Memory of meeting Elvis resonates decades later

Joe Rottenborn has always loved music and while quarterbacking the 1966 Quaker football team he played in a band called the “Swinging Pendulums.”

He still plays guitar and during the recent “Class of 66 turns 66” gala last month, he was on stage with a number of classmates entertaining a reunion crowd at the Salem Saxon Club.

But go back to July 1958 when he was a typical 9-year-old Salem boy and his mother and father wanted to visit Joe’s older brother, PFC John Rottenborn, who was drafted and stationed at Fort Hood, Texas with the U.S. Army.

John, his father’s namesake, was a radio operator with the 2nd Armored Division’s “Hell on Wheels” which was awaiting transfer to West Germany where the army maintained a large post-World War II presence in the North American Treaty Organization.

“So my parents and I got on a Greyhound at North Jackson for the trip to Fort. Hood,” Rottenborn said. The trip was at least two days he recalled.

“I remember it vividly … lying on the large, furthest seat in the back when mom said we were going to move forward. We were now in Arkansas and all seating was segregated. We moved forward of the white line painted on the floor,” Rottenborn explained, noting it was about 60 percent white to the front and the remainder for blacks.

He noticed a similar situation at the Dallas bus terminal where a much smaller room was attached to the terminal for blacks.

“We were in a different place,” Rottenborn recalled as they proceeded to Fort Hood.

“The weather was hot and I remember seeing soldiers marching in the sun and swimming in the base pool. We were going to be there all week.”

The family also knew that another soldier aside from their son and brother, the most famous entertainer in the world, was stationed at Fort Hood.

Of course they passed along their desire to PFC Rottenborn.

“We want to meet Elvis” they said. John advised them the base PX (Post Exchange) had a large cafeteria.

“Go to that,” he instructed his family, “Elvis eats there everyday at 11:15 a.m.”

The Rottenborns arrived at the PX at 11:10 a.m. and Joe explained, “A 1956 black Cadillac limousine pulled in. There were three folks inside.”

The three were Elvis, the driver/bodyguard and a girlfriend of Elvis’ visiting from Memphis – a piece of information Rottenborn didn’t obtain until later.

Elvis was 23, a rock star, a movie star, incredibly famous. Rottenborn recalled his hair was “very closely cropped (like all soldiers) and lighter in the hot sun, indeed it looked sort of blondish-brown. We were standing near the door of the PX and my father spoke to him.

“‘Elvis, Salem, Ohio, we’re big fans, we saw you at Miami Beach, we saw you at the movie theater.’”

That was in 1957.

Rottenborn explained that theater was about the size of the State Theater in Salem and when they saw him in Miami Beach it was after he made his famous appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Rottenborn said that after the show his mother and father stayed in the theater for the second show.

“Elvis replied, ‘I remember those shows.’”

“Elvis was very cordial and respectful to my parents and addressed my mother as ‘Ma’am’ and then they went into the PX and ordered lunch,” Rottenborn said. He recalled that Elvis didn’t speak to him at that time “if memory serves me” and Elvis ordered the same lunch each day.

“A slice of watermelon and ice tea,” Rottenborn said. “We also got our lunch and watched him spit the seeds out onto his plate. When he finished the meal the young women in the PX stole his silverware and picked up some of the seeds. As he prepared to exit, we all followed and got outside and my dad asked Elvis, “May we take some pictures of you and he said, ‘Sure.’”

Rottenborn paused for a moment and said, “This is the most popular entertainer in the world standing patiently allowing my mother to take pictures on her small Brownie camera.”

Joe’s mom, Mary, took several black and white shots.

Rottenborn explained, “While he was standing there, Elvis asked me, ‘What’s that you’re reading?’ and I said, ‘It’s a book on baseball statistics.’”

It was the 1958 edition of Joe Reichler’s “Book of Great Baseball Records.” It cost 50 cents, Rottenborn said and Elvis asked, ‘May I see it?’ “I handed it to him and he began to flip through it.”

One faded black and white picture taken by his mother clearly shows a 9-year-old Joe Rottenborn standing next to Elvis.

“He browsed through the magazine for about a minute or thereabouts. When he finished I asked, ‘May I have your autograph?’ He said, ‘Sure.’

“And on that magazine, he signed the autograph and put ‘Thanks, Elvis Presley’ and coincidentally on a white block that said ‘The Day the Fans Will Never Forget.’ It certainly was a day I’ll never forget. I still have it framed.”

Over the years, Rottenborn compared his autograph with others and it has remained consistent.

“After he gave the magazine back, his driver and girlfriend got back into the limo,” Rottenborn said.

Elvis was in the front passenger seat and “as the car pulled out he slowed down as he passed us and my mother took a shot as he passed us.”

That was on Monday, their first day visiting Fort Hood.

The next morning his father asked, “Do you want to go see Elvis? And we saw him again on Tuesday and spoke to him and saw him everyday through Friday.

“On Friday, Elvis said ‘Hi John, how are you today?’ And anyone who knew my father from the corner grocery on Jennings Avenue would appreciate how impressed he was that Elvis remembered his name. Again, we’re talking about the most famous entertainer in the world.”

Rottenborn noted in a “Millenium Guide” Elvis was ranked the most popular “and years after we were, of course, big fans. I have records I play regularly, and recalled when friends and I went to a midnight movie to see “Blue Hawaii” when was released.

Rottenborn was especially interested when “GI Blues” came out “because of Elvis’ stay in the Germany.”

He added, “So, as far as we’re concerned, Elvis lives in our hearts. He is still the king.”

Saturday, Aug. 16 commemorated 37 years since Presley’s death at the age of 42. Presley remains a top cultural icon.

A Google search of “Elvis” in quotes returned 37.8 million results while a search of “The Beatles” in quotes came back with 22.2 million results.

Rottenborn played Elvis songs all day Saturday including his favorites “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds” and his favorite of them all, “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.”

For years the family referred the Fort Hood visit, “As the five days we spent with Elvis,” said Rottenborn who has had a long career as a successful educator and is a former Salem head football coach.

“We loved his music from the first time we heard it, after we met him we loved him. He was a good person.”