Just Another Nutty August At The Heartbreak Hotel

AUSTIN - Great, the country is about to gain a budget and lose St. Louis, and August is only a few days old.

You know how satisfying it is when somebody comes up with evidence to support a pet theory of yours? Well, someone has finally done it for one of my pet theories, which is that August is a terrific month.

Of course, you have to factor in here that I'm in the newspaper business, where we thrive on strife, disaster, conflict, the weird, the astonishing and the absurd. It took the newspaper business to contribute "a good murder" to the language.

"Never take a vacation in August," I tell young reporters, "because it's so easy to get on the front page." August is just one great news story after another, and besides, it's when the editors usually take their vacations.

But even in our business, you will find doubters who claim that the dread dog days are also slow news days. Piffle. I now have corroborating evidence from a gent named Bruce Handy, writing in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, that August is, just as I always suspected, a pip of a month. Chock-full of one juicy, amazing event after another. Just because people are a little grumpy from the heat is no reason not to relish the confusion.

As Handy points out, even President Bush, in one of his rare diagrammable sentences, once inquired, "What is it about August?" That was after the second year in a row during which his annual attempt to retreat to Kennebunkport had been disrupted by crisis. (Iraq invaded Kuwait in '90, the Soviet coup occurred in '91.) what a festival of news we have every year during the eighth month - and always some good murders, too.

In my own 25 years of covering August nuttiness, I drew the assignment that may yet prove to be my greatest claim to being A Witness to History - at least it's the one that most impresses people I meet buying the National Enquirer in the grocery-store checkout line: I covered Elvis Presley's funeral. He's definitely dead.

That fateful Aug. 10, I was working for the aforementioned New York Times, a paper that follows the Boy Scout motto "Be Prepared" and thus has an extensive obituary desk, usually ready to go with an obit of any prominent person who might croak.

But Elvis, you recall, died untimely. The Times was not ready. A sort of grave, stately Timesian panic ensued. The paper has music critics by the note-load: classical, opera, modern, jazz, even rock. But it just wasn't the kind of paper where Elvis fans worked. Except for me. They knew I was one 'cause I have this funny accent.

So I wrote Elvis' obit for The New York Times, following the in-this-case bizarre Times practice of referring to him throughout as "Mr. Presley." The next day, we sold more papers than we had since John Kennedy was shot, and the Times decided to send me to Memphis for the obsequies.

I arrive late, already close to deadline, jump in a cab and holler, "Take me to Graceland!" The cabbie peels out of the airport doing 80 and then turns full around to the back seat and drawls, "Ain't it a shame Elvis had to die while the Shriners are in town?"

And so they were - the place was crawling with them - and you know Shriners in convention, wearin' they li'l red fezzes, ridin' up and down the hotel hallways on they tricycles, tootin' those New Year's Eve horns. Every hotel in Memphis was crammed with Shriners, and on top of that, 10,000 grieving, hysterical Elvis fans show up.

There was no room at any inn, Holiday or otherwise, so the Memphis chamber arranged to put the visiting press corps up in a dormitory at Memphis State College. I didn't get out there until near midnight, dead tired after my last deadline, only to see, through the plate-glass doors of the dorm, many young people bouncing up and down while screaming, "Pizza man, pizza man - rah, rah, rah."

Naturally, I assumed I was hallucinating. But no. Also taking place that very week on the Memphis State campus was what was billed as The World's Largest Cheerleading Camp. Don't know if you know much about cheerleading camp, but the object is for your cheerleadin' team to win the Spirit Stick, which looks, to the uninitiated eye, a whole lot like a broom handle painted red, white and blue. But it is the Spirit Stick. And if your team wins it for three days in a row, you get to keep it, but that has never happened. The way you win the Spirit Stick is by showing Most Spirit. The way you show spirit is, you bound out of bed in the morning, do handstands end-over-end down the hall to the john, cheer while brushin' your teeth, cheer while washin' your face, cheer for breakfast, lunch and dinner and when the pizza man brings the pizza.

For three days, I interviewed grieving, hysterical Elvis fans while tripping over Shriners ridin' tricycles while tootin' those New Year's Eve horns, and then I went back to this dorm full of young people, determined to out-spirit one another.

And none of it surprised me.

Because I know from August.

(Copyright, 1993, Creators Syndicate, Inc.) Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her column appears Monday on editorial pages of The Times.