Comes With A Price
Thomas Calabrese –Charles Buchinsky was born on November 3rd, 1921, the eleventh of fifteen children, into a Roman Catholic family of Lithuanian descent in the small town of Ehrenfield, Pennsylvania, located in the coal region of the Allegheny Mountains. His father was an immigrant who changed his name from Valteris to Walter after arriving in America from southern Lithuania. Charles did not speak any English during his childhood and barely remembered his father, who spent most of his time working in the mines. Walter passed away when Charles was only ten years old from black lung disease. His family was so desperate for money that even at his young age, Charles was left with no other choice, but to work in the same coal mine that killed his father and other relatives. He earned one dollar for each ton of coal that he mined and often worked double shifts. Charles earned bonuses by engaging in the dangerous work of removing tree stumps between the mine shafts and was caught in several cave-ins. It was a miracle that he survived any of them. During the last mishap, Charles was trapped underground for two days before a rescue team found him in an air pocket.
The Buchinsky family suffered through extreme poverty and hardship during the Great Depression. Times were so desperate that Charles’s mother could not afford milk for his younger sister, so she was fed warm tea instead. His family was so destitute that Charles made his own clothes so he could attend school. This was the only world Charles knew, so it was either deal with the numerous hardships and obstacles that life had placed before him or give up and die. This was a merciless time in America where the weak-willed or sickly did not survive. Charles was the first member of his family to graduate from high school and always felt that someday things would have to change for the better. His escape from the coal mines and poverty came when World War II started. He enlisted in the United States Army Air Force in 1943, and served with the 61st Bombardment Squadron in Guam as an aerial gunner. Charles flew 25 missions and received a Purple Heart for wounds received in battle.
After being discharged from the Army, Charles moved to New York and began taking acting lessons and started getting some small parts in television and movies. Thinking that he might find more opportunities in Hollywood, Charles relocated to the West Coast. In 1954 he decided to change his name. The impetus for his decision was his concern that his Slavic-sounding name Buchinsky could bring him unwarranted attention from Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was blacklisting suspected members of the Communist Party in Hollywood circles at the time. While driving with his friend, fellow aspiring actor and former Marine, Steve McQueen in Los Angeles, McQueen saw a Bronson Avenue street sign and commented, “Charles Bronson, how does that sound to you?”
Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi in a two room dilapidated shack. His identical brother, Jesse was delivered 35 minutes before him, stillborn. His father Vernon moved from one odd job to the next, showing little ambition and even less responsibility. The family often received help from neighbors and government assistance for food and lodging. When Vernon was arrested for fraud, Elvis and his mom were taken in by relatives. His teachers described Elvis as quiet and average.
In 1946 the Presley family moved to a predominately black neighborhood in Tupelo, where Elvis became obsessed with music, mainly as an escape from his unhappy childhood. He started playing a very cheap guitar in private even though he had no formal music training. Elvis would frequent record stores that provided jukeboxes and listening booths to customers, then go home and practice what he heard. After failing at several auditions where he was told that he had no talent, Elvis went to Sun Records where Sam Phillips saw his untapped potential. After appearing on the Steve Allen, Arthur Godfrey and Ed Sullivan television shows and the release of hit songs; Hound Dog, Heartbreak Hotel, Jailhouse Rock and Blue Suede Shoes, Hollywood came calling.
Elvis had made nine movies and recorded 35 singles when he agreed to play the lead in Kid Galahad, a combination boxing and musical screenplay. The plot was simple and straightforward. His character, Walter Gulick, is a young man recently discharged from the Army who arrives in a small town and loves the peaceful setting almost as much as he loves working on old cars. Walter’s goal is to go into business as a mechanic. In need of work, he accepts an offer to be a sparring partner at a local boxing camp. When Walter decks a top contender, the owner of the camp decides to let Walter begin working out under the watchful eye of a top trainer. Along the way, Walter falls in love with the sister of the camp owner and fights and sings his way into her heart.
Charles Bronson was cast as trainer, Lew Nyack. Filming began in the popular southern California high desert resort town of Idyllwild, California and Charles Bronson and Elvis Presley quickly developed a friendship. They both grew up in poverty and served in the Army, but it was more than that. They were shy introspective individuals who grew up feeling like outsiders. Bronson because he did not speak English well as a boy and Presley because his classmates teased him about being a mama’s boy. Even though his rise to fame was meteoric, feelings of insecurity continued to haunt Elvis. When he met Bronson, Elvis felt that he finally could be himself. The two men socialized on and off the set and shared an interest in Native American history.
Bronson was making small talk with Elvis as they waited for the crew to set up for the next shot, “Idyllwild was once the summer home for bands of Cahuilla Indians, who migrated here to escape the heat of lower-elevation deserts. A Cahuilla legend recounts how tribesmen chanted over the body of their fallen chieftain, Tahquitz, who had been possessed by an evil spirit and killed his sweetheart. Suddenly his body began to glow like fire, and he rose and settled inside a rock formation. According to the legend, Tahquitz is trapped beneath two large boulders with a rattlesnake and a condor for company. When the mountain and desert floor shake and tremble, it is not an earthquake, but Tahquitz up to his evil tricks.”
“Very strange, but interesting,” Elvis responded.
Two minutes later, the ground shook violently, equipment fell over and frantic people searched for shelter. After 15 seconds of rumblings, Elvis joked, “A whole lot of shakin’ going on.”
When they had the day off, Bronson and Elvis decided to visit the Tahquitz site. While walking up the mountain, they came to a fork in the trail, “Right or left?” Charles asked.
Elvis pulled out a quarter from his pocket, “Heads we go left, tails we go right.” He flipped it into the air and when it landed on the ground, the coin was facing heads up.”
Bronson commented, “Left it is.”
When they came around a bend in the trail, the entire scenery changed from high desert to something much different. The sky was gray and there was a dampness in the air. Coal miners with dirty faces and sunken eyes walked passed them. Elvis was totally confused, “Where are we?”
Bronson immediately recognized the surroundings, although he could not explain how or why they were there, “This is Ehrenfield, Pennsylvania.”
As they continued walking, memories came flooding back for Charles and most of them were not pleasant. Bronson and Elvis came across a mine shaft and heard cries for help. They began moving rocks out of the way, found a young boy and pulled him out. Charlie immediately recognized the boy as himself, many years earlier. Young Charlie expressed his gratitude, “Thank you very much!”
Bronson was dumfounded, but eventually found a few words, “How are you…you’re not hurt?”
Charlie brushed the dirt off his tattered clothing and responded, “I can’t let myself be hurt. My ma’ needs me.” Charlie walked off and Charles called to him, “Mind if we walk with you?”
“Come along, I’m going home.”
Elvis gave the boy a closer look, “I see a resemblance.”
“That’s me, a lifetime ago,” Bronson responded.
Charlie walked to a broken down house and Bronson stopped dead in his tracks and stared at his boyhood home, “ Charlie asked, “You want to come in and meet my ma?”
Bronson responded, “Yeah.”
When Bronson, Elvis and Charlie entered, they saw Mary Buchinsky, who looked much older than her 35 years of age sitting at the kitchen table counting pennies. Charlie said, “These two men saved my life. I got caught in another cave-in… a bad one.”
Mary struggled to smile, “Thanks for saving Charlie. He shouldn’t be working in the mines, he’s too young, but times have been tough for us.”
Bronson found himself staring, captivated by what was happening, but still not believing it was actually occurring. For years he had blocked out the harsh reality of his childhood and the struggles that his mother endured while he was growing up. Elvis tapped Charles on the shoulder as a gesture of support and reassurance, then whispered in his ear, “Maybe we can help out.”
Elvis was an extremely generous individual and always went out with several thousand dollars in his pocket, not because he liked to buy things for himself, but because he enjoyed giving things away. When he pulled a wad of money out of his pocket, the bills were printed in the 1930’s. He handed the bills to Bronson who was inspired to come up with a story for his mother, “I knew your husband. He made a bet and won, but never showed up to collect. Here are his winnings,” then he set 3700 dollars down on the table.
Mary looked at the money in disbelief and questioned, “How much money did he bet to win this much?”
Elvis quickly intervened, “He got really, really good odds on a longshot.”
“Oh,” Mary wasn’t totally convinced, but she was too desperate and relieved to be overly inquisitive. She turned to her young son, “This money means that you never have to go back to the mines again.”
Just then, the ground began to rumble and Charlie commented, “They must be blasting at the mines.”
Elvis instinctively knew that it wasn’t blasting, but a signal for Bronson and him to move on, “We need to go.”
Bronson obviously did not want to leave so Elvis firmly grabbed him by the arm. When the rumbling got worse and things began shaking, Charles knew that Elvis was right so he bid a reluctant goodbye to his mother and younger self, “Take care.”
As soon as they exited the front door, they were sitting in the cockpits of two P-38 Lightnings fighters in the skies over the South Pacific. Elvis radioed Bronson, “I don’t know how to fly.”
Bronson responded, “Neither do I.”
When they looked down, they saw a B-29 Superfortress bomber two thousand feet below them and five Japanese zeroes coming out of the clouds to attack it. A twenty-three year old Charles Buchinsky was manning the rear gunner position on the besieged bomber named, Lady Guinevere. The crew was returning from a bombing mission to mainland Japan and was only one hundred miles from their base in Guam. Charles Buchinsky knew his plane had no chance against the overwhelming odds, but vowed to go down fighting. Just as he was ready to start firing, the two fighters intercepted the Japanese aircraft and shot them down, then vanished. When Presley and Bronson landed, they walked over to the B-29. Charles Bushinsky had always wondered who was flying those fighters. When he saw the younger version of himself exiting the aircraft he finally had the answer that had eluded him for years. Not in a million years would he have ever guessed that it was Elvis Presley and himself that saved the Lady Guinevere!
All of a sudden, Presley and Bronson were transported to a different time and place. It was 1946 and Elvis was a devotee of Mississippi Slim on the Tupelo radio station WELO. Slim scheduled the young singer for two on-air performances, but Elvis was overcome by stage fright the first time and couldn’t perform. Slim warned him, “I’ll give you one more shot, but if you don’t perform, then you’re on your own,” Slim angrily stormed off.
Elvis approached the younger version of himself, “You can do this.”
The younger Elvis looked up with fear in his eyes and held out his trembling hands, “I can’t even hold a guitar.”
“Once you start, everything is going to come natural to you. Take my word for it.”
Young Elvis went on the air and was an instant sensation, hundreds of listeners called in to the radio station asking for more from the new singer. This performance was the beginning of his monumental career.
On March 24th, 1958, Elvis was drafted into the U.S. Army at Fort Chaffee, near Fort Smith, Arkansas. His arrival was a major media event and hundreds of people descended on him as he stepped off the bus. “I do not want to be treated any differently from anyone else, the Army can do anything it wants with me.” Elvis commenced basic training at Fort Hood, Texas. During a two-week leave in early June, he recorded five songs in Nashville. In early August, his mother was diagnosed with hepatitis, and her condition rapidly worsened. Elvis was granted emergency leave to visit her and arrived in Memphis on August 12th, but Gladys Presley had already lapsed into a coma. Two days later, she died of heart failure at the age of 46. Elvis was devastated that he never had the chance to say goodbye and was never the same afterwards.
Once again Presley and Bronson were transported though time to Memphis on August 11th, 1958. This was one day earlier and in sufficient time for Elvis to see his beloved mother while she was still conscious. “I love you,” Gladys Presley whispered as her son held her hand for the final time.
Elvis sobbed uncontrollably, “I love you, Momma.”
As soon as his mother passed away, Presley and Bronson were transported back to the mountain in Idyllwild, California. They both looked at each other and knew what had just happened was more than just a joint hallucination. Their lives had been changed and the demons and regrets that had haunted them throughout their lives were now gone. While driving back to the movie location on Highway 74, the two men noticed a California Highway Patrol vehicle on the side of the road, with the driver’s side door wide open, “Pull over,” Elvis suggested.
Bronson turned off the blacktop and parked and both men exited their vehicle. They saw a badly wounded officer lying next to his cruiser. All four tires were flat and the vehicle had numerous bullet holes. The officer painfully explained, “I received a call about an armed robbery and a description of the vehicle. I came around the bend and they opened fire. When I crashed, they shot me, the radio and the tires and left me for dead. This is an isolated stretch of road lucky for me that you came by.”
The officer eventually recognized his two famous rescuers, “You’re Elvis Presley and Charles Bronson! I heard that you were shooting a movie around here. Boy oh boy, am I going to have a story to tell my wife and kids.”
Bronson turned to Elvis, “We need to get him to a hospital…fast.”
They put the officer in the backseat of their car, Elvis sat next to him, keeping pressure on the upper chest wound to slow the bleeding down. Bronson got behind the wheel and raced off. Five minutes down the road, the Officer noticed the stolen vehicle in the parking lot of the Round Table roadside café. “That’s them! Stop!”
Elvis warned the officer, “If we stop, you might not live to make it to the hospital.”
“That’s the risk I’m sworn to take. As long as those guys are on the loose, people are in danger of being killed. I know that this isn’t a movie where the stuntmen come in for the risky scenes and I wouldn’t ask you if there was another option,” The officer began spitting up blood, “This isn’t your job and if you say no, I won’t hold it against you, but I still have to ask.”
“You don’t have to ask, got any weapons?” Bronson asked.
“A shotgun in the trunk and they didn’t take my service weapon,” The Officer replied.
Bronson glanced at Elvis, “What do you think?”
Elvis curled his lip, “A little less conversation and a lot more action,”
“Remember that line, you can use it in one of your songs.”
Bronson took the shotgun and went to the backdoor of the Round Table café. Elvis hid the officer’s pistol behind his back and entered through the front door. The patrons and employees were lined up against the wall with guns pointed at them. One of the female customers immediately recognized the famous singer and yelled out, “Elvis!”
This distracted the three gunmen just enough for Bronson to enter through the backdoor without being seen. He called out, “Drop your guns!”
The three men turned in his direction and started to fire, but Bronson was prepared and killed two of them. The 3rd man attempted to take a hostage, Elvis shot him and he fell over a table. Bronson rushed to the phone and dialed the operator, “Officer down, Round Table Café on Highway 74.”
Elvis walked over to the customers and employees who were shaken up by the events and asked them, “I’d appreciate it if you don’t mention I was here.”
The woman who screamed out earlier asked, “Can I get an autograph?”
Elvis signed an autograph for her and everybody else who wanted one. Bronson reminded his friend, “We need to get moving.”
Elvis promised, “If you’re ever in Vegas when I ‘m performing, just leave a message at the casino that we met at the Round Table Café and I’ll get you free tickets and accommodations.
When Presley and Bronson reached their car, the Highway Patrol Officer commented, “I guess you’re more than just heroes on the screen.”
Sirens could be approaching so Bronson drove closer to the café and carried the injured officer inside and set him in a booth, “Do you want us to stay?”
“I’ll be fine, there will be a lot of publicity if you do. Get moving and good luck,” the Officer said.
Presley and Bronson drove off in one direction, a minute before police cars and an ambulance arrived from the other. When they arrived back at the movie location, Director Phil Karlson asked his leading man and supporting actor, “You didn’t do anything dangerous, did you? It would have been a mess if you got hurt and we had to hold up production.”
Elvis responded with his typical boyish charm, “We wouldn’t do that…it was just another quiet day.”
Bronson added, “Unbelievably quiet.”
The Highway Patrol Officer made a quick and complete recovery and attended the ‘wrap party’ at the conclusion of the filming of Kid Galahad. He proposed a toast to his rescuers, “To Kid Galahad and Sir Lancelot.” It was an inside joke that nobody else was intended to get.
As years passed, various stories about Elvis Presley and Charles Bronson saving people from killers began to circulate around the area. It soon became another legend, much like the one of the Indian Chief on the mountain. Nobody believed it, but locals loved to talk about it, especially to tourists. Elvis Presley and Charles Bronson never confirmed or denied the stories. They also never mentioned what happened in that other dimension where the supernatural intersects with shadow and substance. The place where painful and half-remembered memories are like sharp thorns on the stem of the blooming rose of our human existence, growing gently along the backroads of our minds. Both legends came to realize that everything of beauty and value- in life, comes with a price.