Monday, March 17, 2008

Have You Ever Tasted Moon Pie?

Last Friday, the day that President Bush Jr did his walkabout on an aircraft carrier, I was in Tupelo, Mississippi, visiting the birthplace of Elvis Presley.
Elvis, you may recall from myth, was born in a shotgun shack in East Tupelo. This type of housing takes its name from the fact that the buildings are so small that it is possible to fire a shotgun through the front door and have the blast fly right out the back wall. The name also implies something about the social situations in which such houses were found. They had guns, and they weren’t afraid to use them. Shotgun logic.
So, I was in the shack, trying hard to feel something about Elvis. There was me, the sweet old lady who runs tours of the property, and a middle-aged couple from England. We were in the second of the two rooms. When Elvis was born, the lady explained, there would have been no electricity or running water. To recreate the atmosphere, the kitchen had been decorated with period items, though these had never been owned by the Presley family. There was an old iron hob, and a few milk bottles. "We still get milk in bottles," the English woman declared. "And," said the English man, "my father used to make hobs like this. He worked in an iron foundry."
We stood there for a moment, thinking about this. The sweet lady who runs the tours spoke again. "In Europe, are the homes still like this?"
I drove downtown and walked around Tupelo, looking for Elvis. There wasn’t much to see. In the window of Tupelo Hardware, where Elvis bought his first guitar (because his mother wouldn’t let him have a toy gun) there was a cardboard cut-out of the King. In the window of the local diner, which was closed, hung a sign: "We serve Elvis fans all year round." There were political posters. A man called Presley was standing for Sheriff. I drove my Japanese rental car a few blocks from Main Street and came across a shop called Modern Barbers. The interior was anything but modern. There were two barbers’ chairs, turned to face the door, with a man in one and a woman in the other. The man introduced himself as Lewis, the woman as Violet, and invited me to choose between them. After much polite negotiation, I chose Violet, and Lewis moved himself around to another chair, below a decomposing stag’s head, so we could talk. Lewis said he had been at school with Elvis, a couple of years below him. In the early 1950s, he had travelled to Memphis to see Presley perform, and concluded that he wouldn’t amount to anything.
We talked on for a while, and then Lewis fixed me with a smile. "I want to thank you," he said, "for helping us out in Iraq."
Immediately, I felt the delicacy of the situation. Violet was buzzing my neck with a strimmer. I was a stranger in a strange land, being shown great hospitality by strangers. "Well," I heard myself say, "somebody had to do it, and it wasn’t going to be the French." Hearing these words was a surprise to me, because they did not reflect my view of the war, but I knew them to be the right words for the time and place.
"Mr Blair is a good-looking man," Violet said.
Lewis agreed. "Him and President Bush look good together. Mr Blair is more, uh, diplomatic."
Yes, I said, President Bush is a little more, well, blunt.
"That’s it," Lewis said. "The President is blunt and Mr Blair is diplomatic. They make a good team."
I thought about my situation. I was sitting in a semi-prone position, having my head sprayed with perfumed water, in a barber shop with decomposing stags’ heads on the wall, and a noticeboard which advertised a meeting of the National Rifle Association. The kindness of the people was making me say things that I didn’t really mean.
Suddenly Lewis stood up and declared that he was going out to buy moon pies. "I bet you never had a moon pie," he said, rushing out into the heat of the afternoon.
I sat in the chair, feeling perfectly at home. We talked about Elvis Presley, Violet and I, as we waited in vain for the moon pies to arrive.

[From The Scotsman, May 2003]