Notes on My Life,
Tending Towards an Autobiography,
by Hal Morris

January 14, 1952 - ?

[This piece of writing may serve as a cautionary tale, humorous character sketch, or the trajectory of a soon to be great life. Or it may not serve at all.]

A Brief Self Portrait, in Words, at the Present Time (1997)

I am, or am trying to be, an independent scholar of early 19th century American history. This "quest" began in December 1994.

At this point, my claim to a very limited fame, is my weekly electronic newsletter, Jacksonian Miscellanies, first sent out on 1/14/97, my 45th birthday. It consists of chapter length excerpts from printed matter of the period, or sometimes later memoirs by people who lived in the period, accompanied by a small amount of commentary. One criterion for my material is that it is likely not to found in a small college library, much less any but very unusual public libraries. Over 300 people, mostly history academics, receive this newsletter.

I lived the last 10 years in a modest sized three bedroom 2nd story apartment in Secaucus, a clean little (pop. 17,000, I'm told) town which, in perfect traffic (a rarity) is 15 minutes from New York.

My wife and I just moved into a house of our own on Lake Hopatcong, 40 miles or so west of Secaucus.

I have belonged to SHEAR (Society for the History of the Early American Republic) since early 1996, and attended their 1996 and 1997 conferences, and am also the Web site editor for H-SHEAR, an associated email list.

My early methodology for studying history could be described as "Bouncing off walls". This is a caricature emphasizing the way I read something, then get an idea for something else, and on and on, and the frenetic pace of my book-buying and raids on various libraries. For over 2 years, I have been buying used books in a big way, and at times bringing home 20+ library books at a time.

On the subject of making a living, my two main long-term jobs have been in the computer field: as a consultant for AGS, 1981-1988, mostly contracted to Bell Labs; and working for Amdahl, 1988-1995 and again, 1996-present, as a software engineer. Some time in the summer of 1995, I began to look around for some consulting work with the idea of ultimately becoming a "real" consultant -- being paid to accomplish a particular thing, rather than to put in time satisfactorily. A coworker, Bob Scardapane, left Amdahl before I did, and invited me to look into the company he was at -- Tekmark. Soon they were paying me to work for an AT&T Client down near my old workplace of Holmdel. After my second contract with Tekmark expired, I went back to work for Amdahl in a better position than what I had before, and since May 1996, have been working from home for a California based manager. My area of expertise is the UNIX kernel.

What am I trying, or hoping, or intending to do with history?

I mean someday to make a living as a writer, of history and/or historical novels. When and if I write novels, my intention will be to give an impressionistic portrait of the age as a whole. I mean for them to convey a real sense of how and why things happened, and of the development of society, and of what it was like to live in the skin of numerous very different individuals of the period. This is a very inadequate statement, however. I've written a couple of essays exploring the subject further: "Why Study the History of the Early American Republic?"

I've been married 10 years (since May 9, 1987) to the former Loretta Weiss, now Weiss-Morris. She has, since 1991(?) been publishing a newsletter for computer trainers called The Microcomputer Trainer.


I was born and raised in Huntington, WV, near the point where Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia meet. I have 2 sisters, 2 and 5 years younger than me.

Huntington occupies a strip of flood plain on the left bank (on the south) of the Ohio River. It has a "West End", a middle section which contains "down town", and an "East End". Beyond the strip of flood plain you immediately get into a maze of hills and valleys.

The West end is a pre- World War II style suburb; poor cousin to the main town or city, where less well-to-do people lived and put up with a long commute if they worked downtown. It is part of the flat land on the river, and is a regular grid of streets intersecting at right angles.

Later, we moved to the East end, a newsreel suburb. In the 50s and 60s, and later, new land was used which would have been undesirable in the past; twisting roads were built up into the valleys that ran down to the Ohio (and its tributary, the Guyandotte). People had to travel further to work, but by this time, decent roads and better, more available cars, made this easy, and the middle and upper middle class people who moved there enjoyed the trees and hills.

The Physical setting of my childhood:
I grew up first in a series of apartments which I have almost no recollection of. From my kindergarten through 2nd grade years, we lived in a little house in the West end of Huntington in a neighborhood of little houses with little yards. We had three smallish fruit trees in our back yard (1 apple and 2 cherry trees?) for the only, or at least last, time in my childhood.

To have fruit trees in the back yard was not my parents (or particularly my mother's?) ideal. Though I do have a happy recollection of Mom making delicious cherry preserves out of the cherries from our backyard, fruit trees are messy; some fruit falls to the ground, rots, and attracts insects (including some members of the bee family). I thought I picked up a sense, too, that having them, and putting up with those difficulties, smacked of being working class. I remember little in the way of such derogatory language from my parents, yet somehow a sense of wanting not to be, or not to live, anyway, like certain people seemed a major concern of my family.

Up to and including this "first house" period (on Jefferson Avenue), we lived near my father's relatives. When we lived on Jefferson Ave., we were about three blocks from where his parents, grandparents, and one aunt lived. I believe we walked to church; certainly I walked to school, a very few blocks from our house. We attended the same Methodist church as my father's parents, and I believe we had dinner with them -- usually if not always, fried chicken -- virtually every Sunday after church. We children wore very fussy little outfits to church; I remember always wearing a clip-on bow tie, and having a series of hats of the sort that have a bill that doesn't stick out, but fits right up against the elongated flat forward thrusting top of the hat; the sort of "sporty" hat men were supposed to wear while driving a sports car (a cliché 50s/60s cartoon image). I remember the sort of blazer with an insignia on the breast pocket. The insignia was made to look as if it meant something; maybe like a fake coat-of-arms.

There was a shack-like wooden garage on the back right corner of the property which my father used as a workshop. I heard from him later that he had to redo all the plumbing in the house, and I remember him making rings for my sisters and me out of corrections of copper pipe.

I believe my mother took great pride in pulling us into a solidly white collar, slightly "upper" middle class level of society.

My father, not long ago, told me that once, soon after they were married, he applied for a job as a bus driver, and he had talked himself into thinking that was really the job for him; being friendly and nice to people, I guess, and being responsible for their safety. Anyway, he flunked the driving test, which he counts as a blessing.

He went to work instead (soon, if not directly, after this) at INCO, or International Nickel Company, which we then always called "The Nickel Plant". It turned out a number of metal alloys of which nickel was a component. These tended to be very strong, and/or corrosion resistant, and useful in the aerospace industry. He became a messenger boy, which initially paid a good bit less than factory work, but it gave him a much better chance to get ahead than factory floor work would have.

His first big opportunity came when the company got some very early forms of IBM business equipment -- basically, I think, card sorting machines. They had no one who knew how to operate these machines, and he applied to take training to operate them, and was accepted. Over time, he learned to program IBM mainframes in assembly language -- really, I think, using what amounted to a programming language they developed there at INCO (technically, a "set of macros"), and he had a successful career as a programmer handling the payroll systems.

School Days:

We moved into the Jefferson Ave. house when I was 4 or 5, and about the time Beth, my youngest sister, was born. Lynn was 2 years younger, and I have some vague recollections of playing with her. We may have had a small swing set in the back yard. I also remember a "playhouse", made for us by Dad, out of the box that a new kitchen sink came in. It was nicely painted, with little windows and a door.

Of kindergarten, I have a vague recollection of being exposed to neat stuff, and of a graduation ceremony, complete with caps and gowns, and performances for the audience of parents -- some singing and dancing (including, I think, the song, "Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch").

Of the first and second grades, when we lived on Jefferson Ave. (Was the school Jefferson Elementary?), I remember learning to write words in big round "printed" characters on yellow paper with heavy lines as a guide for the top and bottom of the character, and light lines in between the heavy ones, as guides for the top of lower case letters like "m", and "n", or for the cross line in a "t".

I remember how I began to grasp that there was another style of writing that adults used, and trying to just start doing it, with the result of line after line of loops - like an endless series of cursive "e"s or "l"s. My attempt to do cursive writing with no instruction is representative of many things I've done since then. It is difficult for me to accept being taught, but I have, as long as I remember, worked hard to teach myself; sometimes very successfully, and other times pretty poorly (as in this case, and my attempts to teach myself music some years later).

This attempt at cursive writing seems, in some kind of gut-level way, connected to an opening up of my horizons; a feeling of growth of independence. The associations I have with it suggest I gave myself this silly exercise when the family all went to "Lake Junoleska(sp?)". It sounds like we might have gone there in the summer between my 2nd and 3rd, or maybe 1st and 2nd, grades. Mom described it recently as kind of Methodist family camp with different activities, including classes, for different ages.

This was very likely the place where I got in my mind the image of a large cross standing on the shore of a lake or pond, such that I could see its reflection cast in the water. For a while, I kept drawing this picture in the infrequent drawing exercises with crayons, etc., that we had in grade school.

Drawing was one of my early favorite activities. I tended, like many children, to draw the same things over and over. One favorite subject was the scene just described. I also remember drawing horses - only their necks and heads in profile. My recollection of this involves starting from an outline resembling a mitten (the ear corresponding to the thumb). I probably kept doing this in part because I knew it didn't really look right. I remember abandoning the "mitten" approach at some point, after perhaps studying a good drawing, or a photo, of a horse, and that I got a much more satisfying result. My grandmother (father's mother) had artistic inclinations, and had done (and kept framed) a very good little drawing of a horse, that I admired.

Later, in Junior High School, I became pretty seriously attracted to art, but more on that later.

I went to the first and second grades back in the West End. I remember learning to print in big letters, as mentioned before, and learning to read from the old "Dick and Jane" books, with all their monosyllabic sentences: "See spot run" and the like. Actually, it was Dick, Jane, and Sally, Sally being the toddler who was always doing cute and silly things. I don't really remember if Dick was the oldest or not. If he was, that makes them like my sisters and me. At any rate, like Dick and Jane, Lynn and I were near the same age, and got along and played together, and Beth was at that time a little thing just learning to talk, and walking that toddler walk.

The trees in the yard of our first house attracted me, and I was soon climbing around on them, and climbing trees remained one of my favorite things for a long time, through my teen years certainly. Shortly after we moved there, on, I think, our first planned camping trip (Watoga State Park?), I found a grove of tall pine trees with regular branches close together, and disappeared up into one. I may have gotten near the top; that's how I remember it if I'm remembering the same episode my mother talks about, when she called me, and could just hear my voice up there somewhere, and was pretty amazed and alarmed.

Throughout childhood I had a fascination with hidden places, which included getting under beds. In those days, a modern and classy sort of bed headboard had one shelf built into it for books or whatever, and this left a space under the shelf between the bed and the wall that I liked to get into. Later, I loved attics, the one tiny "cave" (just a ledge, really) near our second house, and a hollow tree, also near there. In our third house, I got the room with the attic access, and spent a good bit of time there. It seems as though I found great safety in not being seen, and I fantasized a lot about being unseen, and able to see others.

My parents liked to play cards, and I remember making card houses. The spaces between slats of the wooden floor (which made it easy to lean two cards together and not have them slide apart), and a worn pack of cards made good working materials. I'm told, but don't remember it, that my "little sister" Beth would knock them down, one of my parents would scold her, and I would say "She's just a little girl". A budding saint, or just something of a classic oldest child, in taking on a bit of the parental role, in feeling, if not in action. A few years later, just once, I let loose with a blood-curdling yell when Lynn, I think, stepped on the roof of a model car I was building and broke it. The upset feeling passed immediately leaving a strange lack of feeling, like my heart wasn't in it, and I'd done it partly to break a pattern. I'm sure I didn't just manufacture that yell out of no feelings; maybe the feeling just stuck its head out and went back in again.

I liked the construction toys -- TinkerToys, Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs sets -- though my projects were modest. The family being fairly poor then, I got erector sets with far too few parts to make huge projects like to ones shown in catalogues. Perhaps I wouldn't have anyway. Once I toyed with the possibility that one might be able to make a working (self propelled) model car out of TinkerToys. It didn't seem possible, but was I sure it wasn't? What did this represent? A sense of how much I was lacking, both in physical and mental tools, and a wish to "compensate" through wishful thinking. I had the raw ability then to learn real, powerful, principals of engineering, but I certainly wasn't pushed in that direction much, and I developed the tendency to drift off into dreaminess.

I remember an awareness -- it "feels" like the awareness came in pre-teen years -- that some words - particularly "play", "toy", and "embarrassed" seemed unsayable to me. This is an oddity; I don't have a clear idea what, if anything, to conclude from it, but it continues to fascinate me.

Back in those "Jefferson Ave." days, I can just barely remember that I had a "best friend" named Gary. Another recollection is that it seems like it was back then that I formed the sense of a need to take along something to "show and tell" whenever I went to visit a friend. At this time it would have been my latest Christmas present. Later, it was likely to be a book, or a record. Some time, perhaps as late as the age of twenty, I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable with this.

Third Grade, and Second House

Between my second and third grades, the family moved to a new house on Arlington Blvd, away from the crowded old town on the flood plain; into the newer suburbs dotted with woods, of roads winding their way up little creek bed valleys; the sort of valley that, years before, was probably probably called a "holler" (variant of "hollow"), and which would have contained one or two scraggly farms.

We had a nice flat yard with dimensions something like 50' by 150', in more or less the broadest part of the mini-flood-plain of a little nameless (so far as I know) creek. Most houses on our side of the road had level yards, like ours; most on the other side were built into the hill. Our yard ended in a fairly steep embankment going down to the creek. There was an old rusty iron swing at the end of the yard. There was a vacant lot to the right of our yard. It was a good place to run after fireflies, or "lightning bugs" at night or fire off the compressed water powered "rocket" I once owned as a child. That lot ended in a fairly steep hill, with trees on it, about 20 feet high and flat on top. the back of the hill was very steep, but climbable, and there was a tiny cave near the top.

On the other side of the creek in back of our house was a fair expanse of woods. The trees were short and there was a lot of tangled undergrowth. There was a network of paths that I came to know well.

I could walk up and down the creek; in some places there was a path along the side; in other places there were sufficient stepping stones to walk in the middle of the creek without getting shoes wet.

If I followed the creek to the right (which was downstream), behind the hill at the back of the empty lot, and on further, it looked, for a short distance, like a wild, somewhat deep ravine. Then it passed through a square concrete tunnel that went under the road. The tunnel was high enough to walk in, stooping slightly. The water in it tended to be shallow, and stayed to one side, so that I walked through it without wading in water. A couple of hundred yards further, the creek, much enlarged by this time, went through another culvert to flow into the Guyandotte River.

Across the street from our house was a pleasant, wild, narrow valley, with some particularly large trees, that later became Larkspur Drive, where we had our third house. For now though, it was a place with broad paths and particularly large trees, and an old abandoned cabin, falling apart, with newspapers for wall paper. I think some boys imagined that Frank and Jesse James had stayed there.

Running Away

At 15, just after 10th grade, I ran away from home. Actually, I left my family in Montreal where we were vacationing at the Worlds Fair. This was cold hearted, but I rightly suspected it might be the only way of outrunning them. I was very devious, having hinted to certain friends that I had in mind running away to New York City. I hitch-hiked to San Francisco in 5 days. The trouble was, I had no plan, and no intention of getting one. I had, and still have to some degree, sort of a mystical approach to life. In San Francisco I remember hearing a song somewhere, with the refrain "and I guess, but I just don't know", which was my mantra for years afterwards.

Not knowing what I was doing in San Francisco, I stayed 3 days, sleeping once in a park, and once in the Berkeley Free Store (on a twin bed with two other guys, clothed, I'll have you know). I saw an enormous caldron of peas there, and remember putting it together with the line from Silent Night, "sleep in heavenly peas".

I had intended to shave back my low, widows peaked hairline, bleach my brown hair, and paint my horn rimmed glasses black. Somehow it seemed simpler to take off all my hair with Nair (a chemical product for removing women's leg hair). It didn't work very well, and I cleaned up the mess with a razor. I told some people I'd had a strange trip and thought I was a Buddhist monk (I'd never taken any drugs, nor alcohol for that matter, at the time). After a couple of days of somewhat dreamy wandering around Haight-Ashbury, in the "summer of love", 1967, I just started hitch-hiking home, without admitting to my mind any sense of defeat, but as if I'd intended to do that all along.

Meanwhile my father and a friend of the family had been all over Greenwich Village. A few miles outside of Huntington, a couple of very nice people from the family's church picked me up and brought me straight home. I could see my parents had suffered, and lost a very noticeable amount of weight in 2-1/2 weeks, and I felt a compassion for them that I never lost, and my mother came to realize, I think, that she had been bulldozing me in some sense that I was unable to bear, and life at home tended to be better.

Last Two Years of Secondary School

I started 11th grade late, with a near bald, somewhat scabby head, and began signing my name "H. Otis Morris III", and having my teachers call me Otis; a way of acting out my annoyance towards school (more accurately, I was misrepresenting a much deeper, and even humiliating feeling as "annoyance").

One teacher caught on to this trick (my music theory teacher, as I was going to learn the theory of music without having had any sort of music class before).

Another, my speech teacher, I liked immediately, and did not play this trick on her. Her name was Mrs. Cummings, or Catherine, as I came to call her later. She was short and slight, had short curly black hair, and remarkably large and dark eyes (magnified, perhaps, by thick round lensed glasses that perfectly suited her face). I remember her wearing the sort of chunky platform shoes that were popular with young girls at the time; sort of a London "Mod" inspired fashion, I think. She had a most energetic way of striding into a room. She encouraged us to give talks on interesting, controversial, subjects.

The other teachers, except for Mrs. Shumate, the math teacher whom I had for 3 years straight, succumbed to calling me "Otis".

My having run away, together with the ways in which I acted out towards school, made me sort of a character, worthy of some respect from boys who might otherwise have bullied me. I was offered rides to football games and other high school recreations. I pretty much stopped hanging out with my old best friend, who had shared with me my interest in science (and science fiction). I also hung out with (but didn't date) Kelly, a girl who affected a Bohemian look, and was spiritually anguished like me, who said she was converted to non-religious Judaism, and who supported Nixon in 1968. Catherine Cummings, the speech teacher, seemed to take an interest in both Kelly, who starred in a school play directed by Catherine, and in me. Later, we were both invited by Catherine to visit her from time to time, which began a friendship that remained active for many years.

As for dating, I remember once going out with a girl whom I overheard laughing about the fact that she was going out with me. My characteristic defense against the world was to put on a mask of indifference; following that pattern, I ignored what I had overheard.

I began a correspondence, and fancied myself in love with, a beautiful and interesting girl named Lynn, daughter of a friend of the family, who lived 150 miles away from us. She even went to the prom with me when I was a junior. I wore a tuxedo, turtleneck, and love beads, and thought I was a "made man". This did not last; we continued to write, but I think she found it made more sense to date someone who didn't live three hours from home.

Between my running away and entering college (age: 15-1/2 -- 17-1/2), I did a good bit of food service work at the Hotel Frederick, where my mother worked at the time as an accountant or bookkeeper. It was fill-in work at banquets: setting tables, serving food, pouring coffee and water, and running a commercial dishwashing machine. The dishwashing was my favorite part.

First Semester of College

I went to Marshall University in my home town, with vague notions of some great intellectual achievement some day; one that would affect everyone's lives. I also had some idea that understanding human language might be the key to it. Marshall did not have a department of linguistics (the abstract study of language), so History was my first declared major, and I signed up for German, Greek, and Latin, none of which I'd ever studied, in my first semester. This was 1969.

That year I took my first and only college history class; still it is probably no coincidence that I signed up to be a history major, and history became my passion years later.

Though I could have commuted, I preferred to get away from home, and moved into the dormitories (like my nephew, Eric Butler, who is going to Marshall now - Hi Eric, if you happen to read this).

Never having seriously studied before, I nevertheless went at it earnestly. Taking my first essay test in my first and only college history course, I was unaware of the necessity of bringing a watch to an essay test (unless a clock in in view, which it wasn't), so, well prepared as I was, I wrote one possibly brilliant essay on the first question, and then heard that there were 5 more minutes. I got a 'D'. After that, I fell into a bad attitude, and did poorly in everything except Greek, then dropped out after one semester.

Until getting back in school the following year, I worked at a hardware store; a place I'd often hung out at as a kid, looking at all those odd things in bins. Now I got to know what they were.

My Second "Go at" College

Reentering college in Fall 1970, I took a somewhat more sensible curriculum and went from 1.0 (D) grades to 2.3 (C+). The next year I would begin to make all A's until I graduated. My declared major was Psychology. I hung out at the "Christian Center", which was full of people with long hair, and had a "coffee house" with folk music (not "Christian" folk music, just the regular kind). I was nonreligious from the age of 14, but there was something familial about this place, and some of the most interesting quirky or rebellious types hung out there.

The Christian Center had some counselors conducting group therapy, and I went to one of these, where I met my future first wife, Rhoda, or "Billie" or "Billie Rhoda" -- she was in the process of throwing off the "Billie". In spring 1971, she and I lost our virginity together, and I went around in some dreamy state resembling love in some way.

About the time of meeting Rhoda, I took the prerequisite college course in Mathematics, to get it out of the way. I happened to have a really gifted teacher, and fell somewhat in love with that subject.

The summer after that second year of college, I took training to work at the Huntington State (Mental) Hospital, and commenced working, for $400/month, that fall, when I also got married. I worked at the hospital for a year, on the evening shift, and steadily improving my grades.

So there I was in the early 70s, married, with a nice little circle of kind of bohemian friends (some, a year or two older, had briefly belonged to the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society, a sort of hard core "radical" group), that I think quickly fizzled in Huntington, WV, where we might protest a drug raid, but had no antiwar sit-ins in my years there.