John-Ward Leighton

ELVIS, ‘57

Private John-Ward Leighton July 1956
Private John-Ward Leighton July 1956
It was one of those hot muggy nights and I was reading because it was too hot to sleep. I had just finished an anthology of new American writers and for some reason started to think about the first time I had heard Elvis Presley.

Dear Elvis;

I’ve just spent the last four months on an intense military exercise called a Battle School. The four months before that I had been on a junior N.C.O. school. The training went around the clock for six days a week. The seventh day was spent catching up on sleep and preparing for the week ahead. I had spent the entire time in the company of other young men and now even the hags that worked in the mess hall were starting to look good.

I had returned to Charlie company 1PPCLI and after reporting to the company I was marched into my C.S.M.’s office and informed that I was improperly dressed and sent to the QM stores to pick up my Lance Corporal hooks and then to the tailor to have them sewn on all my uniforms. I was then taken to quarters by the COS and assigned one of the coveted end rooms in the barrack block.

I was assigned to 8 Platoon so that I wouldn’t have to deal with my friends in 7 Platoon. My Platoon Sergeant introduced me to my new section and then informed me that I had two weeks leave coming. I had missed the company’s normal leave rotation so I would be going on leave by myself.

I spent the night in the new end room packing and thinking about Amsterdam, the name was magic for its friendliness and for a Canadian soldier the price was always right.

After a quick trip to the mess for a carton of cigarettes and two forty-pounders of rum I tucked myself in for the night. There were poems to be written in my journal and now at least I didn’t have to do my writing in one of the stalls of the washroom.

It was funny after eight months of intense military training I was restless and out of sorts because for the first time in a long time I had nothing to do.

I awoke a half hour before reveille, as was my habit, and made my way to the washroom where I showered and shaved. I returned to my room just as reveille was being blown and the orderly COS was turning on the barrack room lights and turning the private soldiers out of their bunks.

I decided to travel in uniform because it meant that I wouldn’t have come back to quarters after I had turned my kit into the QM stores. I picked up my pass and then reported to the pay office to pick up leave money and train tickets after which I picked up my kit bag and a small grip and struck out for the guard room.

The guard Sgt. let me call a cab and I crossed the road to wait. The cab took about ten minutes to arrive and I directed the driver to the Bahnhof in Iserlohn. My German wasn’t that good but I could get myself to the train station almost anywhere in Germany.

Funny, looking back I’m trying to imagine myself as I was. The image is sure different from what it seemed to be then. I was this loner in a profession that didn’t value independent action. I was an athlete and a poet in a society where both talents were suspect. I know that I was a figure of ridicule in the macho society were your ability to drink yourself into a stupor was more valued than the ability to put words together on a page.

I had been to Amsterdam once before so the rail route was familiar to me. First came the milk train to Dortmund. I was tempted to stay over one night in Dortmund and go and see my regular honey in the red light district. The connecting train to the German Dutch border was on the platform, and as I wanted to spend as little time as possible hanging around train stations, I hopped on and was on my way.

Another three and a half hours and two more train transfers I arrived at the main train station in Amsterdam. It was three o’clock on a winter afternoon and already stating to get dark. I hoisted my kit bag onto my shoulder, swung down from the train and struck out for Canal street.

Memory is a tricky thing and I’m having trouble remembering if it was drizzling and I can’t remember whether I caught a taxi to the red light district. Come to think of it I’m also having trouble remembering the women’s name and what she looked like. My memory of the incident is coloured with embellishments that have attached themselves to the story over the years. Like all stories sometimes the truth is hidden in the fiction.

I remember that she was blond and dressed in a skimpy baby doll. She had a sweet face, and it was her face that attracted me to chat her up. She moved to the open window and I asked her to wait for me until I could check into one of the cheap flea bag hotels and return. She nodded her head and pulled on a chenille housecoat to signal that she was closed for business until I returned.

I practically sprinted to the nearest hotel and quickly checked in, paying for two days in advance. I raced up the narrow and very steep stairs to a room facing the street and the canal. I threw the kit bag under the bed after removing one bottle of rum and five packages of cigarettes. I pondered changing into civvies and decided to stay in uniform. Then I packed up the rum and cigarettes in my small pack and strap slung over one shoulder, locked up the room, returned the key to the desk and returned to the street.

She was still waiting, even though a group of horny Dutch Marines were in boisterous negotiations with some of her colleagues. She nodded her head toward the door to the street which she unlocked to let me in.

I followed her up another set of very steep stairs to a room in the back of the house. The room contained a rather large bed, a bidet and some rather bad erotic art on the walls. One wall was covered with a curtain which I assumed covered a window. There were two bedside tables with dim lamps and a small 45rpm record player, a stack of records, and one chair.

I gave her the fee, she put it away in her lock box threw off her clothes and scrambled onto the bed. I started the complicated task of getting out of my uniform with all its buttons, hooks, straps, suspenders, belts, puttees and boots. While I was involved with this she asked me if I minded if she put a record on the record player.

I finally got out of the uniform and joined her, buck naked, on the bed.

“Who is this”, I asked?

“Where have you been”, she smiled, “Its Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, this song has been at the top of the hits for the last two months”.

“Well it’s the first time I’ve ever heard him”, I said.

“Have you been in jail or something” she teased?

“Its kind of something like that”, I laughed, “It would take too long to explain.”

The song came to an end and she reached across me and turned the little 45 over. The room filled with the sounds of “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog” and I had to laugh. The prevailing musical taste of the regiment had been shit kicking, inbred, moronic, hill billy, country and western.

The song Elvis was singing was somewhat in the same vein but it had a beat and didn’t seem to take itself very seriously. I was a dyed in the wool jazz fan although since joining the Army I had not many opportunities to hear much.

She started to talk about the new rock and roll that was coming onto the music scene and we sat with our backs to the headboard and talked until the buzzer rang which indicated that my time was up.

She was apologetic that we hadn’t managed to get to it, and I asked her if it would be OK to spend the night. She said she didn’t have any regulars for that night so she figured it would be OK. I got up and got my wallet out of my pocket and gave her the fifty guilders.

I asked her if she could get a couple of bottles of Coke and some ice for the bottle of rum that I had. She allowed that usually they didn’t sell soft drinks and that if any alcohol was consumed it was from the over priced bottles of fake champagne sold by the management of the house.

She gave me a conspiratorially wink and spoke in Dutch into the intercom. She then went behind the curtain and got a man’s dressing gown and told me to put it on. She then put on her housecoat and answered the door and ushered in another woman who had fresh towels and a six pack of Coke and a bucket of ice. The Coke, towels and ice were more expensive than the sex, but the prospect of an all night party loosened the purse strings.

I don’t really remember her for the sex and we spent most of the night listening to her records. She told me about her little girl and her hopes for the future. I was amazed that she had pretty standard dreams and just wished to become middle class.

I was smart enough to not ask her why she was a prostitute and for the first time I just kept my opinions to myself and listened.

About two thirty in the morning we nodded off and slept until the maid knocked on the door.

I got back into my uniform and she asked me to have breakfast with her outside of the red light district. I said sure and asked the address, so I could go back to my hotel, shower and change into civvies.

She took me to the front door and after giving me a kiss on the cheek sent me on my way. I walked back to the flea bag hotel in the cool grey of the morning. I was walking on air.

I got back to my hotel room and showered and changed into civvies; standard blue jeans, a white “T” shirt my cherry jump boots and a leather-armed bill board jacket. I hung my uniform up and vowed to not put it on for the next two weeks.

I caught a taxi and went to the address she had given me. She had taken a table and came to the front to greet me. She complimented me my appearance and we went and sat down.

She ordered me breakfast and then we started our conversation about art and music again. She had my day all planned out. It seemed like I had a new friend and I felt like I was falling in love.