Pine Nuts: A gentleman general, Hal Strack, gets promoted to glory
October 8, 2014
Hal Strack was a man's man. A brilliant military analyst, Hal rose in the ranks to brigadier general in the Air Force. As an accomplished musician he played with Stan Kenton and many of the big bands of his era. How one mind can entertain the Uniform Code of Military Justice and "The Girl from Ipanema" at the same time remains a mystery to me, but Hal was able to do it.
Lifelong friends with Paul Desmond, they had many glorious times together. According to Hal, "I used to have work at MIT and would schedule my trips through New York to coincide with meeting Paul for an evening out, but I never should have taken a room, because we would stay up all night. We'd watch Oscar Peterson until three in the morning, then go to Paul's place until dawn, when I would catch a morning train back to Virginia."
For those too young to know Paul Desmond, he wrote and played saxophone on Dave Brubeck's best selling jazz recording of all time, "Take Five." When Desmond died in 1977 he bequeathed his royalties to the Red Cross, which has received in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year ever since. The "Take Five" saxophone Paul willed to Hal.
About his military life Hal would talk very little, but about his musical life he would talk into the night with a gleam in his eye.
"We were at a clinic in Texas, at the University, when Stan Kenton and all of us received the news that Duke Ellington had died," he said. "Stan was visibly shaken, as he thought everything started with Duke. He walked to a piano in the alcove, sat down, and began to play 'Take the A Train,' but as a dirge. Fellow musicians picked up their instruments and joined in, while the tears ran down Stan's face."
Hal never mentioned, except perhaps to Jim Peterson, that, while flying a mission over Austria in a B-24 during WWII, he took flack in his hand and later received a Purple Heart. While flying over Korea in a B-29 in 1950, an 80 mm shell landed in the cockpit and, obviously, didn't explode. The fact that the ordnance had Russian markings on it was, to Hal, "stressfully interesting."
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Hal was quickly promoted and took charge of more than 2,000 missiles for the Strategic Air Command.
At Hal's service in Carson City, Tahoe's own Baron von Remmel played two of Hal's favorite tunes on saxophone, and there was not a dry eye in the house.
The Patriot Guard Riders and local veterans accompanied Hal's coffin to the cemetery, where he received a 21-gun salute from the Air Force Honor Guard. Hal Strack was 91.
Hal's daughter Carolyn mentioned to me following the service that her father had been promoted to glory aboard a Care Flight helicopter, a little closer to heaven than our earthly realm and perhaps an ideal sendoff for an Air Force General.
It is befitting that the General should have the last words: "Approbation, respect and true friendship are one's greatest rewards."
To learn more about McAvoy Layne, visit http://www.ghostoftwain.com.