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. 

Of Memories and Plane Crashes

The memory is clear. A wet day, overcast, still more winter than spring in Nashville. We pile in the car–Mom’s orange-red VW Beetle, possibly the white VW microbus, that part isn’t as clear or important–and drive to Donelson Plaza.

Northwest up Murfreesboro Pike, right on Donelson Pike, follow that till it bottoms out, turn left, take the fork, drive up Old Lebanon Road. There was a Woolworth’s Drug Store and Dinette there. And Cain Sloan Department Store… or, if I’m being true to my child’s memory, it could’ve been Castner Knott’s. Four-year-olds don’t always notice things like that.

It is there, in an empty lot by the Plaza, that we see the plane. It’s battered and twisted and there is a temporary fence around it. There is at least one TV crew there, with a huge camera. There is a crowd.

What burns in my mind is the crumpled tin can body of the plane. I think, people died here.

The plane seems huge.

If memories are imprinted on a long reel of film, the frames around this moment are ghosted, too whited out by age and time to see. But I remember this broken plane and the destruction around it.

Or I thought I did. At some point I started telling myself I made it up. I cobbled together news footage and childhood fears and maybe some vivid dreams and came up with this memory.

planecrash72Then today, I found it. I’d remembered a real event, after all.

I discovered the plane had been carrying four men, and it had gone down, according to my father, on Todd’s Knob, a hill by Donelson Plaza. Dad’s memory for such events is striking in general and makes sense, especially here–he worked for the Nashville Airport Authority at the time.

Dad thinks we saw the wreckage well after it happened but before it had been moved by the authorities and that rings true. There were many people there, just gawking–and I remember that, too, because even though I was only 4, I took in all the other people there and something about them scared me.

We were staring at a nightmare, a tomb.

Speaking on the phone with Dad, he segues into his own childhood story of a plane crash he witnessed near the end of World War II. He was 9.

Jackie (my uncle, Dad’s older brother) and I were laying in the yard, watching fighter planes maneuver. Pretend dog fight.

Dad’s family lived near a plant built late in the war to churn out new fighters that would be sent overseas.

They collided, exploded. We ran to the field where they fell.

There were small squares of aluminum hot and burning the grass. Bits of parachute fabric fluttering on blackberry bushes at the fence line. People–kids, locals, farm folks, sharecropper families–were crowding in.

The military hadn’t closed off the area quickly enough. My grandfather, Dad tells me, made it home from work. But when they got in the car to go back out to the grocery, they were turned back. The road was closed.

Dad is stuck on one detail. It is his own moment of nightmare. Of staring at a tomb.

One girl found a finger.

That girl who found a finger, she carried it around for weeks, showed it at school.

[Newspapers.com]

Fishing Trip

(I have written about what’s going on with my father here. I wasn’t sure why I wrote the post below and still am not sure, but it is what it is.)

We rode up through the mountains and then through the forests to the lake. James’s son Kelly and I sat in the back of James’s El Camino. You and James sat up front driving and talking about whatever men talk about with wind bellowing in the windows and country music blaring through the speakers.

The lake revealed itself curve by curve, glimmering through the trees. A burst of reflected sunlight here, there a gray green slice of waves.

Then we were at the main lodge to check in. Kelly and I walked idly around the lobby, picking at brochures. I’d just begun driving. Kelly was 12. We’d played off and on for years when you and mom got together with James and Linda but I felt like I was saddled with amusing this kid. I wasn’t very good at it. I was 16. Too old for this.

You flirted with the older round women behind the check-in desk and I watched a master work. Your pale green eyes and devil’s smile. Both women giggled and nodded and seeing them so charmed I realized how much I didn’t know about my father.

Shopping at the convenience store on the state highway before we arrived, you’d bought nothing but garbage junk food and I thought, this is how men eat when no one is around to frown at them. 

We loaded into the cabin, you and James on one side, Kelly and I on the other. I stared at the lake through the windows. Beyond the rolling water, the rock faces rising to the trees. But for you and James and your beer-fueled laughter, it was the quietest place I’d been in a while.

Before we headed out with our rods and tackles we ate Ho-Hos and Twinkies and RC Cola, and you didn’t say a word about how fat I’d been as a boy or about worrying I might get there again and I loved you for it.

Under the white sun we floated and for a son whose father is a legendary talker it is perhaps remarkable that I remember nothing of any of our conversation. I know with our red hair and pale skins we burned. We burned, and we didn’t catch any fish.

Time has shuffled memory’s deck of cards–blown it apart and lost a few, really–and I can’t quite recall the order of the rest of our trip. So here is what I do remember:

  • We docked to gas up the boat and buy a few supplies and Kelly and I wandered the dock. It was like an outpost in another country. I couldn’t see any roads on the land around it. It was as if the smell of the entire lake had been concentrated there.
  • At some point I examined the fishing license you’d gotten me. My birthday was 2 years and 2 days off–11/5/1965. I never knew if you’d made me older on purpose, some game law, but I never asked you, either.
  • Neither you nor James ever caught a fish. Kelly and I caught 3 a piece. You wanted to show me how to clean and filet them and I watched, but I couldn’t do it. I could never do those sorts of things. By the time I was 16, I felt like you’d finally come to a truce with that. You and James fried the fish and we all ate and it was better than I thought it would be.

The thing I remember most clearly was how we took the boat out at night.

It was cool for a Tennessee summer. We dropped the fishing lines in the water where they drifted unbitten.

Eventually we fell silent.

I was 16. Kelly, at 12, was just the right age for fishing trips with Dad. Me, I was too old, too easily bored for this.

Yet I remember sitting silent in that boat at night on a quiet lake better than anything.

I was never going to be too old to drift there and watch the stars with my father.

 

 

 

Old Tape

tape
My audition tape, circa 1998. Or 1999. Not sure.

I was always depressed. Often about a woman. Sometimes about my weight. Or just my life. And none of these things were truly that terrible. Depression would’ve come even if all other circumstances had been perfect. It’s genetic, I know that, now.

But I could sing, even if depressed. I might mangle the languages a bit, but I aimed for the intensity. That’s what I identified with when it came to opera. It’s overblown, big, and strange. It’s yearning, impassioned, and sad. I was raised in the south and heard mostly hymns, classic rock and country music before I turned 13. Once I was introduced to opera I felt what it was about. I understood it.

The competition was held at a theater in New Haven, Connecticut, in early spring. I’d recorded the audition tape months before. They took long enough to get back to me, I later wondered if I was just the least bad choice left to round out the competing singers to ten. But maybe that was my depression talking. Or being from the south. In spite of the presence of my first wife, who had a worldly and cosmopolitan air I felt I lacked (and who in hindsight was enormously gracious in going with me–our marriage was by then pretty rocky), I felt like a rube the moment we ferried across the Sound from Long Island to Connecticut.

I felt like a rube entering the theater and meeting the other singers. Every singer except for me had an established career. There was a tall bass who was a legitimate star in his native Taiwan. A tenor named Chuck who is today a staple in European and NYC opera houses. He’d already done Mozart roles with the New York City Opera. A soprano who’d won the Metropolitan Opera National Council final competition. I’d only ever won the first round of that.

The other singers were, to a person, friendly and personable. I particularly liked my fellow tenor. Tenors compete hard onstage, but we always get each other backstage, if we set that aside. In the world of classical voice, being a tenor can be very strange.

My ego wanted to surge at learning I had the most humble career of anyone there, at the time (I would go on to do roles with the Atlanta Opera and some good concert work–but it took a few years). It seemed promising. But I think the depression that was already hovering had begun to descend.

I’ve talked with other singers–other performers in general–and it’s often hard to recall anything that happens once you walk on stage. I recall nothing about that competition in New Haven. The light, perhaps. I did my best, but the dark anchor had already pulled me down.

My wife was frank but not unkind when I asked about it after. You just sounded under-powered.

One of the things I’d always had was sheer vocal power. I could project. Over 80-piece orchestras, 60-voice choirs, you name it. That day, I gave an anemic, careful performance. My wife said she heard someone behind her remark I had a nice voice, it just wasn’t very strong.

In the end I couldn’t truly be ashamed of how I’d done. The judges seemed to consider me in the middle of the field, fifth out of the ten in quality.

One of the judges was opera great Licia Albanese. One of the very first opera records I ever owned as a teen was a La Boheme she’d recorded as Musetta, with perhaps my favorite great tenor, Jüssi Björling, playing Rodolfo. I do recall what she said to me after.

You sing ‘Nessun dorma,’ said the old diva, you are not yet a Calaf. Not yet.

I received a modest, runner-up award check–I can’t recall the amount but it might have been $150–and my wife and I headed back to the ferry. Then we were on Long Island, at the small Ronkonkoma Airport. We were very low on funds by then, and there was no way to cash the check there. Our flight was to be the first out the following morning–the airport shut down at midnight, and flights began departure around 7 a.m. the next day.

We didn’t have enough money already in the bank for a motel.

We slept in the airport. At least I think my wife slept. I stretched out, the suit bag holding my rental tuxedo under my head, and listened to the muzak.

I remember scrounging change for peanut butter crackers from a vending machine around 5 a.m.

I don’t think I slept. No, no sleep at all.