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Brother Hal

May 27, 2011

It was inevitable I'd meet Hal Wilson. For one thing, his dorm room was next to mine. For another, even at that tender age I had a major coffee habit, and he had the only percolator in the entire place.

It was my first night at Potsdam State and I was sprawled on my bed, reading something by Jack Kerouac when my nose went on full alert. I smelled coffee - real, brewed coffee. I got up and followed my sniffer into the hall and right to the source.

I knocked on the door, and it was opened by a dark-haired, dark-eyed kid with a friendly face.

He said hello, and I skipped the preliminaries.

"Do I actually smell coffee?" I said.

"Sure do," he said. "Want some?"

I made the typically schoolboy comment about the pope and his religion and the bear's choice of bathrooms. He laughed. I went into his room, and we became instant friends.

That cup of coffee was followed by countless more, and that initial meeting was the start of my most convoluted long-term friendship.

Kids, quips and classics

Of course, we had a lot more in common than just coffee.

Each of us had a healthy distrust of, if not downright disregard for, authority.

We also were compulsive readers - a rarity among our peers. For kids, our interests in reading were quite widespread - from the classics to the underground, from political commentary to poetry.

Plus Hal had a great sense of humor, of all types - jokes, quips, repartee, word play - so in any conversation each of us was guaranteed a bunch of laughs.

And something that really surprised me: He was a crypto-Adirondacker. His parents had been raised in the St. Lawrence River Valley, and he had relatives in Tupper Lake, where he'd summered for years with his myriad of cousins. He loved Tupper, which ended up playing a key role in our relationship.

One big difference between us was Hal had a mischievous charm, and I did not. The coffee maker was a perfect example.

Dorm regulations prohibited coffee makers in the rooms. Hal believed regulations were vital to abide by as long as someone else did the abiding. For him, however, they served only as sources of amusement.

Whenever he got busted (and it was always "when," never "if") he always owned up to his transgressions and never whined or complained or tried to shift the blame. That also was part of his charm, because while he got busted more than the rest of us, he got punished less. Not that anyone begrudged him his apparent immunity from prosecution - he was our designated miscreant.

After that year I lost track of Hal. He went back to Long Island, joined the Marine Corps, and the last I heard, in the fall of '68, he'd gotten orders to Vietnam.



Eight years later, I was sitting in the Berkeley Restaurant when out of the blue, in walked Hal. We immediately picked up where we'd left off, and he filled me in on his time since Potsdam.

After his discharge he'd wandered up and down the West Coast, doing every kind of odd job from industrial cleaning to timber cruising, and was currently living in Vancouver, B.C.

And what was he doing in the Adirondacks? His parents had retired to Tupper, and he'd come back to visit.

He'd filled out and had grown a beard and long hair, but otherwise seemed the same bright and upbeat guy he'd always been. But of course he wasn't. He may have left Vietnam without a scratch, but he hadn't left without a whole lot of wounds, which in typical Hal fashion, he kept it to himself. But the fact remained he was, and always would be, struggling against his demons.

He seemed to do all right for a bunch of years, though it was always hard to tell with him since he rarely called attention to himself and he never complained. But then the demons took over, and we were out of touch for 15 years.

Then he reappeared as suddenly as he'd vanished. This time he was doing well. He was keeping the demons at bay, and best of all, he'd retired and he and his wife Marilyn had moved back to Tupper for the duration.

We saw each other a bunch at first, but less and less as he became more settled in and more involved with various doings in Tupper - the Marine Corps League, the church, and of course his schmoozing with every local he ran into.

But we kept in touch with phone calls and the occasional visit, always sharing good times when we did.

We had another point of connection - my column. Hal read it regularly and commented on it as he saw fit. He had a great eye for writing, and if I made a mistake, no matter how trivial, he caught it and wasted no time pointing it out to me.

Nothing got by him, though I once told him that even if I knew I'd made a mistake I wouldn't correct it, just because I knew it'd make him so happy. Then again, knowing he was poring over my stuff made my proofreading more than a bit more scrupulous.

In November, Hal became seriously ill, and he died the first week in May. His death came as neither a shock nor a surprise, but it was a loss I haven't yet been able to process.

And maybe I never will.

With Hal and me there was nothing left unsaid, because even if one of us didn't say it, the other one knew what it was.

But, still, 45 years after our first cup of coffee, and after all has been said and done, there's so much more I wish we could say and do.



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