Uncle Leroy Was a Country Singer

Leroy Lane in the center, standing, holding packages.

Uncle Leroy died in January 1972. I was 4 years old, and would not turn 5 till November that year.

That surprised me when I looked up his obituary. I have always remembered him so clearly, I forgot just how young I was. He was tall with narrow shoulders and he walked with the kind of hybrid cane and crutch that has handles and elbow braces. That’s him standing in the center of the photo above, which was published in the Nashville Banner in 1957.

Uncle Leroy had a form of muscular dystrophy or he wouldn’t be in the photo, which was made at the Brentwood Country Club, some kind of Christmas charity event for MD adults and kids.

Leroy Lane kept going for as long as he could. He had four kids like his younger sister, my mom. Like my mom, he had those kids with a strongly-built, temperamental redhead for a spouse, his wife Lois. As a result of that coincidence, his kids looked more like my siblings than cousins.

I remember I loved Uncle Leroy because he and my mom were a lot alike. A unique combination of sly wit and kindness. I was still more toddler than pre-K age but I was often compared to him. It was partly us all just looking like Lanes — any photo of my maternal grandfather reveals I inherited his facial bone structure, as did mom and Uncle Leroy.

The funny thing is, Leroy and I really had a lot in common. Far more than I knew at the time. Like music. Listen to the video below.

That’s Uncle Leroy singing in his big, plain voice. If you go listen to any number of lesser-known country singers from that time — the record was pressed in 1968 — well, well, well, well-well-well, he was just about as good as any of them.

Especially considering he had a disease that affected his upper body musculature and lung capacity.

I don’t know if taking a keen interest in my family’s stories long after many firsthand sources have “gone home to Jesus” (good old Southern Protestant phrase for being dead) is a byproduct of my own aging or what. I mean, I’m sure it is to some degree, but I wouldn’t have some of these clear memories had I not always had some interest in family.

Because all families are full of stories that could inform you about yourself and your own choices.

It doesn’t help that I’ve finally read Tolstoy, who was masterful at writing about the real inner lives of people tied together by blood and marriage, and my wife and I are also into genealogy, though she is by far the expert on that subject. If anyone thinks I’m a gifted researcher, they just haven’t met her yet.

For years I felt my interest in my own family stories was self-centered, or solipsistic. And perhaps it is. I knew for a fact, too, that it was at odds with the way I relate to my family. I’m the only one who ever moved over 1,000 miles away to live, thoroughly establishing myself in another part of the country. I’m certainly the only one who has done the kinds of jobs I’ve had, especially writing and editing. I’m from a long line of men who worked with their hands, dropping out of school in 8th grade, 11th grade, getting whatever higher education they needed from the military or on the job.

Majoring in voice and focusing on classical music, I did for a time feel sheepish about my white trash background. But with age, I’ve turned around and in a way, it has become a source of pride.

I’ve also thought about how my family was full of talkers and storytellers. I inherited that impulse and channeled it into writing. No matter how loquacious I might seem, I’m outwardly kind of quiet compared to people like my late paternal grandmother, late sister, or my dad.

So, with Leroy above and with the preceding post, which was the first installment in what will be a longer (somewhat fictionalized) story about Dad’s maternal relatives, I’ve begun to tell family stories. I am, in part, doing it for myself. I’m doing it to answer questions I have been asking in some form since I could speak. Also, because the story I began in the preceding post is so in line with how I launched my writing career — with true crime — I’m trying to trace patterns through generations to try and understand how they produced me, and what in me is an echo of those people and the lives they led.

Like Uncle Leroy, a good man with ambitions who overcame some mighty challenges for as long as he could.

Sometimes, you can still find 45s of Leroy’s songs on eBay. So it cheers me up when I think about them and know he left a little legacy.

I might even sing a duet with him one day, if I can ever figure out the software.

 

Genealogy, Part 1.

Gonzlaught @flickr

November 13, 1937

It was cold out but fair that night as Arthur Jasper Heflin walked along Franklin Pike. Middle Tennessee wasn’t as suburban as it is now, a place of shopping malls and celebrity sightings at the Outback Steakhouse by the Cool Springs Galleria. It was quiet once you left the pools of light by roadhouses like The Lousy Duck. Then you were under the canopy of stars and in the country of night, where the November trees were dead claws rising from graves, the green that would come in March seeming a century away.

Heflin went by Jasper. He was a laborer and farmhand by occupation, married to a lively woman named Mamie Johnson.

At some point during his walk, headlights appeared. They swayed a bit as they came down the long, gentle hill toward him. He bowed his head to keep the glare out of his eyes. He tried to step a little further toward the fence running between the highway and farmland. But something was wrong. The car wasn’t quite on the road. The driver was perhaps sleepy or drunk.

Jasper was a little drunk himself. He decided not to worry about it. A man couldn’t go through life afraid of everything. There was not enough whiskey in the world to ease that kind of fear.

Jasper thought of his occasional boss, a man they called the Bull o’ the Woods. It was an ironic name if you saw the man at a distance. He was slender and not even 5’10”. But he had the presence of a 7-footer with shoulders wide enough to haul a calf. That was a fella who wasn’t afraid of much, thought Jasper.

He looked up. The headlights of the oncoming car grew until they swallowed him.

November 14, 1937

The litany of injuries was gruesome:

  1. Compound comminuted fracture of the right frontal bone & extensive injury to the brain (his skull had virtually exploded on the right side)
  2. Fracture of both bones of both lower legs
  3. Secondary shock — due to loss of blood

They formed a list of what a good 1930s American sedan of modest size could do to the human body in the wrong hands.

The wrong hands that night, according to a report in the Nashville Banner, belonged to Frank Allen of North First Street. The shattered body belonged to the former Arthur Jasper Heflin.

Heflin’s wife Mamie, that lively girl, was alone in the world.

But she still had her job. A crisp $3 a week, cooking and cleaning for Ms. Bertha, whose nerves were constantly shot. At least in part due to her marriage to Jasper’s off-again, on-again boss, The Bull o’ the Woods, Harry Brent Dalton.

Mamie knew that Harry–my great grandfather–would take good care of her.


Note

The preceding is the first installment in a work of fiction based closely on real events. Some names have been changed to protect me from the wrath of elderly, distant relatives. 

While many dates will be accurate and events will be described as they were recorded in various legal and personal documents as well as aging memories, I elected to fashion the connecting tissues myself to lend structure to the narrative. 

Sources: Nashville Banner and The Tennessean via newspapers.com; a variety of archived Tennessee state civil records found via ancestry.com. 

So, I’m finally watching….

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, about the mysterious death of Elisa Lam. This is very frustrating. I’ve started this post two or three times and deleted each draft because I don’t want to sound like a bastard toward people doing what I essentially launched my writing career doing: “websleuthing,” kinda.

This series troubles me because the ultimate truth of Elisa Lam’s death isn’t chilling, real world horror as if she’d found herself trapped in some real world version of The Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining. Elisa Lam wrote openly about her struggles with mental health. Anyone who has ever witnessed another person in the throes of a psychotic state saw the infamous elevator video of Elisa at the Cecil and knew what they were seeing.

All the internet churn surrounding Elisa’s vanishing and death from amateur sleuth types was understandable — and ultimately pointless. People loaded up Youtube with hours upon hours of utterly pointless videos discussing this case, parsing every moment…and in the end it was a bipolar woman off her medication and actively psychotic.

Of course there are questions about Elisa’s death. There will always be. Many are legit, I don’t question asking them.

But as someone who has had a part in evolving online crime writing and websleuthing and as someone who has lost a sibling to mental illness, this particular series is really bothering me. I have no idea how it could’ve been made differently, but one thing that does occur to me is framing it as some kind of gritty true crime account is a disingenuous choice. It pulls the focus away from the person at the center of the story — this intelligent, creative, and sadly very troubled young woman — and onto the self-styled “sleuths,” especially.

But Steve, um, weren’t you kind of at the vanguard of this sort of thing? There were like, what, three crime blogs online when you started?

Yeah. I was. And I learned from every single thing I wrote about. One thing I learned is we begin immediately making up our own narratives about high-profile mysteries. And because most of us are not in law enforcement and privy to a huge load of actual, concrete evidence, we start reinforcing our theories. We put them online. People start coming up with counter-theories. Others question your interest, as if all humans aren’t immediately curious about the fates of others — because we are. That’s the root of so much interest from strangers in true crime cases, in real mysteries of any kind.

Elisa Lam’s death was a gruesome and incredibly sad mystery. The real story is about mental health, however. Crime Scene spends way too long framing its narrative like true crime before it finally digs into Elisa’s own writing about being bipolar.

It begins to feel, by the third installment, like this was a fascinating and complex 90-minute documentary shoved into multiple episodes. I say this as someone who has been in their position many times, too, but it relies far too much on the videos from “sleuths.” They feel by the end of the second episode like what they are: filler.

I’m watching Crime Scene to the end to give myself a chance to change my opinion because smart people I know who do genuinely good work with true crime are involved, and producer and director choices were not their call.

But maybe since I sat down today to record segments for a true crime show on an actual murder I wrote about 14 years ago when I ran crimeblog.us, I’m just thinking a lot about this whole true crime thing online and how it has evolved, especially since podcasting was revealed as perhaps the ideal web-centric format for it.

The subject is still a source of intense fascination for me. My best ideas for nonfiction books are true crime subjects. I am really finding out in the last couple of years, however, that my perspectives have changed. I don’t know if I just take it all much more seriously than I did or if this is a result of just aging and growing up, but there it is.

 

Something to push against

The author at the gym
Image: Huff
Person in the Image: Huff

Yeah that’s me and no I’m not doing Bane cosplay. It was just the best flu mask I could find before I headed to the gym.

After I had COVID earlier this year something went to work in my brain. Something that’s always been part of me. Best example: Sophomore year in college, late spring, and we were all dreading Music History. That was next up, all junior music majors required to take it. A band guy, brass player whose name I’ve forgotten but I still remember he looked like the Big Boy restaurant mascot but with serial killer glasses and a cheesy ‘stache, looked at me with a serious expression and said, “Don’t worry about Professor Olsen’s class”—the name of that year’s music history prof—“No one passes it the first time.”

The guy wasn’t being a jerk. He was sincere. Yet some alchemy just happened to take place in my brain right then, some combination of moment, mood, mindset. I said, “No one? Ever?”

”Far as I know.”

I took that as a personal challenge. Something to push back against.

Here is the silliest part: I was generally not a great academic student. I majored in music, vocal performance, and I lived for being onstage. I memorized my music early and diligently, always fulfilled my obligations as a singer to the hilt. But a lot of the academic side of music bored me. I was a low B student, basically.

Yet I decided then and there to be one of the best scholars Professor Olsen ever lectured, with his permanent handkerchief held to one side of his permanently leaky left nostril. I did it in anger. I was mad that anyone would dare lump me in with the masses of students in previous years and in years to come.

Junior year rolled around. I was in the class with two of the smartest people I knew, the woman to whom I was engaged at the time and the woman I would break up with her for and end up married to for 8 years. (I get horny for brainy people but refuse to ever use a term like “sapiosexual,” it just sounds…pathological.)

Both young women (52 and 54 today) were dedicated students in general and both were superb writers with razor-sharp, incisive minds. Both had already helped me limp through previous courses we took together. I feel bad about that today but at the same time, it would be 10 more years before I was diagnosed with ADHD.

I did not feel competitive, exactly, with either, but I did decide I would make better grades in this famously writing-heavy music history course than they did. On one hand, I look back today and that’s totally manic. An observer who knew all three of us might have laughed if I’d said that out loud.

I proceeded to do exactly that. At the end of junior year, Professor Olsen told me I was “the most incisive historical mind” he’d taught there, one of the finest writers, and cut out to practice law (he was, oddly, also an attorney). He had no idea what a shitty student I’d been and would be again in the future. And he might have been right about the law, I wondered myself. But just opening the LSAT study book made my eyes cross, so maybe not.

Anyway, I’m indulging myself here, but there is a point—I have frequently shocked myself by accepting a challenge no one even issued just to prove I can conquer it if I want. I remember every one, but the story of music history is the one that I often reflect on.

Sometimes I think catching COVID hit me a bit like that brass player’s laconic challenge. I came out of it saying to myself that I would respect the fact I survived the virus by completing a mission I began in earnest at 44: Making my aging body as ironclad as possible against whatever aging and life throws my way. I don’t have the natural energy to try and get superhuman with it, but now I feel like I did heading into that first history lecture junior year: weirdly assured I can accomplish the vaguely ridiculous goal I have in mind.

I don’t reject aging, that’s not it at all. In fact, since I turned 40 aging has been kind of, well, fun sometimes. I joke about it, but the truth is, I’m strangely proud of already making it this far.

That is, making my body “ironclad” isn’t about reversing the clock of my skin, fading spots or filling wrinkles. It is about making the man the age I am now as strong as he can be.

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I may get there.

Dithering

Here goes nothin’

It is a running joke in my marriage: How restlessly I shift from site to site looking for a place to land the words I put out when no one is paying me to write them. The web is littered with my digital detritus. I have an excuse to some degree—I have zero shame when it comes to squatting on a property (a subdomain, like my Medium address, for example) just to own my name, but what I struggle with is the actual tool itself. This thing I’m writing in now.

I’ve had Blogspot blogs—I sometimes post to this one still as a way to say “yep, haven’t forgotten”—and other WordPress sites. I’ve grabbed countless social media accounts. In the end I always find a way to get restless and look for something new.

This morning, however, I thought, “Man, fuck Medium and Substack and whatever the hell else needs to be fucked, I still have WordPress.”

And WordPress is a good tool. I’ll likely be using it for paid work again in the next year or so.

Also, I have friends on here who write and if this prompts them to get back at it, all the better.

I’m sticking with one tool…for now. I have to give myself that out. I reserve the right, that is, to change my mind.

For once, I’m not sure I will change my mind. I no longer want to use brain space thinking about stuff like whether I could make money on a Patreon or with a Substack. I’m using the tool I know best, the one that works.

The dithering is done.

Hi there.

In the years since I first began a blog in 2000 (my wife, then fiancee, inspired me to start one for reasons not worth going into now), I became a professional writer and editor. Blogging, which I initially enjoyed enough to daydream of doing it for a living, is what I do for a living. That plus writing the occasional book means it’s not a bad living, either.

What happened over time was the more I wrote for money, the less I wanted to give it away for free. That makes sense, right?

I would have a twinge of nostalgia sometimes over the last 11 years–I last kept a regular blog of my own in 2009 or so–and start something new, only to give it up again. There was an embarrassment factor in that as well. I have ADHD — not diagnosed until I was 33 — and have found I’m kinda sensitive about the way it affects my behavior. I can be disorganized and forgetful, easily overwhelmed. The word “flighty” comes to mind. To me it is an intensely negative, dismissive word, yet it certainly fits me where some subjects are concerned, at least on the surface.

…But what I’m saying is of course I worry that I’ll do it again. Write this post about how I want to do this more then not write anything personal and casual for the hell of it for a year or more. It’s like a running joke.

And I might, I don’t know.

But here are the facts as I sit here at 9:23 pm in Central Massachusetts on a warm August night: I have this blog, to which I’ve imported various blog posts written randomly over the last six-seven years, and I have this: truecrimepost.com.

At the moment the true crime blog contains crime blog posts I (again) imported from other destinations, just to flesh it out. They are missing images and links might be broken, but hey, there’s something there. I also frankly think it’s a good URL, which was important back in the early days o’ blogging, but who knows, now. So it might fire up too.

I have a Medium account at Huffwire.com. The only wishy-washy-ness I feel right now is deciding on which blog CMS to use — stick with WordPress or make myself Medium only. Medium is a lovely content management system and there’s a built-in audience… but it kind of pisses me off on a regular basis too. The writer’s program doesn’t work as well as Medium intended, I think, and for every intriguing Medium post that is well-written and worth reading there are 20 badly-written, semi-plagiarized piles of automated content farm level bullshit.

But I ramble, something I haven’t given myself permission to do in a while.

The thing about doing my own blogging again is it hit me recently that the things I do don’t really have a home online. I’ve kind of been coasting. I need to present more than just my whack-ass Twitter account to the world.

I’m a singer and a writer of more than men’s lifestyle stuff for Maxim or any other sites.

Also, I’ve believed for years now that the deprecating of longform personal blogging for “micro-blogging” was in some ways a mistake. It has led to a soundbite culture. That has its place but sometimes you don’t want to click the “thread” link on Twitter. You want to read the full thing written out and in editable form, should the writer make a mistake that needs correction.

I can’t bring that back and I can’t bring back crime blogging, make it supplant true crime podcasts, most of which I find either tone-deaf or severely lacking in bringing anything new to the table. I won’t even look at this as trying.

I just know it’d be nice to return to a more personal space. One where I don’t feel pressed to worry about SEO or whether I’ve got a goddamn image embedded every two paragraphs or so.

It’s worth a shot.

I feel silly doing this here, too…

But I am trying to save some folks trouble: Put simply, if you are seeking “Huff Paranormal” Steve Huff, you are in the wrong place. I am not that man. To my knowledge we are not blood related and I have had only the most limited interactions with him.

We are both easy to find via Google and we both are connected to heavy subjects—me to true crime and him to contacting the spirit world.

About that I will only say I’m a skeptic but I try to avoid judging others’ beliefs. And I’m not 100% skeptical, either. But enough.

Anyway, to clarify: If you are curious about the Steve Huff who says he is contacting deceased Indian actor Sushant Singh Rajput via his spirit box, this is not his blog.

You’re welcome to stick around, though. I’ve transferred years of posts to this site, many of them my crime writing, and I may even update it more often, like I’ve said I’d do for like 10 years and not really done.