I never knew Hal Hall to utter a word of profanity. Well okay, "crap" once, "hell" twice, but you get the idea. He had me for a son. Such self-control under the aggravation only I could dish up is beyond impressive.
Wherever I went in the mining town that was my home, and surrounding rural counties, I heard things – things so filthy you swore you could smell the filth, things that held the divine in unvarnished contempt, things about doing unspeakable violence to minorities and women – and yet Real Men found a way to say them, presented as evidence of their manhood. Not my dad. He showed us what a man was.
A man was honest, hard working and genuine. Dad was born in 1911 in a dugout in Western Kansas, the youngest of 11 kids. When asked what he did for fun as a kid, he paused a good long while before coming up with "shooting jackrabbits" and "watching the dog eat mice". Mostly, they worked as kids. Once he overheard someone complaining that picking cherries was mighty hard work, to which he responded. "Have you ever grubbed potatoes by hand, dragging a sack along between your legs?"
"No, I don't think I'd want to do that."
"Well (rueful smile) that's work."
If dad ever raised a hand against another person, I never saw it. There was no purpose in such things. Dogs fight. Men build things. He was the idealistic utilitarian, always intent on creating value. He expected nothing less from his sons.
I remember standing on the street with Joe Vallehos one summer morning. Dad pulled up in front of Cass's Drug Store and marched across the street towards the post office in his customary uniform of cowboy hat, boots and worn sport jacket.
"Man. Look at that! That ______'s got his day planned. Some day . . . yeah . . . some day I wanna be just like him. (Oh, sorry man, I didn't mean to call your dad a ______ . . . )"
"Don't sweat it. He'd love to know you feel that way, Joe."
He aspired to nothing more than to led by example. Problem was, the world is full of goodies, and his brand of restraint and focus wasn't entirely for me. I inherited about 25% of his drive. Fortunately, that was plenty.
I saw him drunk once, on vacation in Mazatlan, under the mistaken impression tequila sunrises were some sort of zippy sodas. He made his own chokecherry wine to sip on a cold winter's night. How could this little orange and red cokes be much different? Oh, dear. After that, never again. He could learn a lesson (snap) like that. No testy wife needed to remind him. No fear of God crowded impure thoughts from his mind.
His worship was found in visits to the great things in life, the beauty of the high Rockies, the fruits and seafood of the Mexican seaside, San Diego Zoo, Seaworld, Starvin' Arvin's Restaurant. He made a point to show us things his rural Kansas upbringing sheltered him from: hare krishnas, people living in between two billboards leaned together next to a Tiajuana expressway, people buying water from a machine, sea urchins. Our most holy times together as father and son were around a campfire in a bleak stretch of Southeastern Utah, poking at the coals and splitting a Mr. Goodbar.
Steve Goodman wrote a song My Old Man, in which he speaks of his dad imparting wisdom to him, and him tuning it out only to wish years later he could remember what it was being said. This speaks to my experience. My dad wrote 5 or 6 books (note I'm not sure exactly how many) in which he laid out his philosophy of religious and political criticism. They sit on my shelf in close reach, but I've only read parts of them; when I try I quickly glaze over because they remind me of his endless lectures delivered hours on end while we traveled on business here and there throughout the Four Corners region. I figured I already knew it all because kept telling me over and over, when in fact, like Steve Goodman I wasn't listening.
Mom was raised in a war zone where food was scarce. They never had enough ingredients around for her to learn how to cook, or as she jokes, if she burned something, they couldn't throw it out. To avoid having to gag down any mistakes, they just didn't let her try to cook. So when they married, she ran the businesses and dad would raise the kids and cook.
Dad's cooking. Don't get me started. Too late.
He had low blood pressure so the doctor advised him to eat more salt, and from then on everything was good and salty. "You need salt", I recall him saying. "If you're out in the desert, and you didn't eat your salt, you'd dehydrate right quick." Dinner might be toasted cheese sandwiches, or toasted peanut butter sandwiches. Noodles baked with canned mackerel was a house specialty. One night it wasn't mackerel, it wasn't fish, and he never did tell us what it was. Recipe: cut a chicken into anywhere from 7 to 11 pieces, place in a glass baking dish, add lots of salt, bake 'till done. For a vegetable, reheat last night's cabbage and pea medley. Recipe: cut up some apples, add lots of salt, fry in a pan with vegetable shortening. Not bad actually. Serve with white bread and margarine. A dinner of waffles was not unheard of, and those instances we counted among our blessings.
Now mind you, it wasn't all that dismal. His ham and beans were quite tasty, if a bit salty. His pancake batter was to die for. The secret – lots of eggs, maybe half eggs by volume. I packed a quart of it along camping up on the Bridge of Heaven. The guys couldn't believe it, they were so good. And another thing. Packaged hot chocolate mix(?); nasty. Wouldn't touch it. Dad made it mixing cocoa powder with a little water and then slowly adding the milk. The secret was he didn't know you're supposed to add – guess what he left out – salt! Turns out salt ruins chocolate. Try it without salt. You will not be disappointed.
Dad built every house we ever lived in. When he returned from Germany with my mom, he heard they were hiring carpenters. Laborers weren't making anything and he had a wife and kid. They asked, "You a carpenter?" He said, "Sure am." He was not, but he paid close attention and just did what everyone else was doing. If they noticed anything, it was that he wasn't a very good carpenter. He went on to build numerous houses, mostly in the vicinity of Dove Creek, Colorado. Then he and mom moved to Ouray with a few hundred dollars in their pockets. There he built an 18-room motel, gift shop and a gas station. The last building he built was a 2,200-square-foot commercial building, mostly using wood from an 80-year-old barn I took apart. Even though he paid me $4 an hour, his entire cost for the structure (in 1980) was only $8,000. I tell you what, if I ever own a house, I'm building it myself.
Dad showed me how.
Hal Hall in 1934, with the Roadster he bought with money saved working shifts as an elevator operator for the Wrigley family in Chicago.