Invisible lessons

One of the more difficult aspects to moving away from South Florida has been leaving my dad behind. No, I didn’t spend a lot of time at his house before I moved — “cat’s in the cradle” and all that maudlin business — but it was good to have him close by, and know that seeing each other was just a matter of making time, not making plane reservations.

He’s still with me, though, all the time. When I walk down the power tool aisle in a hardware store I remember how my mother used to buy him a new saber saw or electric drill every Christmas, which he might use once or twice. While I’ve never managed to acquire a taste for wine, the word “merlot” is now permanently associated with his glass at dinner  (and occasionally, lunch). And every time I sit in a La-Z-Boy and find myself instinctually starting to drift off. it’s Thanksgiving again, with my dad and my brother snoring in the family room, ostensibly watching a football game.

But it’s more than just the silly, every day memories that keep him close to me. When I manage to completely screw something up, it’s my dad’s voice in my head reminding me to figure out what I did wrong, and learn from it. When I do the right thing for someone else instead of the right thing for me, I thank my dad for teaching me that I’m not the center of the universe. And when I tell stories that make people laugh, without them ever noticing they’re being taught something, too, well, I’m carrying on a family tradition. After all, I rarely noticed how much he was teaching me, while he was doing it.

Thanks for everything, Daddy, and happy Fathers Day.

Here are a couple of stories about my father, from the archives.

Slow learner:

But so much of who we become originates with our parents, for good or ill. My mother taught me to use my imagination and be creative, to have a vision, to reach, and to make the best use of what I was given; these are essential parts of my creative nature, and I wouldn’t have any of it without her influence. It was obvious that her goal was to mold me into an artist of some sort. My father, though, shaped who I became without me ever noticing it.

Chief Paduke’s Revenge:

Several years ago my brother and I were talking about practical jokes we had played, stupid pranks and whatnot. My dad was around, and was laughing at the stories he hadn’t heard before, and pointing out the times we hadn’t been nearly as clever as we had thought. Now, my dad has a prankster’s heart, and we were fairly sure he had pulled off some good ones in his day, so we asked him about it. He laughed, and regaled us with the following tale.

 

Why Hallowe'en?

Hallowe’en is my most important holiday. I am not a pagan, born-again or otherwise, although I have nothing against members of those ancient and venerable (or new-age and invented) orders. However, my sentiment has nothing to do with any religion, organized or not, so we can safely leave those discussions out of this particular story. No, my love of All Hallows Eve is a little more personal.

When I was a child, Christmas was fun. Not having been raised in a very religious atmosphere, it was primarily a season of visiting relatives, eating cookies and candy, playing in snow, and getting presents. We followed many of the same rituals as other families of our class and background: enormous Christmas trees, house lights, waking bleary-eyed parents at 6:00am to see what Santa had left (even though we would always peek in the doorway while Daddy struggled with his 8mm movie camera), and all the rest. But, it was, in a way, too ritualized. We knew all the moves ahead of time; only the specific details changed from year to year.

The Fourth of July offered its own type of excitement, too, with firecrackers, bottle rockets, and bar-be-ques. The thrill was spiked a bit whenever we would visit my grandparents, because Grandpa Palmer had a small cannon he would load with black powder and shredded newspaper to show up all the other kids. That was always pretty neat, though in retrospect, I’m not sure why. It just made a tremendously loud BANG, and that was it. Just a little confetti drifting down afterwards.

But Hallowe’en was always different. For one, I had influence on it. You see, my mother was a frustrated artist, who lived for the opportunity to use her skills. Holidays were always been the best time for this. At Christmas, we had a tree-full of hand-made ornaments; there were intricately decorated cookies to eat; on our lawn painted plywood Peanuts characters acted out the end of that perennial TV favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Easter brought heaping baskets of candy, and tons of elaborately decorated eggs. But Hallowe’en brought costumes! And, I got to choose what type.

Vintage Hallowe'en postcard

Every year we would begin a ritual. My mother would ask me what kind of a costume I wanted, and I would go crazy trying to decide. As do most young boys, I had an intense monster fetish. Wolfman, Frankenstein (it wasn’t until years later that I discovered that Franky was the doctor, not the monster), Dracula, various ghosts, witch doctors, alien creatures, and other mind-numbing horrors were considered each year, but only one could be chosen. Ah, the exquisite agony of decision!

Eventually, often with Mama’s prompting, I would decide. Then my mother would begin the arduous process of getting a boy with little concept of how these things work to sit still for several fittings, and assist in the choice of colors for the mask which I would wear to complete the disguise. This was not a simple process at all, for Mama’s artistic ingenuity knew no bounds. As an example, one year, I was to be a Witch Doctor. A tight-fitting chocolate brown costume was made, along with a grass skirt and an over-sized paper maché mask. But, for the finishing touch, she put some chicken bones in vinegar for weeks, to make them soft and rubbery, then strung them together into a necklace. It was perfect. (Politically correct, it was not, and I admit to a certain horror at the memory now. But those were less enlightened times.)

Then the fun would begin. Back in those simpler days, before the rules of fun were written by toy manufacturers, there were always costume parties in school. I don’t think that I won any, because there were always richer kids who could have professional costumes made. But the other kids always thought my costumes were the coolest, making it one of the few times that I was accepted by my peers. A Sav-mart Spider-man costume with a flimsy plastic mask just didn’t cut it next to my silver and blue alien jumpsuit and helmet, or a glow-in-the-dark Green Ghost costume.

And then, the ultimate event, the High Mass of All Hallow’s Eve: Trick-Or-Treating. We would begin the preparations shortly after dark, with my father putting a bowl of candy inside by the front door, for those other “lost souls” who might come by. My brother and I had, by this time, been forced to eat dinner. Our diet for the next few days would consist largely of Three Musketeers, Butterfingers, and Atomic Fireballs, so I suppose it was a last meal, of sorts. Afterwards we would whine and beg and be generally irritating until we would be allowed to get into costume for the evening’s performance. After a final checking over of all scare-systems, we would be off.

We would travel in packs, with several other neighborhood kids. The fathers would travel discreetly behind, even then, often carrying empty highball glasses for their own “treats” at discerning homes. We would run wild, carrying on like the madmen and ghouls we represented, but still finding time to stop at every house for a hearty cry of “TRICK OR TREAT!” It was rare that we would ever even consider a trick, because everyone knew the rules: if you give the kids candy, then they have a good time; if you don’t, they’ll be confused at the break from tradition, and call you stupid names. After a few hours, though, we would have gone as far as our fathers’ legs could carry them, and they would herd us toward home, where two final rituals awaited.

The first was the checking of the count. Why it was first begun, I’m not sure, probably idle curiosity, but my mother counted every single trick-or-treater who came to the door, and dutifully reported to my father as to their number. (In later years, this became a sad barometer of how effectively the true monsters were killing this holiday, as the numbers dwindled down from hundreds, to tens, to less than ten). The second arcane rite was the dividing of the spoils, my brother and I each pouring the contents of our brightly smiling plastic jack o’lanterns into carefully distinct piles on the floor. With a fervor which would make a futures trader proud, we would bid and barter to get the candy we wanted, and stick the other with the undesirable black licorice bits and stale popcorn balls. My mother went through the heaps first, though, as the concept of razor blades in apples, though quaint by today’s standards, was the real menace then. Funny how no-one thought that the holiday needed to be banned then; parents just protected their children by going through the bag before the kids ate anything.

Then, sugar-stuffed and bone-tired, we would complain and head off to bed. I would usually try to stay awake for a while, thinking of ghoulish and ghastly things. But, inevitably, sleep would come, bringing with it the threat of another ordinary day tomorrow — a threat that was always carried out.

Vintage Hallowe'en postcard

But all these childhood memories are just part of the reason. Besides the personal considerations, to my mind Hallowe’en fills a very real need in the world: it is the only holiday glorifying the imagination. Ghoulies and ghosties scare us because we can imagine them; we can cut two holes in a sheet and become a lost soul, or don a set of plastic fangs and become the lord of the undead; we can tell and re-tell dark tales and revel in the crawling of gooseflesh. No other holiday even pays lip service to the wonders of the creative spirit. Other holidays may have their charms, but their primary purpose is the celebration of tradition, containing little room for anything more than habit.

The very soul of All Hallow’s Eve is mystery. Christmas is still, at heart, Christmas. The Fourth of July is part of the past, relived once a year. The Easter story has been told, and is fixed and unchanging, likewise with most holidays. But, Hallowe’en is new and frightening every time. There are always new stories to tell on Hallowe’en, tales which have never been told before.

And, it encompasses so very much. Christians, spiritualists, and atheists alike can share this occasion. Anyone must still see the need for the ability to see what is not there, or what might yet come to be. How else can great inventions be conceived, or great books written? All that separates man from other life on the planet is his imagination. Isn’t that worthy of celebration?

I suppose that in the end, Hallowe’en is religious for me. I have my rituals: carved pumpkins, candy, scary stories told in the dark. I have my traditions and gospels as well, when I sit in the dark and tell the story of the Haunted Elevator, or remember the costumes my mother used to make for me. On Hallowe’en I celebrate all the wonders of the limitless human imagination.

[First published in Ambergris From Leviathan Hallowe’en Special, October 1989]

Little brother

Scott Damon Hall, perennial straight man, age 47
Scott Damon Hall, perennial straight man, age 47

My younger brother, Scott, is getting married today. Apparently his fiancée, Vikki, in an attempt to work off some sort of karmic debt, has agreed to spend the rest of her days with him, barring that “’til death do you part” clause being deliberately invoked, anyway. That isn’t much of a concern, though: she’s far too sweet for that, and Scott would manage to mess it up if he tried, so I think they’re both safe.

There are many, many stories to be told about Scott, who is a figure of nearly legendary proportions — assuming your prefer your legends to be rowdy, bawdy, and hysterically funny, that is. As a gift to the happy couple I was going to tell a couple of those tales today, but the selection proved too difficult. Which do I choose? The time I “pierced” a girl’s nose at his New Year’s Eve party and he almost fainted? Maybe the time he shattered his leg playing a friendly game of soccer after years of injury-free rugby? Maybe the unfortunate incident with the doctored jar of salsa? Or the time he… wait, I’d better check the statute of limitations first before I mention that one.

In the end I decided the only decent thing to do was to keep all the stories to myself and let him rest easy. Until the book hits the shelves, anyway.

Scott and Vikki: my love and congratulations to you both. May your life together be filled with wonderful new stories.

Rainsong

Last night I was surprised by the rain. It was late, and as I was getting ready for bed, I heard the patter on the windows. The sound inexplicably brought me back to my childhood.

I remembered my grandfather’s farmhouse, and the late summer weekends when my family would visit to help with the small crops. We weren’t farmers, although my great-grandparents had been; most of the land was sharecropped out, but we always grew some things for our own use. My dad would help my uncle and grandfather in the fields, gathering corn, digging up potatoes, picking beans and tomatoes, and my mother would be with the other women in the house, cleaning things as they came in and cooking. My brother and I would be given small chores, sometimes picking blackberries, sometimes hulling peas, but we would usually just screw around and get in trouble. After all, with the creek and woods so close, and all sorts of animals to chase around, who wants to pick berries?

But often in the afternoons it would rain, so we’d just sit on the porch and read Hardy Boys mysteries, or play Chinese checkers, or maybe hack up sticks and call it whittling, things like that. The rainstorms were gentle and terribly green, all lush grass and thick leaves on the black walnut tree in the front yard by the gravel road. From time to time there would be a burst of laughter from the grown-ups in the house, or maybe some excitement from a glimpse of a rabbit running past the porch, but it was peaceful, which is not something boys can often appreciate. Mainly we were bored, and hated being idle.

When I got a little older, though, I started to look forward to the rain, and the chance to sit on the porch swing. It was an old, creaky, wooden swing, built for two, with bare slats worn smooth from use, and a steel chain with a touch of rust hooked to the rafters overhead. I liked to sit there when it rained, and sometimes even when it was sunny, with a glass of sweet tea and a bag of potato chips and a book. It was a calming thing, relaxing, restful. Even as a kid, I didn’t get enough of that.

After my grandfather died my uncle demolished the porch so he could use the space as storage for the tractor and trailers. The house is still there, but has largely collapsed, and isn’t really safe. When the family visits they rest in a mobile home parked on the property.

I often wish I could return to that house and find the swing still gently rocking in the cool, rainy wind. I’m not looking to return to my childhood, though. but just to find that moment of tranquility again — to bring someone special there, to my grandfather’s house, to sit on the porch listening to the rain patter on the tin roof, tumble through the leaves, rush through the gutters — just sitting, holding hands under a light quilt, watching the watery gray-green world, letting the shower sing us a lullaby.

Slow learner

“When I was twelve, I could not believe how stupid my parents were. When I turned 21, I was amazed at how much they had learned in nine years.”
— Mark Twain

As a kid most people noticed my similarities to my mother. We didn’t look anything alike, really, but we shared the same artistic temperament (and temper), and — this being the mid-twentieth century — she was the parent with whom I spent the most time. My mom was a housewife who never learned to drive, who channeled her frustrated artistic talents into keeping a good home, cooking for the family, raising me and my brother (and probably my father, too), and doing little craft projects here and there. It’s clear that she helped to nurture my own creative nature, and used my talents as a surrogate for her own thwarted artistic ambitions.

My dad was a different story. When pressed he would admit to his own flings with creativity — singing in a barbershop quartet, for example — but most of the time he would just point out that his wife was the creative one. He did the Mr. Cleaver thing, working hard, going on occasional out of town business trips, and driving the rest of us around to wherever we needed to go. He helped out with Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, and when I got into high school he joined the band parents’ association, leading it for several years. I don’t want to give the impression that he was an absentee father, because nothing could be further from the truth; however, his role was less — shall we say — colorful, than my mother’s place in my childhood.

So at first blush it seemed obvious to me that I was more my mother’s child than my father’s. He was diligent and efficient, always getting things done; I was prone to wild tangents and seldom completed anything. He never raised his voice; I had a temper. He didn’t read much more than the newspaper; I was never without a book. He watched football and tended the yard; I conducted the band and wrote weird stories. He was gregarious and laughed all the time; I was… well, a self-important, bookish teenager. That he loved me was never in doubt, but we didn’t have much in common.

But so much of who we become originates with our parents, for good or ill. My mother taught me to use my imagination and be creative, to have a vision, to reach, and to make the best use of what I was given; these are essential parts of my creative nature, and I wouldn’t have any of it without her influence. It was obvious that her goal was to mold me into an artist of some sort. My father, though, shaped who I became without me ever noticing it.

From my dad I learned to take responsibility for my actions, and to do the right thing, especially when it isn’t easy. I learned how to work hard, and the importance of doing my best work even when it isn’t appreciated. I learned to help people who need it, and to be thankful for the things I have. I learned that you’re never too old to be a kid. I learned to respect other people’s opinions without compromising my own. I learned that old ways aren’t always the best ways, and that the future is a promise. I learned to listen to what people say, and also to listen closely the way they say it. I learned how to express my emotions without falling apart. I learned that anything can be a good story if you know how to tell it. I learned, too, how to tell stories.

And one day I started to really listen to myself, and noticed how much he had taught me through the things he says, the way he says things, and the way he lives his life. Thirty years later I understand that I’m more like him than I would have guessed, and just how much I owe him.

My father is in his seventies now, retired, and living in the house where I grew up. He keeps learning new things and making new friends, and is filled with a zeal for life that I — with my too busy schedule and stress-filled life — find astonishing. Clearly I still have a lot to learn, and I’m glad he’s still around to teach me.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.

A time long ago

I came across this photo at my father’s house. This is your vaguely humble author and his parents in the late fall of 1960, somewhere in either Illinois of Kentucky. Consider yourselves fortunate I didn’t publish the bearskin rug photo.

Chief Paduke's Revenge

Several years ago my brother and I were talking about practical jokes we had played, stupid pranks and whatnot. My dad was around, and was laughing at the stories he hadn’t heard before, and pointing out the times we hadn’t been nearly as clever as we had thought. Now, my dad has a prankster’s heart, and we were fairly sure he had pulled off some good ones in his day, so we asked him about it. He laughed, and regaled us with the following tale.

One Hallowe’en back in the early 1940’s my dad and his pals were looking for a trick to pull on the unsuspecting citizens of Paducah, Kentucky, my home town. Now Paducah was named for Chief Paduke, a (probably mythical) Indian chief who “sold” some general the land which became Paducah. To venerate this brave warrior the people built a rather dignified granite statue of the chief in the middle of town.

So my dad and the other hooligans thought it would be cool as heck to light up ol’ Chief Paduke for Hallowe’en, and make him look all scary for the kids in the neighborhood. They went scouting around until they found a construction area, and … ahem … borrowed a flaming smudge pot, and placed it carefully on Paduke’s proudly crossed arms.

The effect, to hear him tell it, was quite striking. Here’s this solemn granite face a dozen feet in the air, lit from below with a fiery orange glow. I’m sure quite a few tykes nearly wet their ghost-sheets at the sight! It’ s the kind of thing folks would talk about for days to come.

In fact, all of Paducah was talking about it the next morning. Not, mind you, in the way my dad and his cronies had hoped, however. You see, in their glee at finding a suitable light source, they failed to take into account that smudge pots burn crude oil, producing copious amounts of thick, black, oily smoke, smoke which over the course of Hallowe’en night turned Chief Paduke black as midnight from the arms up. The city had to pay a considerable sum to have the statue sandblasted, and a general reward went out for information concerning the vandals responsible.

It should go without saying that my father did not confess.

All three of us had a good laugh about the story, and then filed it away. A few years later, my family visited Paducah to see my grandparents. (Work duties prevented me from accompanying them.)

According to reports my family was sitting around my Grandma Hall’s living room, telling stories as my family tends to do. My father told some kind of (undoubtedly true) tale at my brother’s expense, and my brother replied, “Well, at least I never turned Chief Paduke black!”

My father and Chief Paduke
My father and Chief Paduke
A hush fell, and then my Grandma Hall looked my father in the eye and said “Jimmy? You mean that it was you who did that? You ought to be ashamed of yourself! If Daddy Hall was still here he’d give you a whooping!” And according to my brother, my dad looked as sheepish as he’d ever seen him. For fifty years he’d gotten away with his crime, and suddenly it was all over.

All over but the hilarity, that is. Everyone present burst out laughing at both the revelation and my father’s response to it. Personally, I suspect my dad likes his Chief Paduke story even more, now. These days he gets to tell how he woulda gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for his blabbermouth son.

Grandma Hall died a couple of years later, but the story of old Chief Paduke lives on. Earlier this year we went back to Paducah, me, my father, and my brother, and while we were there we revisited the scene of my father’s crime.

You know, from looking at this picture, I don’t think he’s ashamed of himself at all.