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My Brother Hal

Jun. 24, 2013
 
Submitted by Eyd Kazery
Forever two years older, Hal, 6, and Malcolm, 4, in a studio portrait.
Malcolm and Hal, circa 1982, before Hal & Mal's.

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Once, when we were kids, my brother Hal, who was about 7 at the time, and I, forever two years younger, were being treated to lunch in Gulfport at the old White Cap Restaurant. The waitress welcomed us and asked what we would like to drink. Without a moment of hesitation, Hal said he would have a Jax beer. The woman and my teetotaling Stewart grandparents, were, of course, taken aback by this pronouncement.

“I’m sorry, young man,” she condescendingly replied, “but we don’t have Jax beer.”

“Yes, you do,” Hal retorted, pointing to a neon clock on the wall, “It says right there on that sign you proudly serve Jax beer.” But, while Hal did not get what he ordered that day, it would most certainly not be the last cold beer he would order with his seafood gumbo.

Our maternal grandfather, Malcolm Stewart, teetotaler and Baptist deacon, was also the state health inspector for the southern region of Mississippi. He worked all the hotels, motels, dairies, cafes and restaurants from Hattiesburg to the Gulf Coast. We grew up hanging out in kitchens, swimming pools and dining rooms, from the California Sandwich Shop in Hattiesburg to the Sun-n-Sand in Biloxi.

Harold Taylor White, Jr. was born on March 13, 1949 and died suddenly of an aneurysm on March 28, 2013, just a week after bragging aloud at Billʼs Greek Tavern that he had “outlived the old man,” Harold Senior, who suffered a massive heart attack at age 63 and died in the Walthall Hotel in downtown Jackson. Hal was 64, in perfect health and full of spit and vinegar.

When asked to pen a few words about him, I quickly realized I knew only a little. I cannot speak of the love between Hal and Ann; of his kinship with his tight-knit group of golfing buddies; the bond between Hal and his kids or with our brother, Brad, or the intricacies of his faith. No, I do not know the complexities of his masterful and mischievous soups and stews or his undying loyalty to Mississippi State, an institution that kindly asked him to depart from his studies and their campus in the midst of his college career. And certainly this is not an obituary, because that has already been written and shared with the shocked and grieving community.

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This is merely a modest memoir of my brother, my business partner and my closest friend. This is a love story about Hal. Sadly, we humans rarely realize the inter-connectivity of siblings until one is gone. Like cardinals who mate for life, our brothers and sisters are the verbs that give action to our nouns. Hal and I completed each other, quietly supported one other, and looked to each other to fill the spaces at which life kept chipping away. Survival can be a lonely space. I’m not sure this is something I factored in, or could even imagine, as I head into my victory lap of my own life.

We grew up Hal & Mal, inseparable and often known simply as “the boys.” We lost our beloved mother, Nelda Gene, when Hal was 5 and I was 3. We were raised by community, family and, primarily, grandparents. We spent summers either on the road with our grandfather, inspecting eateries, inns and dairies, or in our grandmothers’ kitchens, assisting with the cooking and listening to their maternalistic stories. This was our familiar existence until Daddy remarried Jane Carlisle, our younger brother, Brad, appeared on the scene, and we returned to the more traditional family structure.

Our father was a teacher and a coach. We grew up around, and aspired to be, athletes.
All three of us played college football: Hal and I at Northeast Mississippi Community College and Brad at Ole Miss. By the late 1960s, Hal and I had gotten contact sports out of our systems, and we turned to rock and roll and the opposite sex. Hal tended toward fast cars, Raquel Welch and the Beach Boys, while I tilted toward Frank Zappa, Janis Joplin and our old Willis Jeep. We briefly shared a dorm room at State, though I rarely slept there. Hal joined the National Guard, while a triple-digit lottery draft number graced me. He was off to basic training, and I was just off, but our lives were interwoven, always. We had an interchangeable wardrobe, dropped in and out of colleges, dated a few of the same women and never lived more than a few miles apart, except for a time I lived in California in the early-1970s.

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We shared many apartments, houses, cars and friends. We worked and lived together in New Orleans for several years and were once arch-competitors when he ran the Holiday Inn, and I, the Ramada Inn, both in Hattiesburg. Some time in the mid-1970s we decided we would someday open our own restaurant, use family recipes, book live music and cover the walls with Mississippi art and culture.

Hal was paradox; on the one hand a simple guy — everyman — yet quietly he touched many, helped hundreds and held together a complex network of family, friends and community. He commanded his kingdom from his favorite bar stool at the south end of the family-owned and -operated business we created. The stool was not just for beer drinking; this is where he held court, conducted interviews, entertained the media, counseled his troops, gave advice (wanted or unwanted), ate his lunch, prognosticated on sports, drank his coffee and received the public. More likely than not, if you wanted to talk to Hal, you came to Hal. He did not work the crowd like our masterful father, Harold Senior, who left our family sitting, waiting and hungry, as he worked every dining room across the state like a gubernatorial candidate on the campaign trail. I, not Hal, inherited that gene; just ask my daughter, Zita.

Hal White was my rudder. He was the rock; I was the roll. We were a team with no coach or captain, we did not fight or argue, however, we did disagree from time to time. Our modus operandi was quiet compromise. Our brotherhood was first; our business life followed. He did not like all of my ideas; I did not like all of his decisions, but we quietly agreed to acquiesce, to find common ground, to work toward a shared goal. We were, after all, Hal & Mal. He often reminded me that his name preceded mine on the sign out front of our restaurant!

We grew up Southern Baptist; Hal converted to Catholicism. He loved Mississippi State, while Harold Senior and I graduated from Southern Miss and Brad from Ole Miss. We all loved the Saints and the Braves, though Hal and I grew up admiring the New York Yankees. He drank Coors because our family is in the beer business. He had an opinion about with whom he did and did not do business. He hated certain corporate food giants and refused to buy their products. He loved a good protest, a good fight and was happy to tell you how he felt about certain politicians, products and popular trends. He famously stated, “Pizza is a fad” and “Facebook will fail.” He and I brilliantly supported Bill Bradley for president in 2000. He paged for the legendary Mississippi U.S. Representative Jamie Whitten, while I spent summers working for U.S. Senator John C. Stennis. Hal was an Eagle Scout; I never made Second Class Scout. He was a quarterback; I was a blocking fullback. In high school, he was elected Most Handsome, and I, Most Carefree. He once got me a job working on a construction crew; I hired him to run the dining room at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel in New Orleans.

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Behind his thinly-veiled Billy Goat Gruff façade, Hal was forever sanguine and a man of good cheer. His passing rocked this community and reminded us all of us of his quiet place in our lives, in our arch of optimism for the future of Jackson.

I have no idea how to proceed without him. I am humbled by his absence, diminished by his passing but grateful for the years he shared with me and the brotherly love and tolerance he allowed me. They say that time heals all wounds, and I believe this to be true. I will adapt to his absence, but there will always be a hole in my heart, where Hal’s living presence resided.

Just like many of our generation, Hal dearly loved the masterful lyrics of Lennon and McCartney: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." Those simple and thoughtful lyrics genuinely describe my brother and the amazing life he shared with us for 64 short years. And as Rick Cleveland so succinctly said upon Hal’s passing, “The gumbo just got better up in heaven.” As for the Jax beer, well, I don’t really know that it’s served much of anywhere, anymore.