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Miner could walk a mile in Elvis' shoes

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
The people who run Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion have invited a Chilean miner and Presley fan to visit.
The people who run Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion have invited a Chilean miner and Presley fan to visit.
  • Edison Pena kept his fellow trapped miners going with Elvis singalongs
  • He's been invited to visit Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion
  • Bob Greene says he won't be disappointed if he visits the over-the-top house
  • He says Presley, who fought loneliness, left us music that helps people cope

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- And now the saga of the Chilean miners -- at least a part of it -- may be about to make a detour to Graceland.

Which may not be as bizarre a notion as it sounds.

One of the 33 miners who endured more than two months trapped underground, and who was pulled to safety last week, is a devoted fan of the late Elvis Presley.

Edison Pena, 34, speaks little English, according to his father. But there is an exception; he knows all the words to most of Presley's biggest hits. It was reported that Pena led Presley singalongs down below, to lift the miners' spirits and to help pass the long and lonely hours. His dad, waiting for all those weeks near the San Jose mine in Chile, fashioned a placard promising his son that, when he emerged from the ground, he would be "bigger than Elvis."

So it is that Pena, when he feels up to it, may be embarking on a journey to Memphis, Tennessee, to set foot in the house where Presley lived. The people who run Presley's Graceland mansion have invited the miner to Presley's home.

If he goes, he's likely to love it -- take the word of someone who has been a serial visitor to Graceland over the years. I can tell Mr. Pena that if he thought he needed sunglasses to protect his eyes from the light near the mine opening after those months in the dimness, he might do well to bring them along to Graceland with him, too. The place is a little garish.

But it's pretty great. I highly recommend that he spend time standing at the entrance to the Jungle Room, the part of Graceland that best portrays Presley's playfulness. As the story goes, he purchased all of the room's eccentric furniture during one 30-minute shopping spree at a Memphis store called Donald's. He outfitted the room with chairs bearing the carved likenesses of animal faces; he had green shag carpeting nailed to the ceiling; he ordered a constantly dripping waterfall to be constructed on one wall -- in many ways the Jungle Room is the soul of Graceland.

If Edison Pena pays close attention, there are all kinds of memories to take from that house. On visits over the years, I've jotted notations about Elvis' record collection (even Elvis had to listen to someone other than Elvis -- he had Dean Martin albums, a Peter, Paul and Mary LP, a copy of the once wildly popular "First Family" comedy album, featuring satires of the Kennedy family by impressionist Vaughn Meader); about his gas station credit card (from the Shell Oil Co., issued to "Mr. Elvis Presley," his name typed onto stiff white paper in those pre-plastic credit card days); about the only portrait Presley ever commissioned of himself (by artist Ralph Wolfe Cowan, showing Elvis dressed all in white, standing in clouds against a gold sky background. The framed portrait is an almost exact copy of an old Johnny Mathis album cover. Elvis reportedly saw that album cover, which was also painted by Cowan, and liked it so much that he ordered the same thing for himself).

But, after all those awful days and nights trapped in the mine, the main thing that Pena might be justified in taking away from a trip to Graceland is a sense of the grand possibilities that life can offer, and the unexpected joy that may be waiting around the next corner.

Elvis Presley wasn't always the man in the mansion; a poor kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, he had no inkling that he would ever end up in the lavish home in Memphis' Whitehaven neighborhood. If Pena should scarcely be able to comprehend that he has made it to Graceland ... well, that is a feeling that the owner of the house understood very well.

Presley's friend George Klein (they went to Humes High School in Memphis together) once told me that in the years before Elvis' life turned dark and unhappy, the two of them would arrive giddily back at the mansion after a Saturday night on the town: "Often Elvis and I would be driving through the gates of Graceland, and he would say, 'God, George, do you believe this is real? Do you believe this has happened to me?' "

It's a universal feeling, for those who are lucky. And right now, Edison Pena and his 32 fellow miners have a right to consider themselves among the luckiest people alive.

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Which brings us to a message from another singer, who found himself in Memphis one night just as his own young career was on the ascendancy.

This was Bruce Springsteen. There is a story that he told from the stage, letting his audiences know about what had happened that night in the 1970s. Springsteen said he had gone to the gates of Graceland, just to look. He had seen a light in a window, and, on an impulse, had climbed over the wall and tried to approach the house.

A security guard had stopped him. The guard had said that Presley was out of town, and had escorted Springsteen back to the street.

This is a transcript of what Springsteen told a concert audience one night:

"Later on, I used to wonder what I would have said if I'd knocked on the door and if Elvis had come to the door, because it really wasn't Elvis I was goin' to see. But, it was like he came along, and whispered some dream in everybody's ear, and we all dreamed it. And maybe that's why we're here tonight, I don't know.

"I remember later, when a friend of mine called to tell me that he'd died. It was so hard to understand how somebody whose music came in and took away so many people's loneliness, and gave so many people a reason and a sense of the possibilities of living, could have, in the end, died so tragically.

"And I guess when you're alone, you ain't nothin' but alone."

Yet just when a person feels most alone, comfort can somehow come to him. Edison Pena, who speaks little English, is said to have found sustenance in that Chilean mine, for him and for his colleagues, through the music of a man from Memphis he had never met.

And if Pena does make it to Graceland, I hope there will be echoes, not just for him but for all 33, of something else that Bruce Springsteen said on that long-ago stage.

He was about to sing his own slowed-down rendition of Presley's "Follow That Dream."

He said to the audience:

"So, anyway, I'd like to do this song for you tonight, wishing you all the longest life, with the best of absolutely everything."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

Part of complete coverage on
How miners reached the surface
The Phoenix raises miners from their underground cell
Who are the miners?
One has led fellow workers in Elvis singalongs, another has been mining for 50 years
Miner 'saw God, devil' during ordeal
"I buried 40 years of my life down there," says Mario Sepulveda. "I was with God, and I was with the devil."
Rescue effort galvanizes Chile
The mine rescue turned into a celebration and expression of Chilean pride
The world watches
Few events have gripped the watching world in recent times as the miners' rescue
Timeline: How the drama unfolded
From cave-in to freedom -- 69 days below ground
360 panorama of rescue site
CNN's interactive gives a 360-degree sweep of the site of the Chile mine rescue