ELVIS AT 21: BREAKOUT YEAR
Two young rebels with a runaway plan to meet Elvis
Sunday, October 24, 2010
Around midnight on Oct. 2, 1956, 16-year-old Carol Church used a rope to lower a packed suitcase from her second-floor bedroom window, sneaked down the stairs carrying a rag doll and a fishing knife, and walked out the door of her Northwest Washington home.
Outside, she picked up the luggage and, just as planned, met Jeanne DeGuibert, her 12-year-old best friend from down the street. They climbed into Carol's Volkswagen Beetle. Over the summer and on the sly, Carol had perfected the rolling start; she pushed the car out of the driveway, then steered it quietly down 45th Street NW. Once out of earshot, she shifted into gear and popped the clutch. They were off.
The next morning, with two kids and one car missing, the families called the police. The newspapers reported what the cops learned: Girls from Wesley Heights, one of the city's toniest neighborhoods, were missing and headed toward Memphis.
"Life would have been a lot easier if we never told anybody we were going to meet Elvis," Carol says.
In 1956, the parents of Wesley Heights didn't see Elvis Presley as a beloved musical icon -- they saw him as a menace.
A 1989 primer on Wesley Heights from the Historical Society of Washington says the developer who designed the neighborhood beginning in the late 1920s had "effectively designed a subdivision attractive to Christian, upper-middle-class whites of Washington." Deeds to lots in the neighborhood included "covenants" that forbade sales of the property to minorities. The neighbors were high-society: The Nixons and the Johnsons lived there before moving to the White House.
The well-connected Church family had steeplechase races named after them and summered in Nantucket. Carol's big sister had her debutante ball featured in the social pages of The Washington Post.
But Carol didn't have a fancy coming-out party. She describes her young self as a "bad kid." Once, she pulled a false fire alarm at the emergency box at the corner of Garfield Street and Foxhall Road. She left a bragging note on the scene ("Lucky Strikes Again!") -- which she'd written on her sister's monogrammed stationery.
"I wasn't a good criminal," Carol admits now.
"We had a joke in our house, whenever I would do something [bad]: 'What would the Grennans, the Walshes and the Tapskis say?' " she remembers. "Those were prominent families in the neighborhood whom my parents didn't want to disappoint. But I disappointed."
Carol didn't fit in at Woodrow Wilson High School, but found company in a kid four years her junior who lived down the street. "Jeanne was much younger than me age-wise, but far more mature," Carol says. "She was something."
Jeanne was similarly miserable after transferring from the Maret School to Immaculata Preparatory School. "Carol, she really got me," remembers Jeanne. "Nobody else in the neighborhood did. Carol and I were different from all the other kids."