The Stockholm Syndrome has set in. Elvis Presley has bonded with his kidnappers. A ransom note has been delivered to Graceland and at the cabin in the Kentucky Hills where he is held captive, Elvis and his three captors – Delmore, his wife Sandra and their friend Roy – have time to kill. It is time for an experiment.
Before they slept they checked on Elvis in the locked bedroom. He was sleeping soundly. The following day, after breakfast, all four of them, Elvis, Roy, Del and Sandra, squeezed into the truck and drove into the Daniel Boone National Park, stopping at a gas station on the outskirts of Montecello to buy food for a picnic lunch. Elvis was in a buoyant mood and had to be persuaded to stay in the truck with Roy while Del and Sandra went inside to pick up the provisions, and when they returned he pleaded with them to be able to step outside.
“I just want to be able to be normal in the midst of ordinary people,” he said. “That’s something I never had, not since I was famous anyway. Let me use the bathroom. I won’t try anything.”
Del and Roy looked at one another. “Should we let him?” asked Del.
“Yes,” said Sandra. “I trust him.”
“OK, but you gotta wear this hat,” said Roy, handing Elvis a floppy hat in green camouflage material that he wore while out shooting. Elvis reluctantly placed it on his head.
Public appearances by Elvis Presley were almost always pre-planned, tightly choreographed and reported in the press, no matter how brief. On such occasions Elvis made sure he looked the part, dressing up in his capes, buckles and belts, the way he and his fans thought he ought to look. He usually wore outsize sunglasses. Elvis would no sooner slip out of the house in everyday clothes to pick up a pint of milk than the Queen of England would be seen in her nightdress.
During pre-production meetings in Los Angeles for the Singer special in May of 1968 its producer Steve Binder had suggested he and Elvis step out of his office on Sunset Boulevard and mingle with passers-by. Elvis was appalled by the suggestion, fearing that he would be mobbed on the street and some sort of disturbance ensue. He was therefore deeply humbled when no one recognised him. “We were just four guys standing in front of this building,” said Bones Howe, Binder’s audio engineer said afterwards.
It was quite another thing, however, for Elvis to use the bathroom in a roadside gas station without a security detail checking out the building first, making sure no one else was inside and waiting outside while he relieved himself. However, Elvis had been a captive now for five nights and, although he’d been given a change of clothing, the overalls and t-shirt he loathed so much, he hadn’t had a shave in all that time, nor been able to wash properly and re-dye his hair as was his custom. As a result Elvis’ natural brown colour was just starting to show at the roots and, as each day passed, his stubble had continued to grow but it wasn’t black like the dyed hair on his head, more salt and peppery. The camouflage hat only added to the obvious reality that he no longer resembled anything like the Elvis Presley that the world would recognise.
“OK,” said Roy. “But I’m coming with you.”
Elvis stepped down from the truck and walked across the forecourt to the bathroom. The only other customer, a young man dressed in a check shirt and similar overalls to those Elvis wore, was filling up a station wagon, and as they approached the bathroom a middle-aged woman pulled up in a sedan, got out and walked towards the shop. Neither gave Elvis and Roy a second glance.
Inside the bathroom was another man, splashing water on his face at the basin. He turned and stepped aside as Elvis passed close by him, glancing at Elvis but showing no signs of recognition. When they had finished Elvis and Roy walked back to the truck, passing close to the woman from the sedan who was lingering by a newspaper stand close to the entrance to the shop. She ignored them.
Back in the truck Elvis appeared overjoyed. “You have no idea what that felt like for me,” he said. “That’s the first time in 20 years I’ve been able to walk around outside in public and not be recognised. Now I know what it’s like not to be Elvis Presley.”
Emboldened by the success of their experiment at the gas station, the quartet drove on into the National Park, eventually stopping at a picnic area and eating lunch. Although the area was far from crowded, a handful of other groups of picnickers settled nearby, among them a family of four, father, mother and two boys below the age of 10. After their meal the boys began to throw a football to one another and when one boy failed to catch the ball it rolled to where Elvis, Roy, Del and Sandra were sat. Elvis glanced at the others. Roy nodded. Elvis picked up the ball, stood up and threw it back to the boy.
“Thanks mister,” he shouted from about 10 yards away. The father of the boys waved in acknowledgement and Elvis waved back. He smiled and sat down. Elvis was beginning to enjoy normality.
In the afternoon the four of them continued their drive through the National Park, stopping now and then and getting out of the truck to admire the scenery. At one particular spot they mingled with a coach party. Elvis again went unrecognised. Driving back to the cabin in the early evening they passed a roadside diner and Elvis suggested they stop to eat. “I can’t remember what it was like to go into a restaurant and be served, just like a normal person, no one making a fuss,” he said.
There were only three other vehicles parked outside, and it was safe to assume one of them belonged to the staff. Roy parked the truck and sent Sandra inside to check on how crowded it was.
“There’s only two tables occupied,” she reported back. “A young couple on one and an old guy on the other.”
“OK,” said Del. “I’m sick of eating in the cabin anyway.”
“Me, too,” said Elvis. “But that’s not to say I don’t like your cooking Miss Sandra,” he added hurriedly.
Sandra smiled at Elvis, and Elvis grinned back. It seemed like any natural exchange between old friends.
“You sit facing the wall Elvis,” said Roy. “If anything happens we’re out of here quick.”
The four of them ate burgers and fries washed down with coke. No one paid them the slightest notice. Elvis said little throughout the meal, relishing his anonymity. It never even occurred to him to go up to the counter and identify himself, not that the waitress would have recognised him anyway. As they walked back to the truck he asked, “Do y’all trust me now?”
“I guess so,” said Roy. “But I still had this with me, just in case.” He opened his jacket to reveal the .38 stuffed into his belt.
Elvis winced. “You didn’t need that,” he said. “I gave you my word.”
Sandra thought she detected a touch of hurt in his voice. “I believe
you,” she said.
Back at the cabin Elvis joined Roy, Del and Sandra on the porch before they turned in for the night. Roy and Del were drinking beer, Elvis and Sandra coke. “Did you guys serve in the army?” Elvis asked them.
Roy and Del nodded.
“Yea,” said Roy. “But we don’t talk about it.”
“They don’t like to,” said Sandra. “Even I can’t get them to tell me anything about what they did there.”
“Why not?” asked Elvis.
“The way the Americans treated the Vietcong,” said Del. “It wasn’t good.”
They lapsed into silence. Then Roy spoke. “I’ll tell y’all one story. We took a prisoner once, me and Del. A stray Vietcong man we found in the jungle. We ought to have killed him but we didn’t. We couldn’t. Not in cold blood. He wasn’t a soldier, just a simple man, a farmer maybe. So we tied him up and took him with us, back to where we thought our camp was located. But we got lost in the jungle, didn’t know where we were, lost our sense of direction. It was night, there were no lights, nothing, just a torch that I had.”
Elvis nodded. “So what happened?”
“The Vietcong guy sensed that we were lost and he showed us the way,” said Del, picking up the story. “He couldn’t speak no English and we couldn’t understand him but he led us out of the jungle even though he was our prisoner. And when we got near the camp he pleaded with us to let him go because he knew that if we took him into the camp he’d be shot.”
“Did you let him go?” asked Elvis.
“Yea,” said Del. “He’d saved us. We thought maybe he had a wife and kids. He could have led us back to where his people were, and we’d have been captured or killed.”
“He ran off back into the jungle as fast his legs could carry him,” said Roy. “The thing is… we trusted him and he trusted us. We repaid his trust.”
“Just like today,” said Elvis. “You trusted me, and I repaid it. I can’t lead a normal life, and never will, even after you let me go. But you showed me what it was like. Millions of men dream of being Elvis Presley, and I dream sometimes of being one of those millions. Today a little piece of that dream came true for me. Because of the same trust you shared with that Vietcong guy in the jungle.”