TUPELO, MISS., AUG. 9 -- Down in this self-effacing small southern town, where taxi-yellow U-Rent-'em signs flash "Catfish bait" and even the shabbiest of front stoops is bric-a-brac'd with pots of brilliant petunias, Sunday morning is a time for quiet reflection.
The markets are closed, the streets are nearly empty, the dogs are silent. In the August swelter, the public pools are fenced shut, and the city museum, a block east of Tupelo National Battlefield, is shuttered and padlocked.
But even before the pealing of the church bells, and hours before the Elvis Presley birthplace across the river in East Tupelo is scheduled to open for daily tours, the parking lot is filled with cars from at least eight states. Their drivers in their shorts, staring at the two-room shotgun shack Elvis' father hammered together, seem just as reverential as the choir ladies in the Main Street congregations. And for some, this communion is more solemn.
"We opened early today," nodded docent Laverne Clayton, rocking beside a huge electric fan in the front room of Presley's shack. "I didn't go to church."
Elvis Aron Presley (in Tupelo, they prefer the traditional spelling "Aaron," but Memphis, where the 10th anniversary of Presley's death is now being observed with "Elvis International Tribute Week," plays it straight) was born in the single bed in the front room of this bleak shed on Jan. 8, 1935. His older twin brother Jesse Garon died at birth, a fact that often haunted him and that may have added to the extraordinarily close tie he and his mother felt.
Elvis' father Vernon had built the shotgun shack only a few feet from his own father's home in what is called East Heights, with $180 borrowed for lumber and the help of his relatives: There were a half-dozen Presley families living within eyeshot of the house. The Pentecostal church the Presley clan attended, the church where Elvis first learned the pleasures of his own voice, is just around the block.
Inside the house, a photograph of a sweetly solemn-faced Elvis standing between his parents looks out over the coal-scuttle fireplace.
The place is an image taken straight from the Founding Fathers -- a simple two-room home, eloquent of privation and resplendent with pride -- and festooned with the garish sentimentality of small-town Americana.
The bare dirt yard that Elvis' mother Gladys swept smooth every day has been gussied up with boxwoods and cedar chips. The raw clapboards with their hopeful whitewash have been replaced with clean white siding, and flowered wallpaper and linoleum have been applied over the walls and floors. The furnishings -- the bed, set catty-corner in the front room, a dresser, a pie safe, an oak icebox of the sort restored for liquor cabinets in chic condos, a small wood-burning iron cookstove and a rickety table -- are donated pieces similar to those Elvis would have known.
Even the outhouse is gone, razed along with dozens of other East Heights shanties that deteriorated along with the rural economy.
But the 35,000 Elvis fans who visit his birthplace every year are oblivious to the subtleties of this tony restoration. To them, this humble hovel has the mystical attraction of a Bethlehem stable.
"I can feel it," sighs a bouffant blond woman in stretch jeans. "These are his real roots, his ... earthiness."
In fact, Elvis lived here only two years; the house was foreclosed after Vernon Presley was convicted of minor theft and sent to a work farm. Elvis and his mother stayed in the neighborhood, living with one set of relatives after another, until his father was paroled and they moved across Mud Creek into a series of white-trash homesteads in Tupelo "proper," population 7,000 then. By 1948, the Presleys were on the road to Memphis, about 100 miles north.
Nevertheless, Elvis is a living presence in Tupelo, population now 29,000. The landmarks of his childhood, the small businesses and the showplaces and the churches, are all still standing. Even the poorest cul-de-sacs where the family sought refuge have largely escaped urban renewal.
This is the real secret of Presley's charisma: A born outsider, he had nothing to lose and everything to besiege.
From the Leake and Goodlet lumberyard on Main Street, where his father eventually found a job, Elvis could see the porticoes of the solid, if unremarkable, homes of Tupelo's white-collar society.
They're still standing; so is the downtown Lyric Theatre, its art deco fac ade intact, where the barely teen-aged Elvis used to sing before the Saturday matinees.
The open-air grandstand at the Tupelo fairgrounds, where at the age of 10 Elvis placed second in a talent contest and discovered the weapon his voice had given him against the class scorn and economic scramble of his background, is ready for next weekend's fourth annual Elvis Presley Memorial Musicfest. Tupelo's special 10th anniversary remembrance will be Monday and Tuesday, featuring such Elvis luminaries as Mae Boren Axton, author of "Heartbreak Hotel"; Marion Keisker, the Sun Records secretary who "discovered" Elvis for producer Sam Phillips; and the president of the Great Britain and the Commonwealth consolidated fan clubs.
The display window of Tupelo Hardware on Main Street, where Elvis saw his first guitar and coaxed his parents into laying out $12 for it, is now filled with power tools, although now the "instruments" the sign refers to are telescopes.
"Shake Town," the black ghetto on North Green Street beyond Glen Ellen cemetery, where the Presleys last lived, is still a neighborhood of tar-paper shingles and shotgun duplexes.
But those are the pilgrimages few fans ever take. Most of the estimated 5,000 who will pass through Tupelo in the next 48 hours will see only the sanitized Elvis, the sainted Elvis, the one memorialized in stained glass just a hand-span away from God and his crown, in the Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel, just behind the birthplace.
The chapel, completed in the late '70s with contributions from admirers and fan clubs from as far away as England (one of the smaller stained glass windows was presented by the North London and Hertfordshire Chapter), is a small, angular wooden structure holding only a dozen pews. In the corner is an old pulpit, donated by Pastor Dean Tilley of the First Assembly of God, the old Pentecostal congregation; it holds a Bible that a plaque says was Elvis', presented by his father. The centerpiece is a wall-sized colored glass mural showing a white-suited figure, his arms stretched up toward a hovering cross surrounded by stars and planets and topped by a crown for the King, as Elvis' fans still consider him.
Alongside the chapel is another new building, the Elvis Presley Center -- souvenir heaven. Here travelers may wander past photographs and artwork of varying quality, priced according to rarity; a colored print of Graceland goes for $15, a pink T-shirt with a line drawing of the Tupelo shack for $8. There are buttons, address books, refrigerator magnets, silver-plated spoons with Elvis handles, coffee mugs with a picture of the birthplace, old eight-track tapes, ashtrays, assorted Elvis wall clocks, including one shaped like an electric-blue guitar, souvenir books and old concert bills.
Also for sale is a book of fan anecdotes compiled by Bob and Sue Olmetti, heads of the "Elvis Now" fan club of San Jose and the first couple to have been married in the Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel.
Sales of these "collectibles" and the $1 donation requested for touring the shack itself, go to the preservation fund for the site.
The other major Elvis shrine in Tupelo is what might be called the McElvis Museum -- a McDonald's that has been completely turned over, with the exception of the fast-food fryers, to Presley memorabilia.
The hundreds of photographs, album covers, transplanted signs, clippings and figurines are part of the remarkable collection of Janell McComb, longtime chairwoman of the Tupelo Elvis Presley Commission.
McComb is rumored to have about 75,000 artifacts and photos, and changes the display cupboards, though not the wall coverings, every couple of months.
Restaurant manager Rob Hudson says the Elvis tribute has been part of the McDonald's draw for about four years, and that two years ago in order to "go with the theme," the seating area of the franchise was remodeled to include three etched-glass portraits of Presley.
"People who live here come in and they don't even look," said Hudson, "but the tourists sure get a kick out of it. We'll have 5,000 people here Monday and Tuesday, and I guarantee, all of them will come through here."
Actually, Hudson, who helped hang the edge-to-edge photos, said he prefers the old-fashioned country store decor of the other McDonald's in Tupelo. "I think I'm just sick of it," he shrugged