For those of you who have been reading my posts, you will see a familiar pattern. I have described “silver linings” often which usually indicates an unfortunate experience that leads to a good experience later. This is a story which starts good and gets better. The downside is that the bulk of the story occurred at the same time that I got caught drinking as a firstie at West Point. (See post entitled, “They Still Call me SIR!”). But remember, I didn’t let bad luck get me down. You can’t change the past, so get on with it.
My circuitous journey that ended up at The Pontiac Silverdome on New Year’s Eve 1975 watching Elvis LIVE was actually made possible by a West Point cadet named Wes Walters. Wes was also in Company H-2 along with me. Wes was a plebe when I was a yearling (sophomore) and we were in the same squad. A yearling is an “upper class cadet” along with the juniors (cows), and seniors (firsties). OK, I know your next question so let’s deal with it…. why are juniors called cows? Right? OK, juniors were called cows because “back in the day” (way before my time) cadets were not allowed to take their first vacation until their junior year. In other words, cadets had to wait two years for their first home vacation, which is a LOOOOOONG time. Hence, they were told that they couldn’t go ome till “the cows came home”. So, the emembers of West Point’s junior class were deemed to be “cows”. Get it? Good, now get over it over it.
Back to Mr. Walters. Wes and I had a special relationship, as did many yearlings and plebes. Often we yearlings were assigned a plebe that we were to mentor. It was a professional relationship, but since yearlings were only plebes the previous year, it was thought that we yearlings would be more compassionate with the oft time stressed out plebes. Wes was my plebe, so to say.
Wes Walters was an exceptional plebe. Sharp as a tack and smart. He handled the pressures of plebe year well, so our conversations became a little less formal. It was common for a plebe to have a picture of their girlfriend on their desk (plebes were allowed 3 knick-knacks on their desk). It was also common for a yearling to kiddingly ask their plebe if their girlfriend had any friends. I didn’t break tradition, and Wes Walters’ girlfriend made it easy for me. The picture that Wes (I mean Mr. Walters) had on his desk had two women in it. Both were quite attractive, so I felt it my duty to ask. (TRADITION). His “girlfriend’s girlfriend” was a beautiful looking woman wearing an all American (stars and stripes) bikini bathing suit. I asked Mr. Walters to ask his girlfriend if her friend wanted a pen pal. (they were from the West Coast and there was no possibility of my ever meeting this Miss America). Wes said he would check.
To my surprise, about a week later I received a letter from someone in Arizona named Karen Smith. (By the way, cadets and soldiers in general LOVE to get mail. There was no internet or cell phones then, and we could only use the limited number of pay phones on a very infrequent basis. Letters were definite morale boosters, except those of the “Dear John” variety!
Karen was a very nice young lady, a senior in high school at the time. We began very innocently writing letters to each other, approximately once every couple of months just talking about what was going on in our lives. Somewhere in our communications we talked about music. I remember telling her that I loved Rock n’ Roll (today we call it Classic Rock) and I remember telling me that she loved Elvis.
After a year or so, our communications slowed down to every six months. As a matter of fact, I thought we had just totally faded away from each other until Monday, December 22, 1975. Recall in my aforementioned post that I was a member of the Cadet Public Relations Council (CPRC) and got to go home earlier than other cadets to visit local high schools in the Detroit area. On December 22, I was scheduled to catch a bus to LaGuardia Airport to fly home in the late afternoon. I was required to go to lunch formation, and then baby it was off to Motown I would go!
Mail call was at noon, right before the lunch formation. I almost missed mail call as I didn’t care, I was going to be home in less than 8 hours. I had just gotten caught drinking two days before, so I was planning on letting loose during my winter break as I knew that coming back to West Point was going to suck big time walking punishment tours on the cold cement (called the “area” ) in the middle of winter. I managed to grab the one piece of mail on my way to the bus. It was from Karen Smith, my long-lost pen pal. I hadn’t heard from her in over a year!
Then, I was astonished to noticed that the return address was from an address in Royal Oak, Michigan, the town right next to my hometown of Southfield, Michigan!!!!! I ripped open the envelope and read Miss America’s letter. SHE HAD MOVED PERMANENTLY to Royal Oak and I would actually be less than 5 miles from her in the next 6 hours!!!
You know where this is heading don’t you?
When my parents picked me up from the airport I told them I needed to borrow their car THAT NIGHT, and I told them the Miss America story. (remember, I had just sold my car to another cadet, the car that had the Southern Comfort in the trunk, never mind) My mom didn’t want me taking her car out to hunt down Miss America, but she agreed to drive me their that night. I simply HAD to visit Karen at her Royal Oak home THAT NIGHT, probably less than two days after she had mailed me her letter!
With mom driving, I went to the address, climbed the stairs, and knocked on her door at about 8pm. She said, “who is it?” I replied, “Cadet Joe Sanders from West Point”. She replied “WHO?” and I said, “Joe Sanders, the guy you have been writing to from West Point”. She excitedly said, “Oh My God, is it really you?” and she opened the door. I said, “Karen Smith from Arizona?” and she said “yes!, please come in!”. I had already made up my mind that I would not enter her apartment if she asked as it was already inappropriate to just show up unannounced, plus Alberta Blanche Sanders (mom) had the timer on me (mom knew me pretty well). I replied,” No thank you Karen, I just wanted to let you know that I live very close to you, and maybe we can go out to dinner while I am in town?” She agreed and she gave me her phone number. We politely hugged and I departed for the car.
The next day I was doing some late Christmas shopping at Hudsons Northland and happened to walk by a ticket office. I saw that the The King was going to be playing at the Pontiac Silverdome in just one week! I bought two tickets immediately, hoping that Kathy would go to the concert with me (remember, I mentioned earlier that she had told me she loved Elvis). When I got home, I called her immediately and our date was set!
I wanted to make it a great New Year’s Eve, as it was the eve of our nation’s bi-centennial year. I would be graduating from West Point soon and I wanted to go into 1976 in style! I picked Karen up for our pre-show dinner date and took her to a fine steak house. I ordered filet mignon and it was then that I learned (actually, I was reminded) that she was a vegetarian. I apologized profusely and told her we would go to a different restaurant, but she insisted we stay and that she would order a salad. (I am sure that in some previous letter she had told me that she was a vegetarian, but it wasn’t information I needed to know, or so I had thought). We finished our dinner and polite conversation and headed for Pontiac.
We got to the Silverdome late as traffic was horrendous. I was concerned that we might miss a portion of the show. We got to our floor seats around 10pm and were relieved that Elvis had not taken the stage at that point. Finally, well after 11pm, all the lights in the stadium were dimmed. It was time for ELVIS to enter the stage.
The 60,000+ person crown got relatively quiet as everyone strained to get a look at Elvis’ entrance. Suddenly, thousands of women began screaming and thousands of flashcubes lit up the stadium as Elvis Presley waked out of a long tunnel and onto the stage. No stadium lights were on, yet the whole arena was lit up because of the flashcubes from spectator’s polaroid cameras! Of all of the pageantry of seeing Elvis, it was that flashcube-lit Silverdome moment that is what I remember most! Who’d have thunk it?!
Elvis began with “C.C. Rider” and then addressed the crowd. He threw in a few signature “Thank you very much” comments and then confided that he was nervous. He said he was very nervous as this was the largest crowd he had ever performed before! The never-saw-their-team- in-the-Super Bowl Lions fans went crazy for the King! (sadly, 44 years later, the Lions still haven’t been to the Super Bowl☹).
Elvis then followed with a confession that he had “ripped his pants” in front of the largest crowd ever! Nobody cared, we all just wanted to be a part of the magic night!
At midnight, we all joined Elvis and sang Auld-Lang-Syne together as the huge screen flashed “1976”.
All was good with the world, 1976 was finally here! The stadium announcer made the announcement that “Elvis has left the building” and we all headed out
I took Miss America back to her place in Royal Oak, gave her a polite good night kiss, and I never saw her again. But thanks to Wes Walters, I got to see Elvis Presley live, and I am happy for that to this very day!