GRACE LAND

Sixty-two years ago yesterday, ten-year-old Johnny Wilkinson rode his bike from 951 S. Weller Avenue, in Springfield, Missouri’s Rountree Neighborhood, to the Shrine Mosque auditorium downtown, where Elvis Presley was set to perform that night. Elvis was only 21 and had just started to top the charts and make television appearances, but his popularity hadn’t warranted tight security yet. Young Johnny snuck in to Presley’s dressing room, and they had a chat. Elvis finally said he had to start getting ready, so Johnny prepared to leave. He turned at the door and said, “Mr. Presley, can I tell you something? You can’t play guitar worth a damn.” Elvis laughed and said, “You think you can play better than me?” Johnny replied, “I know I can.” Elvis pointed him to the Gibson acoustic in the corner and told him to have a go at it. Johnny was pretty good for a kid, and Elvis said, “Someday when you get a little older, I’m going to have you play guitar for me.” Johnny went on to play in bands with Chuck Berry, The New Christy Minstrels, and The Kingston Trio, to name a few. Twelve years after their first meeting, Elvis saw Johnny playing a show on television. He called the young guitarist and asked, “Are you that kid who told me I couldn’t play guitar worth a damn?” Johnny said, “That’s me.” Elvis invited him to join his TCB band. Johnny played rhythm guitar and toured the world for the next nine years, until Elvis died in 1977.

That’s the version of the story Johnny told me…the version I remember of the version he told me, anyway. We lived four doors down from him on Weller Avenue. He and his wife Terry had become good friends of ours. Johnny’s health was failing and I would often walk down the block and help out with things they couldn’t handle on their own. Sometimes I’d just sit beside Johnny and play music and listen to his stories. He died five years ago of lung cancer. I wrote his obituary, and tried to help Terry take care of things around the house. Two or three years later she was diagnosed with cancer too, and when we were on the road last September, her sister called to tell me Terry had passed away. I loved them, and I miss them. We were different in a lot of ways. We didn’t agree about everything in the world, but they were kind and honest: the best kind of neighbors.

A couple of years ago we bought the lot just to the south of their family home, with the intention of building a 1920s-style bungalow that would fit in the historic neighborhood. It was a great opportunity for us to downsize from our big old craftsman house and stay on the block. But, it was also some help to Terry. Her in-laws didn’t like her, and felt like Johnny had made a mistake marrying her. They structured their trust so that when Johnny died, Terry would get the house and one year of support, then she was cut off. Assholes. Who does that? Selling us the lot was one way Terry could raise some funds to pay her expenses. In the fall of 2016, we’d sold our big old house and had the new one designed and ready to build. Shovels were ready to go into the dirt the second or third week of November…then the presidential election happened, and our lives changed forever.

Our friend Andrew recently bought the Wilkinson’s house, and will move in this summer. We still own the lot next door. We still think about building there someday, and filling it with friends and music, but for now we like living in a van, traveling the country and meeting people. I have a feeling we’ll end up back on that block someday, though. It’s a good place. It’s the only place I feel sure someone will have the honesty to tell me I can’t play guitar worth a damn.

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