Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ferrying the dead to Graceland

In 1974, after graduating in the first paramedic class in the state of Alabama, I began working at the University Hospital in Birmingham on weekends and Hank's Ambulance Service weekdays. Previous to our graduating class, which consisted of 90% fire department personnel at that time, the cusp of the age of "drive fast, pick em' up, and haul ass to the hospital," was passing but still king (aka: rednecks with fast cars). On-site stabilization and emergency care was non-existent. I was relationship- and time-free back then, and an opportunity arose while working with Hank's (great name for an ambulance company in the south, eh?) to transport a motorcycle rider who had crashed into a bridge one night and died, back to his Memphis funeral home. The transport vehicle, a 1970 Ford Country Squire,
 was specially outfitted to handle the insertion of a hospital gurney
into the back section of the wagon with lockdowns. Before embarking in the morning, I met with the family and hospital personnel to formalize the transport. They tearfully informed me that their son was a serious motorcycle and Elvis enthusiast, who also shared his riding passion. 
I respectfully promised to make the transport safely and quickly; and in a non-redneck fashion, proceeded to hit the highway. It was about a four-hour journey, and being a hot summer day, the air-conditioning was up high. Back then those cars could cool down a house. Cruising along the highway, it didn't take long for me to realize that my passenger was exuding a very strong smell...and...I was having a bit of a problem with his arm, which kept dropping off the gurney onto the floor directly behind me. The sweet putrid smell of death became overwhelming as I drove along, and the only solution was to turn off the air-conditioning and open all the windows to clear the air. The arm kept dropping. With one hand on the wheel and speed accelerating to increase the wind through the windows, I reached back and tucked that pesky arm back up next to the cold corpse. That sickly-sweet smell began to permeate every sense in my body and, maddeningly, the only other diversion I could think of was to turn on the radio to whatever station would occupy my mind -- which back then was...you guessed it, country music. I cranked it up loud enough to wake the dead, though it didn't work. The wind was insufficient to take away the sickening smell, so I pushed the accelerator to the floor, glanced at the speedometer, and saw the needle bounce somewhere around 110 miles per hour. I heard that arm drop down to the floor of the car again with a "plonk!" as if it was reaching out for a breath of life. Like a stock car racing contortionist, with one hand on the vibrating steering wheel, one eye on the road, the other glancing in the rear view mirror at the porcelain-skinned appendage stretched to the floor, I reached back and jammed it back up to its uncertain home. The countryside whisked by, and soon I stuck my head out the window like a dog to avoid the stench. I prayed that I wouldn't get stopped by the police and have to explain why I had a dead man in the back of a station wagon while speeding...no, no, no! "Boy! Where you goin'? And what you got in the back?" No, no, no!

We arrived in Memphis at last, and I began to think about me and my dead, stinking occupant's options. The words of his family rang in my ears. I had never been to Graceland. Perhaps we could visit and satisfy two dreams? Pulling out my city map as I drove, I found Elvis's home and pulled up to the gate, which was, of course, locked. He might have been home? (This was 1974, remember, three years before The King passed.) With no options ahead of me, I climbed out, left the car parked in the driveway in front of the gate, and with my hands planted in reverence on the cold musical-notated metal,

expressed an impromptu homecoming for me and my dead companion. I managed to secure my dead pilgrim's hands at last securely to the gurney, for his closing short segment home to rest.

Ruth and I now find ourselves back in Memphis, and the memories flood back. This time, however, we are not driving a round trip with a dead man, but are destined for the Madison Hotel,

very upscale, downtown, and close to Beale Street, the center of tourist attraction. In this establishment we are mindbogglingly struggling with the contrast to our last few night's rest stop, the Riverside Hotel and associated Juke Joint jaunt. Its simplicity and lack of on-suite amenities, compared to our now luxurious king bedroom suite, with roof-top 24 hour penthouse overlooking the Mississippi River, was making our heads swim.

Our first town stop was at "The Pig," on Beale Street, renowned for BBQ. First a word about Beale. It pretty much sucks. Sorry, but if you've ever been to "Every Tourist Town USA," and visited the hot spots, you have seen Beale. Hooters, Hard Rock Cafe, T-shirt and cigar shops, horse carriage taxi rides, bars, musical venues of all sorts owned by famous personalities, selling cheap beer and patronized by camera-toting families with cranky kids. We had plans to visit a music spot on-street that night and pulled the plug to save our souls for a night-time old trolley car ride around the entire Memphis downtown district, no sidewalk barkers and hustlers to disturb the sweet, warm, moist night air. Previous to that we ate a fine meal at the hotel to avoid Beale's giant sucking sound and describe to our waiter, Jonathan (JP?), in passing our travel adventures. Taking the elevator up to our room afterward, a woman came on board and asked us if we were the couple traveling America writing. Apparently she had heard this from the waiter, who mentioned it to the bartender and to her. Later on the penthouse roof,

our tapster, Chris, after serving our drinks, asked the same question...news travels fast...all these folks got the blog link, and a quicky, quirky, cordial anecdote.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't been commenting, but I'm reading! Love love love this journey!