In our last episode, meaning in my last episode, we were trying to locate, meaning I was trying to locate, the elusive and apparently Google-proof, Huey M., a gentleman described by several sources, including Chet Helms himself, as a close college friend of Chet’s. Rumor had it that Huey M. was, or had been, a physician practicing somewhere in California.
A week or two after Joel Selvin gave me the Chet interview transcripts, I had a sudden flash of inspiration. I rushed to the nearest computer, which, luckily, happened to me mine, and punched up an on-line, genealogical tool called the Social Security Death Index. If Huey M. was no longer with us, chances were somewhere between zero and one hundred per cent that the Index would tell me he was no longer with us. For over an hour I typed the now familiar variations of my prey’s name, along with a couple of ridiculously creative new ones, into the ‘search’ field but came up with the usual nothing.
Although I really wanted to find and talk to this guy, the chances of my ever doing so appeared to be on the far side of remote. Huey M. was, it seemed, vapor. I once again shelved my search.
Eight months later, on Tuesday, September 18, 2007, I received an email, the first line of which was:
Greg: There are some aspects Chet’s life which should be revealed to the world.
The email continued for several more lines and ended with a phone number and an invitation to call and talk about Chet. I didn’t recognize the area code.
It was signed “Leon M., MD.
And his last name was one of the variations of Huey M’s last name.
I sat back in my chair and stared at that email for a long time. Could it be that Leon M. was Huey M?
Finally, I called the provided phone number and a male voice answered.
“Well I used to be Huey, but I legally changed it to Leon 20 or 25 years ago.”
The guy had changed his name. I had never considered that possibility because, well, who in their right mind would have considered it?
Huey M., er, Leon M. and I spoke for about two hours that night. He told me that he was a radiation oncologist at a cancer clinic in the Midwest and that he had just learned two days earlier that his old friend, Chet Helms, had passed away. Then he told me the incredible story of how he had learned about Chet’s demise.
He said that he had awakened Sunday morning with an inexplicable compulsion to contact a University of Texas friend of his he hadn’t spoken to or even thought about much for over 40 years. He tried to ignore this compulsion, but couldn’t, so he gave in, fired up his PC and very quickly found someone with the same name of the person for whom he was looking. A bit more searching provided him with a phone number and he called it. The person who answered was, in fact, his old friend JoAnn P., the very same JoAnn P. I had interviewed almost two years earlier, the very same JoAnn P. who had first told me about Huey M.
During their reunion conversation that Sunday afternoon, JoAnn P. told Leon, a.k.a. Huey, that Chet had died in 2005 and that this guy in California was writing Chet’s biography. She urged Leon to get in touch with me, and gave him my email address. Two days later, he used it.
I had spent almost two years trying to find Huey M. with no success, and he had found me in about two minutes.
No matter. All that mattered was that one of us had found the other one.
After Leon M. told me about his conversation with JoAnn P. he began talking about what it was like to have been a young, black student at the University of Texas in the fall of 1960 – one of fewer than 200 black students out of a population of 20,000. At first, his tone was matter-of-fact, almost reportorial, but as he went on it became increasingly emotional. I detected no bitterness or anger in his voice when he spoke of how when he’d take a seat in a classroom, all the white students in the vicinity would get up and move as far away from him as possible, I only detected a kind of sadness and bewilderment.
Having effectively set the scene, Leon M. launched into a long, eloquent and powerful story about the first time he met Chet Helms when they were both just a few months out of high school and just a few months into college. And that story is, in my mind, the centerpiece of Chet’s story, illustrating, if you will, the very foundation of his character.
Which is not to say, or even imply, that Chet Helms was a living saint. He wasn’t. He, like the rest of us, had his share of human foibles and he, like the rest us, made his share of human mistakes. But on the October night in 1960 that he first met Huey/Leon, he displayed a degree of acceptance, compassion and courage to which most of us can only aspire. And it wouldn’t be the last time.
The night after our first conversation, Leon M. called me. He was chuckling, almost giddy, when I picked up.
“My wife’s threatening to divorce me,” he said. “I kept her up until after 1:00 a.m. last night, telling her stories about the old days, stories I hadn’t thought about for years, a lot of them about Chet. She finally said that if I didn’t let her get some sleep, she was going to leave me.”
Leon M. and I spoke on the phone once or twice more during the next few days and a week later, he left me a lengthy, two-part, voicemail – another remembered story. I shot him a quick email, saying I had received and transcribed his voicemail and asked him to get in touch any time. Then I began contacting and interviewing other sources, the number of which was approaching 175.
In early 2008, I needed Leon M. to corroborate some information I had been given, so I sent him an email. When I hadn’t heard back from him after a week, I called him. The phone rang, but no one answered and there was no answering machine. I tried to call a few more times. No answer. Then I checked the web site of the clinic at which he’d been working the previous September. His photo and bio, which had previously been prominently displayed, were gone and his name was not included in the on-line roster of the clinic’s physicians.
Leon M., it seems, has once again become vapor.