July 23, 2008

Gone But Not Forgotten

Roger Hall died on Sunday. Who was Roger Hall? I've known about him for over thirty years, and I have to admit if someone had asked me about him last week, I would have been stumped for an answer. But, if someone had said "Do you know Roger Hall, the author of You're Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger" I would have said yes immediately.

I remember digging through the upstairs walk-in hall closet, barely a teenager and already a bookhound. I'd read every mystery and science fiction book I had several times over, but I remembered seeing a box of books in the closet when I was in there looking for treasures when I was just a kid -- probably the season before. I found the box and it was filled with wonderous books, including Roger Hall's masterpiece.

These were my father's books. We didn't have bookshelves anywhere in the house (or at least, not with any books on them, unless you count the bound National Geographic my Aunt sent us periodically from Maryland). In fact, not counting me or my brother doing homework, no one was ever seen with a book in the house. This was baffling to me, since books were about all I could think about.

As it turned out, my father used to be a bookhound himself. But he was from a different generation. Reading books was spurious. A grown up didn't have time for that nonsense. (I would learn a few years later that my father was also a writer, and in fact had a poem published in his school yearbook, but that's another story for another time.)

I asked my Dad about one of the books in the box, and a strange smile came across his face. He soon was convincing me that this was the greatest book ever written. I clutched it to my chest and padded into my room to devour this new morsel. I read it several times over the next few years.

It was a wonderful book. A humorous tale about life in the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) in WWII. As it turned out, Mr. Hall's book was semi-autobiographical. He himself was in the OSS in WWII, and in fact had parachuted behind enemy lines during the war. He and his buddy, William Colby (who would become the first Director of the CIA after the war), actually accepted the surrender of over 10,000 German troops in Norway in 1945.

As great a book as it was and as great a war hero as Mr. Hall was, I read it repeatedly because it was my Dad's. It was the first book we had both read that we could talk about. I'm sure he enjoyed the discussions, but I have never seen him pick up a book again to this day. Not that that matters. This book would be just as important to me if my father owned a library. It would still have been the first.

I hadn't thought about this book (considered a classic, now) in years, until I heard that Roger Hall had passed away. After the life he'd lead, it wasn't a sniper's bullet or a ravenous fan that got him. He had knee surgery and contracted pneumonia in the hospital, ultimately dying of congestive heart failure at the age of 89. Sometimes life can be funny and sometimes it's just an asshole.

Interestingly enough, the manuscript for You're Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger was rejected 11 times before Hall sold it into Classic-dom. And he only wrote two other books after that.

Without his effort and the fates conspiring to get it into a musty box in my parents' closet, I would have missed out on a connection with my Dad and a little understanding into how I was (and am) who I am.

Thanks, Roger. I owe you one.

"I hope God has a sense of humor, because if he doesn't, I'm in a lot of trouble."

-- Roger Hall to his wife, Linda, a few days before he died.

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