A few years ago, a fellow by the name of Robert E.S. Hall, Jr. took a chance on me. Bubba, or “Butch”, as I call him, crossed my path as I was bartending in East Alabama and working through a rough patch. A relationship founded almost exclusively on whiskey and the blues quickly turned professional: we sold moonshine and helped start the first state-sanctioned distillery in the State of Alabama. For me, the opportunity was a big milestone on a rather fortuitous path but this composition isn’t about all of that, so I’ll skip the years in between.
These days, we live in different cities and we lead very different lives. Bubba lives off a county road in Alabama and I’m situated in a loft near midtown Atlanta. Despite the distance, we’ve stayed in touch over the years and I’m convinced that’s due, at least in part, to how we correspond. Bubba insists on handwritten letters and, like many other aspects of his life, he approaches them as art.
To compose this article, I asked Bubba to write me a thousand words or so on why he favors pen and ink. What follows is that feedback, stitched together with snapshots of his life and an exchange between two old friends. Bubba’s words in italics.
Putting a stamp on an envelope and sending it to my pen-pal in South America is my first memory of letter writing. That was in elementary school. Possibly a school program but I don’t remember for certain.
I was born and raised in a small town in Southwest Georgia named Dawson. I dis-affectionately call it ‘Mayberry without the charm,’ which is another story.
Going to college away from home was when my letter writing began in earnest. I corresponded with both of my parents. This was pre-cell phone days which makes me seem old to most of you reading this but I had a Vietnam veteran friend of mine almost twenty years older than I say you were not old until your nuts floated when you were in the bathtub. So by his metric, I am not old yet.
Both of my parents are dead. Having those letters to go back and read is pretty cool. They have my parents' DNA on them. I have not had them forensically tested but I have watched enough episodes of CSI to know it is true.
When I began writing at least one letter a day, most days more, I slowly reached a zen-like state which is rare for an impatient guy living in a trailer park in south Alabama. The same guy who is pounding on his steering wheel and cussing if my drive-thru trip for fast food exceeds three minutes before receiving my expedited ticket for triple bypass surgery. Expectations...
“The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, well, I have really good days.” —Ray Wylie Hubbard
Aside from the regionally-specific nickname, Bubba represents everything that I’ve come to love about Southerners: he’s brazen, charismatic, a bit of a walking contradiction, and an absolutely incredible storyteller. Once, when we were working together, he showed up to a business meeting in two different cowboy boots, skating in on fumes after a late night gig across the state. Bubba immediately concocted a mythical story about his fashion choice and, to this day, I don’t know whether it was an intentional move that was meant to knock the meeting sideways or a happy accident that leveled the playing field. Either way, lunch cascaded over several hours and I learned an invaluable lesson in how to own the moment and connect with strangers.
I have more email accounts than I can remember now. Emails combined with texts and social media notifications come at me faster these days than SNL is producing Trump comedy sketches - it is impossible to pay attention to them all. One gets to a point where it is acceptable to ignore some communications because the flood is constant. Sure, being able to ignore the torrent of garbage thrown at us is a good thing, but that also leads to some important stuff falling through the cracks.
About a month ago, a woman who I did not know personally but was connected with on social media through others commented on a post I made about libraries.
So I sent her my mailing address. Told her I was single and that I communicated a lot with handwritten letters. Then promptly blocked the experience out of my mind, embarrassed by my boldness.
Two weeks ago was a Monday from hell. I wanted to crawl back in bed. Nothing good happened. Didn’t get around to checking my mail until seven that night. Just a damn credit card application was all I saw in the box. I disgustedly pulled it out. And underneath it was a handwritten letter from from a single, authentically attractive, intelligent woman who thinks handwritten letters really rock.
Sturgill Simpson. The Drive-By Truckers. Townes Van Zandt. Hayes Carll. Bubba and I share a common language in our musical taste, preferring the progressive prophets of country music and Southern rock. Bubba himself is a musician, singing and playing guitar in dive bars, hotel lobbies, and small stages throughout the region. He has logged endless highway miles, spotted most often with a Gibson J-45, “the working man’s guitar,” in his hands and a bandana on his head.
There is a timeless and universal beauty in a musician’s ability to give inanimate objects voice. I’d venture to say, this is the same reason some writers are particular with their instruments.
My first fountain pen was purchased almost three years ago. Writing fairly consistently since I was very young, my handwriting on a scale of one to ten by today’s standards was already a solid seven to eight. With my new twelve dollar pen I was certain I would reach calligrapher status minutes after inking it up.
It was no magic wand but slowly my writing did improve significantly along with the ease of writing for long periods. I do not write with anything but a fountain pen now. Once you get accustomed to a fine writing instrument on quality paper, the connection between your thoughts and them being immortalized in writing becomes pretty frictionless.
Also pulling out a nice fountain pen in front of others is closely akin to walking through an international airport carrying a guitar case with a lot of kick ass stickers on it. It’s pretty damn cool.
Wax seals for my letters came into my life a year ago. Mainly it was curiosity. I had never seen them used on anything but wedding invitations. They are amazingly simple and now accompany every letter I mail. I have my own custom wax seal I had made for less than the cost of a really cheap hotel room.
Stamps. When I get letters from my friends who now write from all over the world, they are always fascinating. I laugh out loud to myself when wondering what the postwoman thinks when delivering mail to my trailer from countries all over Europe on a regular basis.
When Bubba sent me a letter earlier this year, it was the first time I had heard from him in over a year. For reasons that are far too complicated for this format, I had spent the better part of 2017 dismantling personal relationships and shutting down social outlets. I moved from Alabama to Georgia, cast my eyes ahead, and threw myself into work. In other words: it was an unusually quiet and selfish year.
Bubba’s letter came early this spring. Cracking the wax seal and pouring over my friend’s cursive, deep cerulean handwriting was a heartwarming moment: a redemptive connection to those frantic and formative years. Naturally, he called me out on the disappearing act, and I expected nothing less from him. The naked, unfiltered truth is Bubba’s hallmark.
There is a poignant connection in handwritten letters which has become magnified since they are now relics of the past. People pay attention to them. Or at least the people who matter pay attention to them. Anyone who will not at least acknowledge receiving a handwritten letter is the same person who won’t answer the toy cell phone a two year old hands them.
Letter writing is not dead, most people do not take the time to do it.
PS - Russian or Chinese hackers are highly unlikely to infiltrate a shoebox containing letters beside my desk, and they are indeed some of my most precious treasures. Security is an ancillary benefit of handwritten letters.
This is the first edition of Handwritten, an ongoing series of exchanges between Bubba Hall and writers, artists, leaders, pastors, expats, upstarts, and retirees. All are welcome in this exchange. To submit, pitch firstname.lastname@example.org and write Bubba a letter.