bar in town when the loud siren went off. I went to the motor pool, jumped in, hooked up my gear and started driving.
They loved pulling these alerts when the weather was below zero. I later learned it was because our huge, M-48 tanks wouldn’t tear up the frozen ground.
My tank commander, a big Southern red-head second lieutenant, gave me a dirty look as I arrived at the motor pool, because I was in a dark blue suit and bright red tie and was obviously tanked up.
We drove for hours in the dead of night. I was just following the red lights in front of me. I was still half drunk and going where, I did not know, or even if this was a real war and the Soviets were really pouring thousands of tanks through the famous Pass which we were supposed to defend.
They told us in training classes that we were supposed to hold this Pass for at least a half a day.
"Then what?" someone once asked.
"We either stop them, get reinforced, get run over, or we nuke them!" the white training officer said confidently.
Back in 1959, I was too young to be scared, or even worried. I was just plain tired and wanted to go to sleep. Finally, I looked out and saw someone pulling road guard and directing me to make a left turn into a dim patch of woods. He looked cold and lonely out on this country road in the middle of nowhere, in below freezing weather somewhere near the border between East and West, and between Soviet Communism and the so-called democracy of America, which Elvis and I had both had pledged to die for, if needed, at the very height of the cold war.
That's Elvis! I’ll be damned, I thought, recognizing my former friend's frozen, forlorn face, and suddenly coming fully awake for the first time that long cold night. What the fuck is he doing out here freezing his balls off?
I tried to wave to him, but knew he wouldn't have recognized me because it was the dead of night and my face was only partially exposed as I peered out from the underbelly of this huge machine, my head covered by a heavy helmet and communication gear. He must have already waved dozens of tanks into this patch of woods.
Elvis waved me on with furious arm motions.
The next day, as we continued our march, to where, I still did not know, I was tired and pissed off after getting only a few hours of sleep, with only the cold steel of my tank for a pillow, and was thinking about how Elvis could have avoided all of this bullshit that the rest of us had to go through.
But he, from the first day he showed up and winked at me, and was suddenly sleeping three bunks down from me, asked for no special favors that I, or anyone else knew of, although they obviously existed, because he made Sergeant in only two years, which was unheard of in peacetime, and he ultimately married the Captain’s daughter.
But as far as we were concerned, he was a “good ole boy,” and did the same things that the rest of us did, and got down and dirty in the trenches like the rest of us, which made him very popular and genuinely well liked among the lowly grunts.
One final note about Elvis. In 2001, weeks after the attacks in New York City on the World Trade Center, I was teaching a History of the Mass Media course at Cal State Northridge. Of course, I name- dropped Elvis’ name when I came to the History of Rock and Roll segment of my class. A young Hispanic man came up to me after class and explained that he was in the army reserves and he might be called up. He also informed me that that he had trained at Fort Hood.
“That building that you and Elvis stayed in is now preserved as a landmark,” he said.
“Get out of here, you’re kidding!”
That unexpected bit of information brought back another memory. One night while I was on guard duty, I passed by that same building and saw smoke coming out of it. I quickly ran inside and found that a drunken Sergeant had fallen asleep while smoking, and that his bed was on fire. I woke him up and together we quickly pulled the smoking mattress out to the street.
A few days later, the Sergeant that I had perhaps saved from injuries, came up to me and thanked me for what I had done. I soon saw a distinct change toward me by the noncoms. I can see now that that act served as forgiveness for being the biggest pain in the ass in basic training because of my defiant, mighty Edenwald Enchanters, smart-ass, bop-walking, know-it-all, in-your-face New York attitude, which greatly pissed off everyone, including some fellow recruits, and caused one young, baby-faced white Sergeant to take me aside one day and tell me to put up my dukes.
It seemed that I wasn’t acting sufficiently angry enough during a baronet drill when I charged the dummy. The Sergeant had me run the drill over and over again in the blazing Texas sun.
Finally, when he told me to do it again, I said, “Fuck you!”
“What was that you said?
“Come on, come on. I have something for you,” he said, as he led me away from the rest of the troops and behind some large bushes.
“Okay, smart guy, put them up.”
I willingly complied with his wishes, unintimidated. I put up my dukes as he had asked, ready to knock his country, white boy ass out.
He quickly socked me in the eye, knocking my dumb New York ass to the ground, and giving me a “blouse,” as they called it in the macho world I was now in. He had “cleaned my clock” neatly with one punch, and that was the end of that fight!
The word quickly spread about what had happened. My new black eye didn’t help dampen the rumors. The Company Commander later made the Sergeant apologize to me, because it was against the rules to beat up recruits, even if I was an idiot, wise-guy, black gang-banger from the Bronx.
But that was in the past, as I was now a hero. If I hadn’t spotted that smoke, that building may have been history instead of a landmark, along with a quietly sleeping Elvis, and everyone else.
Fred Beauford (pronounced like a Frenchman as Boford) is an author of many successful books and is editor/publisher of NeworldReview