Remembering Colonel George Robert Hall
As I sit down to type on this national holiday, my thoughts are with the family of George Robert Hall, spending their first Memorial Day without the man we in Hattiesburg knew simply as Colonel.
Hall, who died this past February at the age of 83, was an authentic American hero who never sought — or seemed particularly comfortable with — the attention that comes with heroism.
On Sept. 27, 1965, Hall was flying photo reconnaissance near Hanoi, when he was hit by ground fire. His jet in flames, he ejected, parachuted to the ground and was captured immediately.
And thus began seven years, four months and 18 days of hell on earth. That’s roughly 89 months, nearly 400 weeks, 2,700 days, 64,800 brain-numbing hours. Hall knew because he did the math in his head. That was one of the ways he kept his senses.
“Pretty bad” is the way Hall years later understated those 89 months. Colonel Hall was a man of few words and none were self-aggrandizing.
Here was another way Hall kept his sanity through mental and physical torture and near-starvation: He played imaginary golf in his 7-foot by 7-foot cell. He hid a stick in his cell, which he would swing like a golf club. Hall, you see, had been a scratch golfer, the captain of the U.S. Naval Academy golf team.
“I’d play at least nine holes every day,” Hall said. “I’d visualize a golf course that I had played and enjoyed, like Pine Valley or Pebble Beach or the Hattiesburg Country Club. I’d hit every shot with that stick and then I’d walk around that room. For instance, I’d hit my driver and then step off 240 yards or so around the room. I’d think about how long the hole was and decide what club to hit next. I not only walked from the tee to the green but from the green to the next tee. And I’d talk to people I imagined I was playing with.”
If the guards ever watched, they surely thought Hall certifiably insane, swinging a stick, talking to imaginary playing partners. But insanity was the very thing Hall was fighting.
This will tell you so much about Colonel Hall: He never imagined himself playing against Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus or Ben Hogan. No, he just played with friends. He said he never imagined making birdies or eagles — only pars.
“Just a pleasant round of golf, that’s all I wanted,” Colonel Hall said.
Apparently, his make-believe golf worked. We read all the time about the difficulty POWs from World War II, Korea and Vietnam had adjusting back to civilian life in the states. We read about high suicide and divorce rates.
George Robert Hall had no such problems. Welcomed home as a hero at first, he settled into a normal life, with lots of real golf and lots of time with his wife Patsy and his children, which is just what he wanted. He became a business executive. He gave flying lessons. He became Chairman of United Way. He volunteered at hospitals.
George Robert’s oldest son, Bobby, a golf pro, told me about his first round of golf with his father after Colonel Hall came home.
“We went out to the first tee and Dad was hitting a shot for the first time in almost eight years with a new set of clubs,” Bobby Hall said. “I remember it perfectly. I hit a drive in the rough and then he hit it right down the middle past the dogleg, a drive of about 250 yards.”
Said Bobby Hall, “It had a perfect little draw to it.”
That was Colonel Hall: Nothing fancy, down the middle.
Golf has been described as “a good walk spoiled.” Sir Winston Churchill famously called golf “a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into a small hole with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.”
Colonel George Robert Hall, an American hero, showed us this: In the right hands, a golf club — or even a stick — can be so much more.
George Robert Hall’s brother, Sam, is a Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer.