It's hard to say exactly when Hal Durham finally ran out of gas. His tank was already empty and his engine silent by the time a passing motorist discovered his classic 1973 El Camino on the gravel shoulder of Nevada State Highway 95, just beyond the neon glow of Las Vegas, in a ghostly desert town called Indian Springs. Durham was slumped behind the steering wheel. A note in his handwriting, scrawled on a cocktail napkin, sat beneath a can of beer. A rubber hose stretched from the car's tailpipe through a rolled-up window.
"We got the call on Jan. 21 at 8:35 a.m., but Mr. Durham obviously had been out there for several hours," says Ron Flud of the Clark County coroner's office. "We recorded his official date of death as Jan. 20, 2001. The cause was carbon-monoxide intoxication from the inhalation of motor-vehicle exhaust. A suicide."
Lots of people will tell you that Hal Durham was the meanest bartender they ever met. Most of the rest don't feel right speaking ill of the dead.
"Everybody who's honest will tell you the same thing," says Ron Price Jr., who was Durham's boss at the last two bars where he worked—now-defunct clubs called the Hillside and the Foothill, once-legendary watering holes in the oil town of Signal Hill. "They'll tell you that Hal Durham was a crabby old bastard."
Even people who liked Durham don't argue with that. "He always treated me great, but that could be kind of embarrassing sometimes," acknowledges Tim Grobaty, a longtime columnist for the Long Beach Press-Telegram and a longtime Durham customer. "He'd be giving me free drinks while he was telling everybody else to fuck off."
Durham was in his mid-50s. He was a stocky guy, about 5-feet-8 and 200 pounds. His face was round. His hair was reddish-brown and receding but still parted on the side. His florid complexion made him glow even in the darkness of a bar—the only place most people ever saw him—which seemed to lend credence to his reputation as a hard drinker and those nagging rumors of drug use. So did his mercurial temperament.
Then again, Durham's coarsely split personality wasn't completely out of place at the Foothill. The barn-sized honky-tonk had endured—albeit increasingly scuffed and frayed—since Signal Hill matriarch Bonnie Price founded it in the mid-1940s. It was Bonnie's grandson Ron Price Jr. who finally closed and sold the Foothill in September 2000. Four months later, Durham was gone, too.
Maybe there was some poetry in that. Or maybe it was the last pathetic act by a royal pain in the ass. To say for sure, you'd have to know something about what made Hal Durham tick. And now, almost eight months after he killed himself, no one can guess why.
"Hal was a very old-school Signal Hill-type character," offers Steve Zepeda, the promoter who booked most of the shows in the 1990s that maintained the Foothill's reputation as an important music venue. "If you knew Hal and he liked you, he would do anything for you. The thing is not that many people knew him. Or wanted to. He upset a lot of people—let's just say that."
Actually, hundreds, maybe thousands, of people knew of Hal Durham. But all that most of them knew about him was gathered in the time it took to order, receive and pay for a drink. Often, that transaction did not go well.
"Gimme a beer!" someone would bark.
"I'm not givin' you anything!" Hal would snarl. "If you ask right, I may let you buy one."
Thereafter, Durham might take the orders of the next several people in line or just dawdle for 15 or 20 minutes before coming back to the offender.
"Hal did that to a woman once, and she finally asked, 'Are you ignoring me?'" recalls Marty, a longtime bouncer at the Foothill. "Hal just stared at her and replied, 'Why shouldn't I ignore you? You're not pretty.'"
Marty shakes his head at the memory. "My title was 'bouncer,'" he says. "But when Hal was working, I spent most of my time apologizing for him."
Customers tended to extrapolate these conflicts into hard-and-fast opinions of Durham. It's hard to blame them. Then again, that's the way it goes for so many of the characters who occupy regular, if compartmentalized, roles in our lives. The supermarket clerks. The pizza deliverers. The receptionists. The postal workers. Their faces become very familiar to us, but we rarely get beyond that face value.
"Hal had a heart of gold," insists Gary Butterbaugh, who knew Durham for 25 years—so well that he handled the disposition of Hal's estate. But the evidence of un corazon d'orowas anecdotal. Durham was a guy who circulated birthday cards for co-workers; kept an extensive, dependable Christmas card list; did charitable work with the Long Beach Century Club; and posted bail for his blues-buddy friend, White Boy James, about a dozen times. He wasn't, however, a guy who smiled a lot.
"I think we all have a tendency to prejudge people or go on first impressions," says Butterbaugh. "But maybe that's not fair. A lot of people, you can't stand them the first time you meet them. But maybe they're having a bad day. I think that happened a lot with Hal."
Hal Durham's life had apparently been running on fumes for a long time before he ended it out in the Nevada desert—maybe for most of the 56 years since he was born in Tacoma, Washington, the son of a ranching preacher.
"His mother and I called him 'Harold,'" emphasizes the Reverend Ernest Everett Durham, who turned 85 in July. He's breathing a little heavily because he has just finished feeding the horses on the church ranch he still runs in the little town of Roy. He and his wife, Wilma, separated some 30 years ago. "We named him Harold, and he was a good boy. Never a problem at home. The only thing he wouldn't do is go to school."
Durham was a high school dropout, leaving him with a life that consisted mostly of hard physical labor. He didn't shirk work, but the financial returns he earned for it were inevitably checkered. "Harold always had a job," his father recalls proudly. "I can look back to when he was 14 years old, driving a wrecker truck. I remember him going out on a call when it was pouring down rain. He went to get a car that was upside-down in the ditch. He knew just how to wrap a cable around that car, block the wheels and use a winch. He just rolled that car right up on the road. He knew just how to do it."
Durham's succession of jobs combined with a series of failed romances—including a costly divorce—to mire him in debt and, eventually, bitterness. "He got married too young, like lots of people do," his father reflects. "Then he and the wife had a couple of kids real quick, too."
The marriage didn't last. "His wife left him, sued him for alimony and child support," says the elder Durham. "Harold never went to court to defend himself. He just ignored it. That was his way. Then the judge put fees against him he couldn't pay. And when Harold realized that, he just went down to California to run away from it all. Like I said, that was just his way."
Ernest Durham sighs for a moment with a loving father's exasperated regret. "You can't run away," he says, pinpointing the lesson he wishes his son had learned. "That gal hounded him. He went to California, but it wouldn't have mattered if he went to Mexico, South America or Australia. That stuff follows you around. The welfare people were on his neck from then on—all the time."
And when Durham's back went bad, his luck turned worse. "That's when Harold took up bartending," says his dad. "The doctor told him, 'Learn to do something where you'll never have to pick up more than 10 pounds.' He picked up a drinking habit."
From the old days of Buck Owens and Johnny Cash to the new days of Big Sandy and 00 Soul, the music at the Foothill was always rootsy and raucous. The drinks were, too. But while the club persevered near the intersection of Cherry Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway for 56 years, lots of change came to the surrounding neighborhoods—little of it for the better. Today the streets sag with dingy motels and cluttered liquor stores that cater to poverty, prostitution and the drug trade. Farther up the hill, drying oil wells have drained the color from Signal Hill's public face, as the red-hot ambition for black gold steadily fades into earth-toned, view-lot housing tracts. But when Bonnie Price founded the Foothill in 1944, the oil fields were gushing, and the work force was teeming.
Bonnie was a big-boned, straight-talking woman who commanded attention when she slapped her hand on the counter—whether it was to make a point or order a drink. She turned the Foothill into one of the nation's hottest stops for top-name country-music touring acts after World War II and the center of local social life. And she lived up to her burgeoning legend. She moved into a castle-sized house behind the club, filled it with velvet paintings, stood on one or another of its three landings and held forth as Signal Hill's no-nonsense first lady. Even when age and infirmity forced Bonnie to turn over the Foothill to her grandson Ron, her can-do reputation endured.
Hal Durham was among her legions of admirers. "It's too bad someone couldn't have gotten a printout of her brain," he once said, quoted in a Press-Telegram story about the Foothill. "She knew stuff I hadn't even dreamed of. And she knew everybody. She was always on top of things. Even when she could barely see, she'd say, 'Somebody over there is waiting for a drink.'"
Over the years, the Foothill's core customers became a tired, desperate mixture. They ranged from the exhausted leftovers of the grimy crews that tended the drying oil wells to the nervous, preening scenesters who came from miles around hoping to quench their soul-deep thirst for a little honky-tonk authenticity. Night after night, year after year, Durham stood behind the Foothill's famously kitschy bar—between its long, dark countertop and a fluorescent full moon painted over a western-prairie landscape on the back—and he stewed. He endured the slow shifts that dragged by, and he despised the large crowds that besieged him on busy nights. Because of the music, customers frequently had to shout their orders, which gave their requests the tone of demands. As Durham was dispatched to fetch their booze, he came to regard them with more and more disdain. Determined to take no shit from anybody, he made certain he dished out plenty of it to everybody. And his bad reputation grew.
Butterbaugh's laugh is forgiving. "Aww, Hal didn't mean anything by all that," he says. "He just had a dry sense of humor. Of course, a guy gets frustrated. You see young people come in with an attitude, or they can't add or subtract, and you think, 'Who are these people? What are they teaching them?' But we used to joke about it. Hal really didn't mean anything by it."
Price chuckles nervously at the memory. "I always thought Hal was funny as hell," he says. "But sometimes, after I'd seen him go from a little testy to out-and-out surly with the customers, I'd have to tell him, 'You know, Hal, we don't need to offend absolutely everybody.'"
As time went on, however, Price began to notice that Durham wasn't getting his point—or that maybe he couldn't get it anymore. "Hal had been in the business way too long," Price says.
Johnny Jones, a Long Beach singer/songwriter, worked as a soundman at the Foothill. "I used to use the cover of 'Stagger Lee' [by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds] as a sound check until Hal had a serious meltdown one day," says Jones. "He broke a Budweiser bottle on the bar and told me he would gut me if I ever played the song again. He had cut his finger and stuck it in his mouth. I still remember his cold blue eyes and the little speck of blood on his bottom lip and the moment toward the end of the song when Blixa of the Bad Seeds begins shrieking. It was very surreal. This song is sort of a soundtrack to Hal for me, God rest his angry soul."
Durham (center): "We were good friends," says Frency.
"But we never talked about his personal life."
Price insists that Durham was still a good bartender. "He took lots of the workload off me, dealing with all the everyday bull, doing it automatically. But he full-on didn't like people. Anybody who has been bartending a long time gets to where they're tired of dealing with people who are drunk and stupid. It's got to take a toll, and Hal was in it for, God, I guess 35 years."
In other words, it didn't seem like the worst thing in the world when Price sold the Foothill last September—not for Durham, anyway. Another piece of Southern California history was slipping away, a classic boomtown honky-tonk that had been in business since the Big War. But after two decades of grousing beneath the Foothill's phony full moon, Durham hated his job. It was perhaps the only secret he hadn't kept from anybody.
Friends created Hal Durham's nickname from an old shaving-cream commercial—a 30-year-old catch phrase bellowed by a comically overbearing doofus who somehow lived on the other side of a man's bathroom mirror. When the bewildered man staggered to the mirror to shave each morning, the large, loud intruder would greet him with a gushing, "Hi, guy!" Durham's best friends thought he resembled that character. They called him "Hi Guy." They were never sure he liked it.
"That was his nickname," shrugs Ronnie Brashier, his voice creaking with the unapologetic nostalgia of an old rocking chair, "and he accepted it." Brashier is known as "Frenchy" among that same crew. He used to own Frenchy's Machine Shop until he retired a few years back. Now he keeps up by making the rounds of the dwindling number of Signal Hill's old restaurants and watering holes—especially Curleys Diner, a combination coffee shop and bar surrounded by still-pumping oil wells in the parking lot. "I knew Hi Guy as well as anybody," brags Frenchy. "He was a good friend of mine—a good friend for a long time."
But that long friendship doesn't translate into insight about what might have induced Durham to kill himself in January. "Hi Guy and me, we were good friends," he says. "But we never talked about his personal life."
It's not much use asking others among Durham's family or friends or colleagues, either. "Hal kept his feelings pretty close to the cuff," says Butterbaugh in a typical response. "He didn't discuss them with me."
Those closest to Durham say they were shocked when they learned how he died, but they struggle to explain exactly why they were surprised. They usually rummage through their own views on life and death rather than illustrating how something so drastic as suicide might fit or oppose Durham's philosophy, spiritual condition or circumstances of life.
"I believe in Scripture," Frenchy begins adamantly. "That means it's premeditated murder when you kill somebody, even yourself." But after sitting with that hard assessment for a few moments, he softens a little. "I guess, in certain situations," says Frenchy, "those things happen."
Despite their many years of good-buddy camaraderie, however, he admits he can't say what happened to Durham. "It's just not the kind of stuff we would talk about," Frenchy explains. "See, for example, I know Hi Guy liked chili cook-offs. We went to a lot of chili cook-offs. Hi Guy liked to make chili, and he was good at it. We went to the state championships up in Bullhead City." Frenchy considers his dead friend a little longer. "Hi Guy loved the blues, too," he says. "Yes, he loved his music. See, so what I'm saying is we had a good time. But I never asked him personal questions about his family or what his problems were."
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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That was pretty much the story of Hal Durham's relationship with his two children—Jeff, who is 34, and Michelle, who is 30. "I really didn't know my dad that well," Jeff concedes. "He lived up here until I was seven or eight—so I guess that would be sometime in the early 1970s. After that, I really didn't have contact with him. I talked to him again when I was 18—that would have been in the mid-1980s. But there wasn't much after that until after I got married and my son was born. That was a couple of years ago. I made sure I got ahold of him then. I wanted him to know."
Jeff is the manager of a warehouse for a food-manufacturing company. His wife works there, too. He says their little family is doing fine, that they are putting together a pretty nice life for themselves. He says he is dedicated to being a good father. He downplays the long-term effect of growing up without Hal. He says he isn't bitter that any chance for a reunion is over. "I don't really have any resentments anymore," he says. "There's part of me that would like to know why he did the things he did, from the stuff that happened when I was young to this last thing. I had hoped to come down to California and visit, take my son to see him and all that. I had hoped to do that. Sometime, you know? And that's unfortunate. But I can deal with it." Jeff pauses again, then continues. "I would like to have known what kind of guy my dad really was because I didn't really know him as an adult," he says. "As far as I know, he was kind of an easygoing guy. I heard he had a good sense of humor. That's about all I know about him, really. Or all I think I know, anyway. Is that how people have described him to you?"
Now it's your turn to pause for a moment. Then you tell Jeff Durham some of what people have said about his dad—about the extremes of his love-you-or-hate-you temperament, about the greeting cards he sent, about the problems he kept private, about the impenetrable mystery that surrounded him throughout his life and now in death.
"Hmmm, that's weird," the only son of Hal Durham responds softly. "He sounds like me."