The Angriest Bartender In the World

Hal Durham, 1944-2001

Butterbaugh knew Durham for 25 years. They were members of the Long Beach Century Club, an athletic support group. They attended chili cook-offs, too, and took fishing trips together. "We had some good times," says Butterbaugh. He doesn't make any apology for what he and Durham didn't talk about during all those times. "There are a lot of people who keep quiet about what's on their minds," he says. "Sure, you always wish somebody would confide, 'Hey, I've got a problem'—especially when you realize later they were planning a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But I'm not one of those people who thinks everything needs to be talked to death either."

But because Butterbaugh adamantly refuses to reveal the contents of the note Hal Durham left behind—"I don't think it would be appropriate," he says—all that's left is talk.

Some suggest it was the demise of the Foothill, which left Durham approaching old age with a bad back and few employment prospects. After doing a little bartending around Long Beach, he did land a job in the oil patch, learning to be a down-hole tubing tester.

"That's a pretty good trade, although it's one hell of an age to be learning and getting by on starting pay," says Frenchy. "I think the Foothill closing had something to do with it, but evidently Hi Guy had some other problems. Somebody who saw the note says he wrote something about not being able to find his way in life, that he couldn't fit in or something."

Some believe Durham was despondent over the alimony and child-support debt that had grown enormous over the years. A family member reports that Durham had offered to settle with his ex-wife for a lesser amount, but she turned him down. One former employer suggests it was drugs. Ron Price Jr. just shrugs and surmises that, one way or the other, Durham's early death was inevitable. "I always figured he'd piss somebody off, and they'd shoot him," he says.

Now that Durham is dead, however, Frenchy begins to scour his mind for wisps of information about his friend. "He'd been married, I think—maybe a few times?" his statement turning into a question. "I don't know if he had any kids. I know he had some girlfriends. Some of them wanted to get married, I think, but he didn't want to. For some reason, he didn't want to. I don't know the reason. He must have had one." Frenchy gets quiet, then brightens as he remembers something specific—the last time he saw Hal Durham. "Hi Guy was up at Curleys about a week before he left for Las Vegas," he recalls. "He said he was going to visit some friends." But again, Frenchy can't remember anything unusual in Durham's demeanor, anything that—even in retrospect—might have been an indication that he was despondent, that he might be considering suicide. "Hi Guy didn't seem different, just kind of . . . but, well, you know, he always did have kind of a bad attitude," says Frenchy. "I always just overlooked that. To be his friend, you had to."

The Reverend Durham, a preacher for 64 years, has done a lot of speculating, too, and he has come to the conclusion that speculation is useless. "I've asked myself a million times, 'What did I do?' or, 'What didn't I do?'" he says. "I've asked myself, 'What was in his mind?' But you can't do that. You have to settle with the fact that he did what he wanted to do—he drove out on the prairie, put a hose in his exhaust pipe and wrote a long note. All I can say for sure now is he's gone."

It has been eight months since word of Hal Durham's suicide reached his only son, and Jeff Durham still has a hard time finding words that capture his sense of loss. "It's weird," he says. "On one hand, I guess I'm doing a lot better dealing with it than if I had spent a lot of time around him. If I had seen my dad a lot more, I'd probably be feeling pretty bad. But on the other hand, now that he's gone forever, I realize I would have liked to have seen him more often."

The last remnant of Jeff's relationship with his father was the note on the cocktail napkin left beneath that can of beer. "My dad mentioned me in his suicide note," Jeff says, his voice brightening in a heartbreaking way. "He basically said, 'Contact Jeff Durham' in his note. It said a few other things—no funeral, things like that. But not much more." Jeff pauses. "You'd have to kind of read between the lines to figure out why he did it," he says, "and you'd have to know him pretty well to do that."

It's getting close to two years since Jeff saw his father for the last time. "It was Thanksgiving of 1999," he says. "My dad came up to Washington to visit the family. But I didn't really spend a lot of time with him, unfortunately. I had hoped to spend more."

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