“Pay attention” Mr.Hall told me, looking past my head to see the television. “For Christ’s sake, boy,” he muttered not really under his breath, pretty much disgusted. “Oh, don’t you listen to him,” Mrs.Hall smiled. She was always smiling, even while he spliced old sandy ground line in her living room. Born into the Great Depression, Allen Hall was a true character: an orphan, a veteran, a father of eight, a husband of 64 years, a Block Island fishermen to his very last night and this past Friday, one more character lost to time.
They that go down to the sea in ships
He was born in 1929, survived the loss of his father at 17, managed through the toughest times and graduated from the Block Island school. In 1950 he married Barbara, the still beautiful daughter of Sherm and Frances Dodge, then left to serve his country in the US Navy until 1954. Life after that was fishing and starting a big family in a house atop Milltail Pond. Being a fisherman on Block Island back in the day meant you had to figure much out for yourself or go without. Years were spent building heavy wooden traps, knitting funnels, stringing bait, splicing line, filleting fish and hauling gear. There wasn’t any romance to that work, except the kind you get looking back decades later. A person becomes strong, inside and out, when you raise eight kids: Gene, Glen, Gloria, Geoffrey, Gary, GayAnne, Gail and Georgia, the only way you know how but what made Mr. Hall unique is that men like him were not unique; at one time, they were the norm.
that do business in great waters
Mr. Hall taught me to splice rope on a Saturday afternoon, no doubt wondering, “How the hell does someone not know how to splice?” but he obliged.
Leaning forward in his chair, rolling up the sleeves of his red flannel shirt, he grabbed a handful, opened up the weave, then did the same for the other end. “Pay attention” he said, several times actually, always looking past my head to see his Red Sox. “You can tape up the ends, if you need to”, with the latter part obviously intended for someone who needed a little extra help. He twisted and bent, tucked, turned the rope towards him a third of a turn, tucked then tightened, turned and turned, always watching for any sign of life at Fenway. “Pull it tight. Every time you tuck it, pull it tight”. Within a few minutes a fathom of old warp had become a circle, drawn tight and perfect. “There you go.” There wasn’t really room for a q&a session after he told you how to do something.
“Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought.”
No plotter, no radar, no cell phone. Each morning he steamed past the east wall in the dark and came home the same way after fishing for lobsters, hand lining sea clams for cod or harpooning swordfish. He was part of a generation who fished and earned livings on the water with their hands, common sense and little assistance. If they couldn’t take a land bearing they watched a little yellow circling blinking light on a fathometer, if they had one, navigating by depth and contour. Men like Mr. Hall, like Spencer Smith, like Silas “Dub” Barrows, they worked and fished hard because excuses add up to nothing when you have a family to feed.
But that was the thing that I was born for.” Ernest Hemingway
Mr. Hall was a hundred feet tall to me. He was big and strong, swore a lot, wore the classic black billed swordfish hat and could build or fix anything. That post-Depression, post-war resolve made people industrious and strong. If memory serves, he had an early generation remote control, which really was just two pieces of wooden trap lath taped together to poke the set. It was also pretty good for giving you a solid, probably deserved, whack on the back of the head. It wasn’t unusual to be greeted at the driveway, hands on his hips, with “What are you here to steal?” or “What the hell did you break now?” He always called me “Shithead” but his daughter Gail assured me that was only because he liked me, a little, which makes my memories of Mr.Hall that much sweeter.
With Spencer, Fast Freddie Steele and Merrill Slate, he held early morning court over black coffee at Ernie’s or the airport breakfast counter and Lord help you if you sat in one of their chairs or weren’t feeling your very finest or may have parked your pickup in someone else’s driveway the night before. When you spend your whole life getting up and driving the island hours before any sunlight, for work or not, you really get to know who does what and where. And often with whom.
For years it was my plan to interview him, to sit and write down what he remembered about open land and big seas, storms that kept the island isolated for a week, sticking swordfish on sunny afternoons and the catches fishermen now wish they could look back on, but it never happened and I am sorry for that. Towards the end of his days, into his eighties, his mind called him back to mending gear, stringing bait and knitting funnels, back to when life was more simple; hard but good. A fisherman always, his thick hands never rested, he was busy and strong and said “goddamn” right to the finish.
Mr.Hall was blessed with a wonderful wife, a big family and a long life on the old Block Island. Twenty years ago, right after that splicing lesson, I sat on a tailgate up on Payne Road to marry six frayed ends of the right-laid ground line, without tape, envisioning Mr.Hall’s hands bending and tucking, but it wouldn’t budge, even a little. My hands twisted, turned, I hunched and swore. It was so bound and seized from countless years of soaking and drying that it’s feel was of iron not old rope and it took just minutes for my hands to ache. Mr. Hall’s hands, long retired from fishing, had never flinched; he just opened it, joined and tucked the next piece and pulled it tight. “Pay attention,” I heard him say, and I had, but not to just how strong of a man he really was.
Rest in Peace, Mr.Hall.
That was a fine and thoughtful piece and Im saddened to hear of Mr Halls passing.
As I pulled into his driveway at 7am sharp to start my day at the business end of a string trimmer, there was often some pearl of wisdom waiting for me. I hold onto those pearls and to this day, hand them down to young people who seem, more often than not, to need them.
Congratulations. Very good story about Allen Hall. If you are collecting stories about him I have several, but you have given your readers a wonderful picture of an extraordinary man who was a combination of wet grit and Island royalty. Like a cherished warrior of a bygone tribe called, “Island fishermen” he had unknowingly ascended to the pinnacle of island mythology – purely by his deeds. Allen was a descendent and a portal to a breed of fishermen who came before. One had to be tough above all else to fish alone for a lifetime when you couldn’t swim a stroke. But you saw the other side of him when he helped you weave your ropes together. The metaphor he was teaching you may not have been by accident? His choice of life’s partner was a shinning example of his need to balance out his brittle grit with Barbara’s soft elegance. His hildren are all wonderful people. Like he helped you, he helped me learn how to fish for lobster even though I might have become a competitor. He quietly carried on – and taught the old fisherman’s tradition that no extra fish went to waste and no Islander he knew went without. If someone needed a talking to he would intercede, man to man or father to son. The reverence and pride islanders felt for him was expressed quietly in the name they eventually gave him, “The Mad Monk”. ( but I warn you, not to his face ). Bill Hall Jr.
tbank you, bill, my apologies for not responding to you sooner. Mr. Hall was a quite a character indeed. sadly, he is among the last of the old block island, which by my estimation, is quickly becoming a shadow of what it once was and the place which drew so many people to it. Are you related? the best part of writing a story like this is that the story writes itself; i did not have to imagine or create, just splice together some of the memories and make it all fit in a newspaper column. i hope the readers who did not know him got some appreciation of the man and others like him.
thanks very much for taking the time to write, i appreciate that.