Elvis Slept Here - Part Uno

On January 19, 1953, like all American males were required to do at age 18, Elvis Presley registered for the U.S. Selective Service System. Soon he received Selective Service No. 40-86-35-16. He graduated high school and by 1956, he was a super-star. On January 4, 1957, he went for an Army pre-induction physical in Memphis and was declared 1A on January 8, his 22nd birthday.

On December 20, 1957, Elvis received his draft notice. He was to report for active duty in January, 1958, but he asked for and received an extension so he could complete filming "King Creole" which was already underway. Finally, on March 24, 1958, Elvis, accompanied by his parents, reported to the Memphis draft board at 6:35 AM. He was sworn in and, along with 12 other recruits, bused to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas for further processing.

Fort Chaffee, originally named Camp Chaffee, is located just outside the Ft. Smith, Arkansas city limits. Construction was begun in September, 1941 due to the need for additional training facilities for World War II. The first troops reported for duty there on December 7, the same day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The base has seen numerous uses during its life besides training men for combat - POW internment center (from 1942 to 1946, over 3,000 Germans were held here), a hospital for treating wounded soldiers, a psychiatric unit for treating mentally disturbed soldiers, and a refugee camp. At the end of the Vietnam War, 50,809 Vietnamese were processed through Ft. Chaffee, giving them medical screenings, matching them with sponsors, and arranging for their residence in the United States. On May 6, 1980, it became a Cuban refugee resettlement center after the Cuban government allowed American boats to pick up refugees at the port of Mariel. Three weeks later, a number of refugees rioted at Chaffee and burned two buildings. State troopers and tear gas were used to break up the crowd, and eighty-four Cubans were jailed. In two years, Fort Chaffee processed 25,390 Cuban refugees. It was again used  to house over 10,000 evacuees when Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana in 2005.
On Sept. 27, 1997, the base was formally closed by the government and it now mostly serves as a 66,000 acre training facility for the Arkansas Air National Guard who uses the fort’s Razorback Range for target practice.

The base has also has been the setting for Hollywood movies and shows. In 1984, the movie A Soldier’s Story, starring Howard E. Rollins Jr. was shot at Fort Chaffee. In 1998, the Neil Simon movie Biloxi Blues, starring Matthew Broderick, was filmed there. The most recent visit from Hollywood was in 1995 for The Tuskegee Airmen with Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr. Due to the high number of deaths suffered by men during training, while being treated for combat wounds, while imprisoned on the base, and some suicides among the mentally ill patients, Fort Chaffee has long been rumored to be one of the most haunted places in America and was featured in episode 10 of the 4th season of Ghost Adventures on Friday, November 19, 2010.

Unfortunately, the base has seen its share of bad luck in the last few years. On January 29, 2008, high winds and a fire started by an electrical fault burned approximately 100 acres and damaged or destroyed 150 abandoned buildings. At 10:00 PM on August 3, 2011 another fire broke out in the 90 acre former medical complex. This was, according to the National Weather Service, the hottest day in FT. Chaffee history at 115 degrees. This fire destroyed the haunted hospital complex and nearly 120 other buildings. An investigation later determined the fire was started by a discarded cigarette in the old, wooden building from a group of Kentucky National Guard troops who were on the base for training. They admitted they had heard about the haunting at the hospital and had snuck over looking for ghosts.

A few of the buildings have been renovated and now house a few construction-type businesses, a chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America and several museums. One building has even been turned into a commercial haunted house. It was one of the museums that I became interested in and was the reason for my visit.

The barbershop in Ft. Chaffee
Building 803 houses the Chaffee Barber Shop Museum. You are probably right about now wondering what the heck I'm rambling on about, why in the world would I be interested in a barber shop museum and does any of this have a point? Yes Virginia, actually, it does. You see, building 803 was the base barber shop and it is where Elvis Presley received "the haircut heard ‘round the world," the G.I. buzz cut which sheared off his famous locks of black hair and, according to John J. Mawn, the Fort Chaffee Information Officer, made Elvis resemble "a peeled onion."

I am not an Elvis fanatic. Actually, there are only 2 or 3 of his songs that I kind of like and I've only seen 3 of his movies. I took a girl I was trying to impress to see him in concert in Dallas a few years before he got fat and passed away. I wasn't all that impressed, but she was so mission accomplished. I went to Las Vegas a number of years ago totally unaware there was a huge Elvis impersonator contest going on. There were Elvis's (Elvi?) everywhere. You couldn't throw a stick without hitting an Elvis or two. I took a potty break in a Caesar's Palace restroom and peed standing next to Elvis. No, I didn't look. Recently, somehow, youngest daughter became an Elvis fan so, living just 3 hours from Memphis, we took a 3-day weekend and ran over to tour Graceland. I found it too was less than impressive. Still, when I found myself in Ft. Smith for a weekend, how could I not visit this place?

In the Varsity Club sports bar 
watching "THE" game.
I graduated from the University of Texas. Chip, my best buddy of over 40 years with whom I shared life and death adventures in the military, graduated from the University of Oklahoma. The schools are arch rivals to say the least. Somehow, our deep friendship continues to survive the annual football warfare and on the weekend of the UT/OU game, we meet at the Downtown Marriott in Ft. Smith, a good-sized town located half-way between our homes. We leave the wives and kids home for this, our annual "guy's weekend." He wears red, I wear burnt orange, we drink a couple of beers, we eat unhealthy food, we talk about manly stuff, we have been known to say a few mild cuss words, we harass each other unmercifully about our respective school's teams and we flirt with the waitresses (which never amounts to anything other than fun because they are in their 20's and want a big tip and we are, well, lets just say we're a bit older).  And on Sunday, we give each other a manly hug with the requisite pats on the back, proclaim how much fun we've had, and a bit wistfully, go back to our respective homes and family and jobs.

There we were in Ft. Smith, the game was over in the early afternoon, it was a beautiful, warm autumn day, Chip was cool to go exploring, so off we went to Ft. Chaffee. At least we tried to. I plugged it into my GPS and it informed me no Fort Chaffee found. I spelled it different. Nope. We had been driving around for a while when we saw an exit sign for Hwy 22. Hey, that leads back downtown by our hotel so we took it. I couldn't believe a 66,000 acre military base would not be on the GPS so I pulled off the road and we got out my Roads of Arkansas map book and looked it up. Ft. Chaffee was just a few miles down Hwy 22 the other way. Giving the map to Chip for navigation purposes, we turned around and down the road we went. We soon came up on a city limit sign indicating we were entering Barling. I entered Ft. Chaffee in the city of Barling in the GPS. It came up immediately. So if you go looking for it, the dang thing is in Barling, a suburb of Ft. Smith, not Ft. Smith itself!
After a few stop-and-go miles down Hwy 22 we saw Ft. Chaffee signs. We entered the grounds and found ourselves in a historical place from another time. We found what we were looking for and so much more.

(Continued in Part Deaux)