You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks; an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
In 1977, Elvis Presley’s career was in decline. His river of multi-platinum singles had slowed to a trickle of gold. But the man’s stardom was still at a level we all can only dream of. The crown of the king of rock and roll was a lifetime appointment. Even if Elvis’ career had been going downhill for two decades, he was still one of the biggest names on the planet. You can bet there were still fans waiting to greet Elvis as he got off his plane at the Madison Four Lakes airport on June 24th. It was one in the morning, but a small crowd welcomed the King as he entered a waiting limousine, and was whisked away.
In the late seventies, Stoughton Road was just about the eastmost edge of town. East Towne mall was just in its infancy, and Sun Prairie had yet to creep in to meet the capitol city. But since highway 51 takes commercial traffic from New Orleans to the U.P, businesses along the route stayed busy. Of course, at one in the morning, busy isn’t always a good thing. Forty five years ago, a gas station occupied the corner of Stoughton Road and East Washington Avenue. At one in the morning, June 24th, 1977, the owner of the station sent his son to kick out the teens who loitered in the parking lot.
As Elvis was conveyed to his hotel, perhaps he reflected on his performance in Des Moines, a few hours earlier. Perhaps he thought of nothing, content to relax, and watch the city roll by. But he was yanked back to reality as the limousine pulled up to the stop light. Not ten yards beyond the tinted glass, he beheld a gang of teenage boys beating down the gas station owner’s son. He paused only for a moment, then told the driver to stop the car.
The boys froze. There was no mistaking the sight before them. Elvis had leapt out of the limo, clad in his rhinestone-studded jumpsuit, layered under a black windbreaker. The King stood in his best approximation of a kung fu stance, sized up the boys through his gold-framed aviators, then declared “I’ll take you on.”
What do you do when the world’s most famous entertainer intends to fight you hand to hand? You personally may never find out, but the boys that night decided to back down. Could they have beat Elvis in street combat? Probably. After all, he was a lone, out of shape, forty two year old man. But I think they chose wisely, after all, it’s never a great idea to fight an officer of the law.
See, Elvis had a hobby of collecting badges. As he toured the country, he would sometimes stop by a local police station, and be presented with an officer’s badge. Of course, many of these were honorary, and anyway, limited in effectiveness to the city he got them. But there was one badge, his collection’s crown jewel, whose jurisdiction stretched from sea to shining sea. As it happened, Elvis Presley was an agent of the DEA.
If you have a passing knowledge of Elvis’s later life, It may surprise you that he was a fan of the Drug Enforcement Administration. This is the same man who, a couple months after the Madison incident, would suffer a fatal heart attack on the toilet, because he was that constipated from the amount of painkillers he was taking. His ex-wife wrote in her memoir that the badge was a power thing. Quote: “With the federal narcotics badge, he could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.”
That may have been true, but I also think he genuinely wanted to make a difference. He saw street drugs as dangerous, and didn’t see the irony of his own substance abuse. Elvis’s doctor later talked about the level of denial Presley held. He, quote: “didn’t see the wrong in it. He felt that by getting it from a doctor, he wasn’t the common everyday junkie getting something off the street.”
So, in 1970, Elvis wrote to Richard Nixon, asking to be bestowed the badge and powers of an agent of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Presley and the President met in the Oval Office, and by the end of the day, Elvis had his badge. He carried it everywhere, and when Nixon later folded the Bureau into the newly-created Drug Enforcement Administration, Elvis added a DEA windbreaker to his off-stage ensemble.
In his letters to President Nixon, Elvis talked about using his narcotics badge to be an ambassador, a positive role model. He had his badge and jacket on him in Madison, but the thing is, he didn’t need them. Down to his last day, Elvis Presley commanded respect beyond what any office or badge could give. That night in Madison, the man stopped a beatdown with nothing but his presence, his raw aura. Elvis helped up the station owner’s son, shook hands with everyone involved, then stepped back into the limo, and slipped away into the night.
Just over two months later, Elvis Presley was dead. The gas station, too, eventually came to pass. The car dealership that replaced it put up a small gray marker stone along the sidewalk, with a plaque recounting the Elvis Fight, but now, even that is worse for the wear. Even if the plaque didn’t keep wearing out, a larger than life tale like this deserves better than some weathered gravestone to commemorate it. As it happens, a movie about Elvis is coming to theaters this Friday, 45 years to the day after he last graced our city. Will the movie include the Karate incident? I can only hope so, but I’m not sure I would be satisfied with even that as a tribute.
We have five years to make up something fitting before we hit the 50th anniversary, and I think I have just the thing. Remember Bucky on Parade? A few years ago, we collectively decided that our city would be better if it were sprinkled with eighty-some life-size statues of Bucky Badger, each painted and themed differently, and we were absolutely right. I still think back fondly on the Summer of 2018, when I would explore the city with friends, discovering a new Bucky each time we went out. Maybe I shouldn’t infer a pattern from two instances, but if you count the 2006 CowParade, it seems we’re due fiberglass statues every ten years or so.
Can you imagine if, in summer 2027, Madison was descended upon by dozens of karate Elvis statues? At every turn, a brightly painted rock star, hands up, ready to defend the city. Not only would this be the perfect amount of fun and whimsical, it would provide closure on, and recognition for an event which I still believe hasn’t been covered enough. Think about it, and until that day comes, thanks for listening. “Thank you very much.”If you’d like to suggest a topic for Parks and Landmarks to cover, please send it my way, at email@example.com. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys. For WORT News, I’m Sean Bull.