In the summer of 1977 I was ten years old and my family had just moved from the city of my birthplace , Beverly, across the bridge to Salem. We went from living in a classic "Leave It To Beaver" kind of neighborhood, unified around a quaint, old-fashioned elementary school at it's center, to one split in half, divided as much by the physical location of the school, if not the socioeconomics of the inhabitants . One half of the neighborhood, the side we were now living, was filled with older Victorian-era homes that had seen better days, with mostly french-canadian names on the mailboxes. The other half was a more urban neighborhood than my young eyes had ever seen. Narrow, litter-strewn, congested streets filled with run down triple deckers, inhabited mostly by recent immigrants from Latin America and Puerto Rico.
It was a far cry from the neighborhood we left . At that time, Beverly was mainly populated by families with either Irish or Italian surnames. Names like O'Brien, Flaherty, McDonald, Giacomo ,Vitale were the ones that filled the phone books of the first ten years of my life.
We moved literally the day after school ended. I was still finishing my Little League season , in fact, and had to arrange rides to finish out the schedule. My parents had found what they thought was a way out of their five years of post-bankruptcy tenancy by pursuing a "rent with the option to buy" arrangement they saw in the local paper. "It's too good to pass up" my dad naively explained to his five kids, three of whom would be forced to change schools, friends, and last but not least ,baseball. Baseball!
Due to his previous financial misfortunes and having five children before he was thirty, my father could not pay the movers any more than he had to. This was to be the third move for me, so I knew the drill. About a month before the move date, he would begin secretly bringing home his truck from his job at the newspaper, so we could spend the last weekends of the school year packing, (which involved a lot of fighting between my parents over what to keep and what not to keep) and loading box after box into the van, driving it over the bridge into Salem, and unloading it into our "new" house. Not since the Berlin airlift had American's been involved in something so logistically complicated. There was also the added air of secrecy to our operation, as dad "would catch hell" from his boss if he was caught using the truck that way, burning company gas. Like the moonshine runners of the thirties, we loaded by daylight and unloaded by twilight.
The house up to this point had been serving as a defacto frat house for the nearby Salem State College. We knew this because evidence of its previous life was everywhere.The first thing I remember seeing when I walked in was the Christmas tree hanging from the antique chandelier in the living room, so dry it was practically mummified. In June. There was also the nice, collegiate-themed decorating touches in each room: "A friend with weed is a friend indeed" posters, along with matching exotic tubular "ashtrays" which my mother quickly gathered up with a gasp. Also hanging on the walls were the requisite velvet black light posters of the 1970's. They contained the usual suspects: Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, and some kind of a unicorn/water buffalo themed Dali-esque lovefest. You know, the usual stuff. This once proud Victorian, probably originally commissioned for one of Salem's early movers and shakers, had been carved in two, christened with the haze of post-Vietnam celebratory pot smoke, and rented out to students who, when the acid kicked in, must have thought they had died and gone to Hell .
Somehow during all the chaos and nashing of teeth that came to be known as the"Linden Street" move, my siblings and I "discovered" my mother's collection of vinyl, that somehow she had manged protect from her now brood of five. And we also realized that we had a turntable that unlike most of the household devices of my childhood,actually worked.
On top of being the "new kids" in a strange , tough neighborhood, the summer of '77 was extremely hot. So we mostly stayed inside. At first helping my mom unpack. Then driving her crazy. When it looked like we were about to become a murder stastistic: "five children found hanging by a Christmas Tree. In July" we found the vinyl. We then spent the rest of that summer listening to many, many old 45's. She seemed to have everything, from the Beatles to the Searchers' to Johnny Cash to Robert Mitchum. Yes that Robert Mitchum. Seems ol' Bob himself cut the theme song for his moonshine-running crime flick "Thunder Road" back in 1958.
But to us, the true piece of eight in this newly discovered treasure chest ,was the LP entitled Elvis' Golden Records. From the moment the needle hit the vinyl on the opening track "Hound Dog", once we placed that platter on the turntable, it never left. We loved it so much we began performing the songs , grabbing whatever was nearby to assume the roles of our instruments in our newly formed band. As the oldest, I naturally felt I should be Elvis, and my sister took on the part of the drums, and the older of my two brothers completed the rest of the ensemble.The other two kids were toddlers, so they were our "audience". My sisters "drum set" consisted of the arm of our beat-to-hell brown Naugahyde-cloaked recliner , which she would straddle and play, looking more like it was some bizarre headless animal , than a drum set. My part was to "sing" into my "mike":the hollow metal tube for the "power nozzle" attachment for our ancient Electrolux vacuum cleaner.
The racket we made singing along with the King probably made my mother wish she could actually put us in a vacuum.
There was a boy living on the other side of the duplex we met during one of our many "moonshine runs". He was about my age and introduced himself to us soon after our first visit. I remember thinking he must have just come back from the beach because he was so tan. His name was Jimmy, and his family was Greek he told us, not beachcombers, and his dad left his mom a along time ago so it was just him , his two sisters and his mom next door. He would be my friend if I wanted, he told me. I could also be his older sister's boyfriend if I wanted. She's twelve. He seemed like a nice kid. I remember just being relieved to know one person in this new place, but as things often go in families like his, he was gone just a year later, shipped off to live with his dad and I never saw him after that.
That summer after we were more or less settled in , my best friend from Beverly would sleep over on the weekends. Kind of helped ease the transition I guess. It was during one of these weekends when Jimmy burst through our back screen door , yelling "hey did you hear ? did you hear? Elvis is dead! The King is dead!"
He told us he had just got back from a plane trip to see his dad, and apparently the pilot announced the news over the loudspeaker to all the passengers. Women broke down and cried, he said. It was really weird. As suddenly as he had arrived, he left. Probably to tell Mrs.Hood next door, my mom said. We immediately went back to our 'tween Elvis Tribute Band performance. Appropriately, "Heartbreak Hotel" came up next.
Despite the traumatic start to that summer, when I left the only school I had ever known, and the looming uncertainty of it's end ,when I would find myself thrust into a sea of children as diverse
as the General Session of the U.N., the few weeks before and after Elvis' death remain a bright spot in my memories of that part of my childhood. So much so, that whenever I hear one of the tracks that was on the Golden Records LP, it instantly transports me back to that strange old house, surrounded by old vinyl, an electrolux, and the songs of a dead king .