July 2, 2011 10:30:00 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
On a recent Friday afternoon while buying a watermelon at a fruit stand across the street from United Deli on Gardner Boulevard, I met a man who told me something about my father I never knew. The man now owns a golf course, but he came to know my father when he was a teenager working as a carhop at a place across the river called The Coffee Cup.
The Coffee Cup -- a single-story brick building, derelict, but still standing -- came and went long before Waffle and Huddle Houses dotted the American landscape. For patrons of night clubs, travelers and insomniacs, The Cup was a place to enjoy good company, coffee and food while the effects of the night''s merrymaking wore off.
"Your dad would come out there in the late afternoon. He would give me a dime and ask me to put it in the jukebox and play ''One Meat Ball,''" said Fred Hall, who worked for tips and 30 cents an hour.
Though it''s been recorded by Ry Cooder, Bing Crosby, Dave Van Ronk, the Andrews Sisters and others, I''d never heard the song.
Little man walked up and down,
To find an eatin'' place in town.
He looked the menu thru and thru,
To see what a dollar bill might do.
One meat ball,
One meat ball,
One meat ball,
All he could get was one meat ball. ...
When my father listened to music around the house, it was classical, and that''s classical with a capital C, Wagner, Beethoven and the like. Johann Strauss was about as light as it got.
Picturing him in a car at The Coffee Cup listening to "One Meat Ball" blaring from the speakers is an image I have a hard time conjuring up. Would he tap his hands on the steering wheel? Bounce his foot on the floorboard? Sing along? I can''t imagine.
Friday afternoon Hall and I met again at the club house at Elm Lake, the residential golf community between Columbus and Starkville he owns with a partner. Helping him mind the store were his 10- and 7-year-old granddaughters Raegan and Presley.
Dressed in a golf shirt, tennis shorts and white New Balance sneakers, Hall is a tan and fit 74 years old. Three years ago he won the state seniors golf title.
Hall seemed eager to reminisce about growing up in Columbus, living in a meager house perched on the banks of the Luxapalila behind Jolly''s Junkyard on Waterworks Road.
"It''s hard to understand how poor we were," Hall said. "Yet everybody cared about each other."
"We knew every tree and every swimming hole." Hall said. "We lived on that river. I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. They didn''t have anything on us."
He says there is no comparison between the Columbus he grew up in and here today where few young people have jobs.
"We had to work," he said.
And work he did. Not only was he a carhop while in junior high, Hall was a substitute paper carrier for Billy Hairston before getting his own route -- he delivered The Dispatch through college. As an eighth grader he put milk on doorsteps for Realicious Dairy. He cut grass at T.G. Owen Nursery and in the heat of summer made car tags ("Everybody in town worked at the tag plant," he says.).
As we talked, Hall reminisced about each of those jobs, describing in detail his bosses and their quirks.
"I can remember all those things like they were yesterday, but sometimes I can''t remember what I had for breakfast," he laughed.
After his sophomore year in engineering at Mississippi State, Hall was on the verge of dropping out. He was low on funds. That same year he completed a set of drawings for a new building for Beneke, a local toilet seat manufacturer where his father worked. Beneke president Henry "Bun" Beneke was impressed with the drawings, so much that when he learned of Hall''s plans to quit school, he insisted otherwise and paid Hall''s tuition for his junior and senior years.
Hall was drafted for Vietnam. In the Army he studied languages, eventually becoming fluent in Chinese (He only uses it now in Chinese restaurants when he wants to impress someone, he says.) and working in intelligence.
After 20 years Hall exited the Army, and with two friends started a language school with military contracts. Their Denver-based company flourished, developing courses in 26 languages.
Hall sold out, landed back in his hometown and after two short-lived business ventures -- a Chinese restaurant and a western store -- he began investing in real estate around Elm Lake.
In 2005, he and Bill McGovern bought the development just in time for the housing downturn. When many are demonizing bankers, Hall sings praises of Citizen''s National Bank for helping him stay afloat through two rough years.
Fred Hall will be 75 in February. He''s ready to cash out. Elm Lake is for sale. He''s built his dream home next to his golf course. His son is a manager at Eurocopter; his two granddaughters are near. He looks back at his life with its twists and turns; he cherishes the memories, the wisdom that came from hard work with difficult people and the kindness of a community.
And, I expect if someone told Fred Hall he was one more example of the American dream, he wouldn''t argue with you.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.