Sunday, December 10, 2006
Chuck Hall, General Pinochet and Me
The recent death of the former Chilean dictator Pinochet made me think of my late friend and hero, Chuck Hall, and a dinner I had with him about seven years ago.
On May 11, 1997, I got a call from a friend telling me that there was an event involving the Lincoln Brigade at Roosevelt University, in downtown Chicago. He knew that I'd had a longtime interest in the Lincoln Brigade. I remember the date, because it was my 36th birthday.
In 1936, the country of Spain elected its first democratic government. For centuries, a handful of rich people, along with the royalty and the military, with the collaboration of the Church, had ruled over Spain. The majority of Spain's people lived in poverty and misery. In the first third of the 20th century, the masses of Spain began to try to wrest power from these people.
A military officer named Franco, with the collaboration of Mussolini's fascist government in Italy and Hitler's Nazis, tried to overthrow the duly elected government. A full-blown civil war erupted. The only country that openly aided Spain was the Soviet Union, but over 40,000 men and women from all over the world poured in to Spain to help in her fight for democracy. About 3,000 of them came from the United States. One of those people was Chuck Hall.
I met Chuck Hall the first time that evening at Roosevelt University. The author Peter Carroll, who wrote "The Odyssey of the Lincoln Brigade," probably the best book about the experiences of the volunteers from the United States, was speaking that evening. Peter spoke, and then introduced about a half-dozen Lincoln vets who'd joined him. Afterward, the vets mingled, and I ended up chatting with Chuck. It was the beginning of an long association and a friendship with him.
I got a call from Chuck's wife a few months after that talk telling me that the surviving Lincoln Brigade veterans were forming an organization, the Chicago Friends of the Lincoln Brigade. I was eventually asked to co-chair the organization with Chuck. We had a number of successful events, including a talk at the opening of an exhibition of photos by Robert Capa at the now-gone Terra Museum (the picture at the top of this post of Chuck and I was taken at that event). Chuck and I got to be friends over time.
Chuck was born in North Dakota and moved to Chicago with his family when he was a teenager in the early thirties. He got involved in radical and labor organizations, and eventually decided to go to Spain to fight the tide of fascism that was sweeping Europe and threatening to spill into the United States. Chuck and many others knew that if they didn't fight fascism in Spain, they'd have to fight it elsewhere. How right they turned out to be. He went through training, and eventually went into battle. By the time he got to Spain in 1938, Spain's Republic was clearly headed for defeat. Nazi Germany was pouring weapons into Spain to help Franco. Chuck was captured on his first day in combat.
Normally, "Internationals" were executed on the spot by the fascist troops. However, since a number of Italian troops had been captured by the Republic, the fascists began sparing International volunteers to trade for the Italian troops. Chuck was one of the ones spared. He spent a year and a half in a concentration camp in Spain. Chuck weighed less than a hundred pounds when he was released.
When Chuck returned, he married his sweetheart Yolanda, who was nicknamed "Bobbie." A couple of days after Pearl Harbor, Chuck enlisted in the Army. He served as an artillery officer in China. He was one of the few Lincoln Brigade veterans who managed to get combat duty: the government, in its wisdom, decided that since many of these guys had been communists, they were somehow risks. The were dubbed, ludicrously, "Premature Antifascists," or "PAF's." Absurdly, it was deemed that it was okay to be against fascism as of December 7, 1941, but not before that. Most of the Lincoln veterans got posted to out-of-the-way places. Ironically, some ended up in special platoons of "security risks" that included men suspected of fascist sympathies.
Chuck served in World War II, and came back and made a life for himself and his family. He raised three children in Chicago's Austin neighborhood. Chuck worked for years as a tool and die maker, and then went to college, got an engineering degree and spent the rest of his working life as a mechanical engineer. He continued to be politically active, fighting for civil rights and other causes.
His wife threw him an 85th birthday party in 1999. I got to meet all three of his children. I was impressed by what a terrific father he was. This guy who'd fought in two wars, who'd spent time in a concentration camp, was a sweet and gentle man. I remember particularly his daughter Toni talking about how Chuck would get up at 4 a.m. so that he could pack lunches for his kids every morning before he went to work. Toni pointed out that he always made sure to include some little treat in each lunch that he knew each of his kids loved.
Some time in 1999, I got a call from Chuck's wife Bobbie. She had to go out of town, and asked if I'd have dinner with Chuck one of the nights she was gone. I was delighted to; I rarely got a chance to just sit and talk to Chuck. I told her I would bring the wine.
When I went to the store to pick out wine, I was going to buy what I usually drank back then-- Concha y Tora, I hesitated-- was it right to buy Chilean wine? My original interest in human rights came from reading an Amnesty International report on the 1973 coup that had brought Pinochet to power. I was literally physically sickened by some of what I read.
I decided, though, that it was okay to drink the Chilean wine. A Spanish judge, Balthasar Garzon, had asked England to detain Pinochet for extradition to Spain for the murder of Spanish citizens during the coup. And in the meantime, Chile had become a democracy.
When we began dinner, I poured the wine, and Chuck and I began talking about Pinochet's situation. He and I were both struck by the irony: Spain was now a democracy, and was trying to indict a fascist dicatator for murder, while Chuck and all other veterans of the International Brigades, had been made honorary Spanish citizens by an act of the Spanish Parliment in 1996. We raised a toast to democracy. I was in the presence of someone who'd never flinched from sacrificing for democracy here and everywhere else. It was a nice moment-- one to remember for a lifetime.
Pinochet was never tried for his crimes, because of severe health problems. But Chile's President now is a socialist woman who was once a political prisoner of Pinochet. Pinochet died in shame, escaping indictment solely because of his age and severe health problems. He'd turned out not only to be a brutal fascist, but a petty third world kleptocrat, stashing tens of millions of dollars of Chile's scarce money in Swiss bank accounts.
Chuck Hall died about two years ago. In his life, he was loved and respected. I feel lucky to have known him. To me, he was a model of manhood-- as a father, as a political activist and as a man. He'll never be as famous as Augosto Pinochet was, but I hope that it will be the Chuck Halls who quietly prevail in the long term in human history. And on a personal level, I hope that I can live up to his example.