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Northern Lights, barn doors and '41 Ford Coupes
WOODSTOCK — Seventy two-year-old Wendall Hall grew up in South Paris, but spent many years in Alaska driving on the Ice Road. He currently lives in Woodstock, but would head back to the Ice Road in a heartbeat.
He recently took time to tell us about his life.
Q: When were you born and where were you brought up?
A: I was born in South Paris, where the Chinese restaurant is now. It was on July 17, 1938.
I was raised on the farm in South Paris most of my life. We moved to Canton around the time I was four or five and then we moved back onto another farm.
Q: Did you have many siblings?
A: I have one sister and one brother. My sister Faylene lives in South Paris and owns H and R Block. Franklin passed away in a car accident at the age of 21 in 1956.
I had a half brother way back, but he only lived a few months.
Q: What did your parents do?
A: My dad worked at Wilner's Wood Products and that was big in town back then. It used to be where the Gouin Field is now. My dad worked there for many, many years. When he retired, he was working at CB Cummings.
He was a hard worker and I don’t think he ever missed a day of work.
Q: What was it like growing up?
A: I probably was the luckiest kid on the face of the earth. Life was good back in those days. My mother and father were good people and they were so good to me.
There wasn't much money going around back then, but we didn't need for much.
It's hard to believe, but I never knew of my parents having an argument. I never had an argument with my siblings or parents either.
Back then parents weren’t worried about where you were. Life was good.
We were just always outside playing.
We were active building cabins in the woods. I swear we built 50 of ‘em.
I would walk the town at least three times a week.
There were movie theaters; one in Norway and one in South Paris, so we would go down there a lot. It cost 12 cents. We could pick up bottles and it didn't take much money.
I had a bike and took the handle bars off and put on an old steering wheel. I was the only guy that had that. I have no idea what happened to it.
I build an old wooden wagon one time and it had steel wheels like a wagon. I had nailed around 100 nails on that axle to hold the wheels on. It had an axle on the front that would pivot and had handles come right up though the floor and I could steer it.
A friend of mine, Bob Swallow built one too and had a great hill at his house. It was all dirt roads and hills. You could spend all day just doing that.
Q: Was there anything you wanted to be when you grew up?
A: I wanted to be a race car driver.
Q: Where did you go to school?
A: I went to South Paris all the way through. The high school was over on Pine Street.
Q: Did you get into mischief or play pranks?
A: When I got a bit older we would constantly go down to South Paris and get after the cops. We’d head into town at about 90 mph and get the cops to chase us. We’d drive in my dad’s barn, close the door and drive out the back. They couldn’t find us and I bet we got back to town long before they did.
One time Bob and I were playing with whips. He told me to stand there and smoke a cigarette and he’d take the ashes off it. He missed and got right down the side of my face – every time I saw him after that I would always tell him it was my turn.
When I was about 15 or 16, a buddy of mine had just bought a brand new ’51 Ford. He had something to do with the fairs and we went to the Farmington Fair with him. We were off doing games and stuff and decided to lighten up the party a little bit. We got his car and drove it around the track a few times going about 80. No one said a word to us or even tried to stop us, but when we got done Maurice was so mad at us for taking his car. It was funny, he was so mad he got picked up for speeding three times on our way home.
Q: What have you had for jobs?
A: As soon as I was old enough, I used to work for my grandfather in the woods.
I probably bought my first car when I was 15. I was a little rough on them so had to buy three or four a year.
You could buy them for $50 or $75. The Chevy garage was where Paris Farmer’s Union was and I probably bought 10 of the ’41 Ford Coupes off Ripley.
I had one ’41 Coupe with a sun visor, fender skirts and dual pipes. Now, that car would talk to you. It had a little 85-horse, but it would go as fast as you needed to go.
I used to take the engines and rebuild them right on the kitchen table.
Me and many other guys helped build the Oxford track and we would race around in our little Ford Coupes … back when it was just dirt and they hadn’t paved it yet.
Those are the years that people dream about now.
Q: When and how did you meet your spouse?
A: I met Beryl it at the Oxford County Fair. It was where the high school is now.
Someone had borrowed my car, so a friend took me with his girlfriend … and Beryl was the girlfriend.
I really took a liking to her, so the next day I decided to go visit her. I showed up at the door looking like the typical Fonzie. I was probably 17 with the leather coat, jeans and slicked-hair back and I had a cigarette and a Bud in my hand. It didn’t go over too good with her parents.
The boyfriend got over it and we dated for about a year.
We got married on July 7, 1957.
Q: Where did you two live?
A: In South Paris on Gothic Street by the Post Office in a nice apartment.
There was no money then, but we were happy.
Q: Where did you work?
A: My first job was at the Paris Sled Factory and I put sleds together. It was on an assembly line.
I went from there over to Worthington in Minot where we made toboggans.
Then I went to the shoe shop and worked there for five or six years. I bought my first brand-new car then and did every year after.
I also went into a logging business for myself. I had four or five guys working for me.
I had bought a brand new White truck and it had an experimental motor in it. They converted a diesel into a gas-powered truck. They called it a Giesel. They sold quite a few of them and I was the first one to buy one in the area. They were pretty short-lived because the motors didn’t last.
Beryl worked too. She and my mom started Hall and Hall Real Estate in South Paris.
Q: Ever lived anywhere else?
A: Yes. When I was growing up, this was the place to be. I couldn’t imagine life being better anywhere else. Going to Portland was the farthest you ever went, but in summer of 1974 I went to Alaska looking for a job on the Ice Road. I had gotten up there a little too early, so I got a job driving truck ‘til the pipeline got going. After about three months, I came back for the family.
For 25 years that was my life.
Q: Was that dangerous?
A: No. I didn’t think so and I put in some serious hours. You had to know what you were doing and you couldn’t make a mistake.
I never heard the ice crack and to my knowledge no one has ever died up there.
When I was first up there, we had to take the trailer trucks across the Yukon River on a hover craft and there was a huge cable that went across so the hover craft wouldn’t go down river. I was on the other side and the ice took out the cable. They picked me up by airplane and the truck stayed there on the other side.
It was pretty amazing though. Before the road was built, we used to have to back the entire trailer into the back of an airplane in Fairbanks. I would drop the trailer and drive the cab into another plane. We did that over and over again.
There were air strips, many of them, and they had built them long before I got there. There were thousands and thousands of pieces of equipment we would haul up there and the road was built in six months. They build the road in sections, from airstrip to airstrip.
Once the road was built, every day was different and driving the Ice Road was nothing compared to driving some of the passes in Alaska.
Pieces of pipe were 60 feet long by 4 feet wide and there was 500 miles of pipe to place.
Boy, would I love to write a book on my Ice Road adventures.
Q: Any children?
A: Yes. Vikki lives in South Paris. Denise lives down the street and Billi-Jo lives in Rumford.
Q: Did you do much traveling?
A: Yes, we went to Florida and I worked for two years at Daytona in security during the 500 and also during Bike Week.
One time, Mike Helton, the president of NASCAR, came to the gate and a kid wouldn’t let him in. I knew who he was and let him in!
The best time during that time was getting to drive the #24 car. In Daytona, whatever car wins gets kept and displayed for a year and I had to take the #8 car out of the display and put the #24 car in its place.
Q: Which place was the most fascinating and why?
A: Fairbanks and Alaska. The animals were amazing and it was just the beauty of it all. Everywhere you went there was scenery and it would take your breath away.
Seeing the Northern Lights up there was something else. The colors; green, red and blue and they would dance and make a swooshing noise.
Q: What is the one thing you would happily do over again?
A: Alaska and the pipeline. I would do that all over again in a heartbeat.
Q: What was the best memory that this interview brought back?
A: Probably the early times when I was little and with my family. There was no money, but it was the best of times.
Q: What would you like people to know about you?
A: I have always tried to do what’s right and how I loved that ‘41 Coupe!
I walk to a bit of a different beat and it’s always a different road that I ride and most of the problems I’ve ever had have been self inflicted.
Q: Last day on earth; what would you do and who with?
A: My family … and I would take them all to Alaska and go fishing in Valdez. It doesn’t get any better than that. You could practically catch ‘em with your hand. I swear you could walk across the river on their backs at certain times of the year.
Q: If anyone could walk in right now, who would you most want to see?
A: My father. I really miss him and always felt a bit bad about leaving for Alaska when he was sick. Maybe I should have hung around. I miss my mom too, she was a great mother.