Virtual Voices

A city where angels and demons wrestle

"A city where angels and demons wrestle" Continued...

Warren Cole Smith at Graceland
Photo by Missy Smith
Warren Cole Smith at Graceland

So Graceland drew us like a magnet. After a few quick photos, and since we were so close, we decided to see the home I grew up in. If the geographic distance between Nashville and Memphis does not reflect the cultural distance, neither do the few miles between the 10,000-square-foot Graceland and the 1,500-square-foot home of my childhood adequately reflect those cultural differences. Elvis’s home was a gaudy statement of the millions he made in the entertainment business. Our home, not so much. My father, a Korean War veteran, bought it in 1960 with a VA loan: no money down and about $100 a month for a house that then cost about $14,000. It had three bedrooms and 1.5 baths.  To call Memphis’s Westwood neighborhood middle-class would be generous. It was blue-collar, working class. A neighborhood in which the appearance of Jerry Lee Lewis’s Cadillac created a buzz that lasted for days.

Buying that home allowed my parents to grab the bottom rung on the ladder and start climbing. They sold the house for $18,000 in 1970, when my father got a job in Atlanta. The modest appreciation in the value of that house, plus a decade of making mortgage payments, gave my parents enough cash to move us into the fat part of the economic bell curve.

The house I grew up in is now abandoned, so we were able to get out and walk around. It seemed even smaller than I remembered it, and the back yard, where I had engaged in all manner of adventure, was too overgrown even to walk through. A pin-oak my father planted as a sapling in the 1960s was now nearly two feet in diameter, covering most of the back yard in shade.

“Doesn’t that make you sad?” my wife Missy said after surveying the home and yard’s disrepair.

“Not a bit,” I said. “That house met our family’s needs, and I have a lot of good memories.”

Perhaps the most vivid memory I had was of an April day in 1968, a day in which angels and demons wrestled once again in Memphis. Dr. Martin Luther King had been leading demonstrations on the streets as part of a strike by the city’s sanitation workers. My father, who worked in the First National Bank building downtown, would come home in the evening with stories of looking out his 15th floor office window as the police confronted the protesters. Because my family had only one car, every week or so my mother would drive him to work so she could have the car for errands. One of those days was April 4. We picked my father up when he got off work at 5:30 p.m. As we drove out of town on South Third Street, my father pointed down a cross street, to the right, toward the Lorraine Motel. “That’s where King is staying,” he said.

At 6:01p.m., less than a half-hour later, “a shot rang out in the Memphis sky,” as Bono sings it. Dr. Martin Luther King was dead. Classes at Westwood Elementary School—and all of the schools in Memphis—were closed the next day.

This week, we crossed the Mississippi River not on the sleek new Interstate 40 bridge with its spectacular views of the river and the city, but on the old steel suspension bridge that was the only way into Arkansas when I was a kid. Missy and our daughter Morgan were still talking about Graceland as they looked at the photos we took.

For my part, Memphis conjured up a much different Graceland, one in which “powers and principalities wrestle,” but one in which the angels eventually win, a Graceland of memory and hope. I flipped though my CDs looking for Paul Simon’s Graceland. I couldn’t find it. No matter. Memory will serve once again:

The Mississippi Delta
Was shining like a National guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War

I’m going to Graceland
Graceland
In Memphis,Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland
Poorboys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland …

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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