Forest Parker Chuck Hall died last month at the age of 90, 69 years after he first signed up to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in 1936 formed by a group of Americans who came together with 40,000 volunteers from around the world to put down General Francisco Franco’s rise as a fascist dictator.
But unlike many veterans of the Spanish Civil War who went unnoticed by history students, Hall lived to see his struggle memorialized in an award-winning play by group of Chicago high school students.
It made a different in Hall’s life but the veteran and his story also touched the lives of the students, making a difference in the student’s lives.
“I cherish the experience I had”to actually meet someone who was a part of history. It’s a feeling I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life,” said Hector Cambray, who co-wrote and performed the play and is now a theater major at Columbia College. “He told us how they were treated in the
prisons, the struggles, how it was a struggle to get to another struggle.”
“For the kids, it was really exciting to meet someone had strong principles and lived by them,” said Chicago Public Schools teacher Sandy Meyer, who teaches drama at Curie High School. Meyer said that the Lincoln Brigade Veterans were some of the first to fight in racially integrated units.
Meyer and Hall grew up together”their parents were friends, and the two had gone to school together on the West Side. She describes him as someone whose whole life was “dedicated to building an anti-fascist world.”
She brought Hall to meet her students as they were preparing to write a play for the Chicago Metro History Fair, an annual history contest for Chicago area students.
“I don’t think they would have done the piece had they not met him. After meeting him there was no stopping them.”
Hall signed up for service at a time when America was bent on isolationism, so the U.S. wasn’t going to join the fight against Franco, and anyone who signed up to defend Spain was immediately branded a communist. The role of Americans in the war was controversial then, and remains a “pretty radical” topic, Meyer said. “There’s nothing in the text books about the Americans who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War. They had to do it illegally, and as soon as they could, they enlisted in World War II,” she said. “They were never really recognized for going out on their own to try and stop fascism.
“It’s amazing that they were smart enough to figure out there was a place that fascism could have stopped. Only the brave went and fought on that basis. They were very untrained. They just went out their principles. They just did it.”
Meyer introduced her students to the war, first though a play titled Jaguar/Muerte (Play/Dead), and shortly thereafter by taking them to meet Chuck Hall.
The students were particularly interested in the Spanish Civil War because of what is going on today. “Especially because of the war in Iraq, we always wanted to understand why the U.S. goes to war,” she said.
Meeting Hall, and hearing about his struggle gave the kids a vivid portrait of what the fight was like, said Cambray.
“Our play was his story, but our interpretation of it, when he was telling us stories, we were visualizing everything he was saying. His words became a movie in our imagination,” he said.
That “movie” of Hall’s life, however, had to fit into 10 minutes, Meyer said. Ten minutes to tell the story of Hall’s trip to Spain”which was illegal at the time, but he lied and said he was a student–his experiences crossing the Pyrenees mountains from France into Spain, his struggle as a prisoner of war for a year and his later decision to fight in World War II.
“You get five people together and put in as much history as you can in a dramatic fashion,” Meyer said.
While actors climbed mountains, they also had to read facts and figures related to the war, and relate the hardships the volunteer army faced”a lack of weapons and supplies, and a disheartening lack of support in their country and often in Spain.
Ultimately, the final product won the students a first place award in the Chicago History Fair, another top honor at a state-wide competition and landed them a second place award at a national competition in Washington D.C.”where Hall himself was honored and greeted with a standing ovation.
But more than the awards, the students were stuck by meeting Hall and his stories. For a few of them, meeting Hall and the play actually kept them in school, Meyer said.
“These were not academic kids that are usually committed to a project they have to some reading for. To get involved in a serious thing, it really forced two of the kids to finish high school and summer school and not give up,” Meyer said. “We talked about how [dropping out] would represent the piece if they didn’t finish up.”
The lessons of the war also made an impression on some of students, too.
“They don’t teach that war. So many Americans died and fought. It was a big part of history,” Cambray said. “If we would have done something as a nation, done something to prevent this from happening in Spain, it would have prevented World War II. We could have prevented so many other deaths and casualties.”