The Washington Post Sunday

Search­ing for their own Grace­land

For two young D.C. fans in 1956, it was worth a run­away mis­sion

- by Dave McKenna Washington · Volkswagen · Volkswagen Beetle · Memphis · Elvis Presley · White House · Austria · Woodrow Wilson · New York County, NY · Texas · Tennessee · Twitter · Interstate Highway System · United States of America · Belarus · North Carolina · University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill · Colombia · Phoenix · River Phoenix · Graceland · Garfield · Ed Sullivan · Donnie J. Klang

Around mid­night on Oct. 2, 1956, 16-year-old Carol Church used a rope to lower a packed suit­case from her sec­ond-floor bed­room win­dow, sneaked down the stairs car­ry­ing a rag doll and a fish­ing knife, and walked out the door of her North­west Washington home.

Out­side, she picked up the lug­gage and, just as planned, met Jeanne DeGuib­ert, her 12-year-old best friend from down the street. They climbed into Carol’s Volk­swa­gen Beetle. Over the sum­mer and on the sly, Carol had per­fected the rolling start; she pushed the car out of the drive­way, then steered it qui­etly down 45th Street NW. Once out of earshot, she shifted into gear and popped the clutch. They were off.

The next morn­ing, with two kids and one car missing, the fam­i­lies called the po­lice. The news­pa­pers re­ported what the cops learned: Girls from Wes­ley Heights, one of the city’s toni­est neigh­bor­hoods, were missing and headed to­ward Mem­phis.

“Life would have been a lot eas­ier if we never told any­body we were go­ing to meet Elvis,” Carol says.

In 1956, the par­ents of Wes­ley Heights didn’t see Elvis Pres­ley as a beloved mu­si­cal icon — they saw him as a men­ace.

A 1989 primer on Wes­ley Heights from the His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety of Washington says the de­vel­oper who de­signed the neigh­bor­hood be­gin­ning

Bumpy back roads

in the late 1920s had “ef­fec­tively de­signed a sub­di­vi­sion at­trac­tive to Chris­tian, up­per-mid­dle-class whites of Washington.” Deeds to lots in the neigh­bor­hood in­cluded “covenants” that for­bade sales of the prop­erty to mi­nori­ties. The neigh­bors were high-so­ci­ety: The Nixons and the John­sons lived there be­fore mov­ing to the White House.

The well-con­nected Church fam­ily had steeplecha­se races named af­ter them and sum­mered in Nan­tucket. Carol’s big sis­ter had her debu­tante ball fea­tured in the so­cial pages of The Washington Post.

But Carol didn’t have a fancy comin­gout party. She de­scribes her young self as a “ bad kid.” Once, she pulled a false fire alarm at the emer­gency box at the corner of Garfield Street and Fox­hall Road. She left a brag­ging note on the scene (“Lucky Strikes Again!”) — which she’d writ­ten on her sis­ter’s mono­grammed sta­tionery.

“I wasn’t a good crim­i­nal,” Carol ad­mits now.

“We had a joke in our house, when­ever I would do some­thing [bad]: ‘What would the Gren­nans, the Wal­shes and the Tap­skis say?’ ” she re­mem­bers. “ Those were prom­i­nent fam­i­lies in the neigh­bor­hood whom my par­ents didn’t want to dis­ap­point. But I dis­ap­pointed.”

Carol didn’t fit in at Woodrow Wil­son High School, but found com­pany in a kid four years her ju­nior who lived down the street. “Jeanne was much younger than me age-wise, but far more ma­ture,” Carol says. “She was some­thing.”

Jeanne was sim­i­larly mis­er­able af­ter trans­fer­ring from the Maret School to Im­mac­u­lata Prepara­tory School. “Carol, she re­ally got me,” re­mem­bers Jeanne. “No­body else in the neigh­bor­hood did. Carol and I were dif­fer­ent from all the other kids.”

The two out­casts and their fam­i­lies were among the 60 mil­lion view­ers who watched Pres­ley’s Sept. 9, 1956, de­but on “ The Ed Sul­li­van Show.” The New York Times’ write-up of the per­for­mance said Pres­ley’s “over­stim­u­la­tion of youth’s phys­i­cal im­pulses” con­sti­tuted a “gross na­tional dis­ser­vice.”

“Elvis was cool,” Jeanne says. “ The swiveled hips! That was ver­boten. The par­ents didn’t like Elvis. We hadn’t had any­body like that be­fore. Only hood­lums wore their hair like that.”

An idea was born: The Wes­ley Heights black sheep, who be­tween them had 46 Elvis records, would run away to Mem­phis to meet their idol, then start new lives as sec­re­taries in Texas.

What would the Wal­shes think?

Once they’d made it out of their neigh­bor­hood un­de­tected, the girls set their sights on Ten­nessee. Or thought they did. They didn’t know where their mu­sic idol lived in Mem­phis — or if he was even in the city. Twit­ter wasn’t around yet to alert them to celebri­ties’ ev­ery move, and there was no GPS sys­tem to guide them there. In fact, there weren’t a lot of high­ways for them to drive on at all. The first paving on the In­ter­state High­way Sys­tem had taken place Sept. 26, 1956 — just be­fore the ru­n­aways took off. The Amer­ica they headed into was a nation of back roads.

By their first morn­ing of free­dom, Carol and Jeanne were hope­lessly lost. “We spent a day in the moun­tains, driv­ing, and af­ter a whole day of driv­ing, we were go­ing by places we’d al­ready been to,” Carol re­calls.

“I was 12!” Jeanne says with a laugh. “What the hell. We thought we were head­ing some­where south.” (Ac­tu­ally, they were in north­west North Carolina.)

They stopped at a diner af­ter a night of driv­ing. A sus­pi­cious wait­ress asked why they weren’t in school. They knew bet­ter than to men­tion Elvis.

“We’re go­ing to visit my cousin!” Carol said.

“We’re go­ing to visit our aunt!” Jeanne blurted out at the same moment.

“I saw the wait­ress go back and start talk­ing to co-work­ers, and then they were look­ing at our car,” Carol re­calls. “I said to Jeanne, ‘ Uh oh! We gotta get out of here!’ ”

The pres­sure of be­ing lost in the moun­tains and away from the fam­ily got to Jeanne af­ter only a day; she be­gan think­ing nei­ther get­ting away from Im­mac­u­lata nor get­ting to Elvis was worth it. Carol told Jeanne she’d take her to a bus sta­tion when they got to a town and fig­ured she’d forge ahead on her own.

But they never made it to a bus sta­tion.

That night, Carol was be­hind the wheel while Jeanne napped in the back seat. Rain splattered down on the wind­ing moun­tain road. “I couldn’t re­ally see any­thing, and this was be­fore roads had white lines on the side,” Carol says.

Sud­denly, an on­com­ing car sideswiped the Beetle. Carol let go of the steer­ing wheel. She screamed as the car started rolling. The Volk­swa­gen didn’t have seat belts, so the girls rolled with it, un­til it set­tled in a road­side ditch.

As they crawled from the wreck­age with the help of the driver who had hit them, Carol and Jeanne were shocked to find they’d got­ten through the ac­ci­dent with just a few bruises.

The car, how­ever, was to­taled. So was their plan to meet the King in Mem­phis.

The po­lice from nearby Mur­phy, N.C., ar­rived on the scene. As it turned out, cops in the re­gion were al­ready on the look­out for a cou­ple of kids driv­ing south in an odd­ball Beetle.

Carol and Jeanne had re­vealed their plan to only one per­son: Jeanne’s 9-yearold brother, Don­nie. He’d thought it was very cool. So cool he couldn’t keep it to him­self. Don­nie had told par­ents, cops, re­porters, neigh­bors and any­one else who asked where the ru­n­aways were headed.

“My sis­ter’s still mad at me,” says a laugh­ing Don DeGuib­ert, now 63 and liv­ing in Phoenix.

The cops took Carol’s knife away, but let her keep the rag doll. The girls weren’t charged with any crime, but spent the day in a jail cell, eat­ing grits and bis­cuits and wait­ing for Carol’s par­ents to pick them up. The ad­ven­ture was of­fi­cially over.

Friendly mem­o­ries

Though they never got within a few hun­dred miles of Mem­phis, the news­pa­per ac­counts about their run­ning away to meet Elvis had done con­sid­er­able dam­age.

“For my fam­ily’s so­cial set, what we had done, and hav­ing it broad­cast the way it was, that was in­tol­er­a­ble,” Jeanne says. “I was shunned by ev­ery­body when I came back, it was like no­body knew how to deal with me.”

Carol was sent to board­ing school in Ver­mont. Jeanne stayed in Washington and grad­u­ated from Maret. Their par­ents for­bade the girls to see each other, an or­der they obeyed.

The two haven’t talked in the 54 years since their ad­ven­ture, but they still speak fondly of each other. Sep­a­rately, how­ever, they both say they re­mem­ber that pe­riod as mostly un­happy, no mat­ter how cool run­ning away for Elvis looks on paper. Jeanne, 66, now lives in Hunt­ing­town, Md., and goes by her mar­ried name of Jeanne Von Sch­w­erdt­ner; though she re­tains some ves­tiges of her rock-and-roll youth (she runs a cus­tom mo­tor­cy­cle busi­ness), she says she might never think about her pre-teen ex­cur­sion and all the trou­ble it caused, if only her brother would stop bring­ing up the tale at ev­ery fam­ily gath­er­ing.

Carol, who still lives in the District, says she hadn’t dwelled on the trip for decades un­til con­tacted by this re­porter. “I can laugh a lit­tle at what we did, the silli­ness of telling peo­ple we were go­ing to run away to see Elvis. Good God,” Carol says. “But I also think about a young girl, car­ry­ing a rag doll to hold on to child­hood and a knife for pro­tec­tion, who was mis­er­able and prob­a­bly wasn’t get­ting the help she needed.”

Carol, 70, is now re­tired af­ter a ca­reer in the mort­gage busi­ness. She still has some of the keep­sakes from her run­away days, in­clud­ing her Elvis records.

“I’ve got­ten very con­ser­va­tive as I’ve got­ten older,” she says. “But when I lis­ten to Elvis, hear the young Elvis, I can still trans­late the feel­ings I had back then when I first lis­tened to him.”

 ?? AL­FRED WERTHEIMER ?? KING TO BE: Elvis Pres­ley in 1956, the year Church and DeGuib­ert set out to meet him. A Na­tional Por­trait Gallery photo ex­hibit chron­i­cles his piv­otal year, E3.
AL­FRED WERTHEIMER KING TO BE: Elvis Pres­ley in 1956, the year Church and DeGuib­ert set out to meet him. A Na­tional Por­trait Gallery photo ex­hibit chron­i­cles his piv­otal year, E3.
 ??  ?? OCT. 4, 1956: The Wash­ing­ton Post
re­ports the dis­ap­pear­ance.
OCT. 4, 1956: The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ports the dis­ap­pear­ance.
 ?? AL­FRED WERTHEIMER ?? GO­ING HOME: Elvis on the South­ern Rail­road be­tween Chat­tanooga and Mem­phis in 1956.
AL­FRED WERTHEIMER GO­ING HOME: Elvis on the South­ern Rail­road be­tween Chat­tanooga and Mem­phis in 1956.

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