August 12, 2014

STRANGER: Marlene Hall
LOCATION: Eamonn’s, 728 King Street, Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia
THEME: Fish and chips with a former Air Force officer

“Come outside! You have to meet her!”

No sooner had Marlene Hall and I arrived at Eamonn’s in Alexandria, she was guiding me back outside. She’d spotted a friend of hers walking a dog, and demanded that I get an introduction straight away.

After exchange pleasantries with her friend, Marlene led me back inside the restaurant. It was an early insight into her outgoing nature and eagerness to connect people. And she’s impossible to miss; a tall woman with an confident posture, sitting bolt upright throughout our meal.

Marlene, who lives in Virginia, speaks at a mile-a-minute rapid clip and frequently switches topics ranging from freelance writing to the arts, but throughout our dinner together one message was constant: her passion for helping military veterans in any way she can.

“I love the military. If you’re a veteran, I’ll do anything for you,” said Marlene, who worked in the Air Force for eight years. She keeps herself busy with a long list of hobbies and jobs, but makes time to help with veteran organizations such as one that hosts social and physical activities, and another that allocates veterans to help with disaster relief in the United States and overseas.

Our venue, Eamonn’s, is a fish and chip shop in Old Town, Alexandria, a neighborhood of cobbled streets, centuries-old buildings, and great restaurants serving everything from fast food done well to fine dining. Marlene suggested we try the chipper because she knew I was British and probably had an affinity for such places.

She was right. The restaurant is a great little place, sitting on a street corner. Exposed brick walls on the inside are adorned with all manner of fish posters, trinkets and other paraphernalia. And although several small chandeliers hang from the ceiling, the lighting is on the subtle side.

Marlene’s perceptive choice of dining location revealed another hint about her that bore out that evening — she comes across as very thoughtful and considerate.

The permanent, upbeat vibe she projected while we talked and ate kept my interest all evening, and I wasn’t the only one to witness her outgoing nature. When we first met, Marlene spotted a friend of hers walking outside the restaurant, flagging her down to introduce us. And at the end of the meal, she easily struck up a conversation with a couple who had just arrived.

Marlene and I connected after she read my interview with her sister, Louisa.

Louisa is a ukelele-playing singer-songwriter who also lives in Virginia. I had a blast with her during our evening at the Big Bear Cafe in Washington, DC, laughing along with her eccentric sense of humor. So I was happy to meet another member of the Hall family.

Based off dinner with Marlene, I’d be willing to interview the rest of the clan. Much like her sister, Marlene has a great sense of humor, and she easily matches Louisa’s vigor.

“I’m always high energy,” said Marlene, smiling.

So it was that she interjected while I ran through the regular questionsabout where she grew up, her college career and so on. I was mid-question when she told me that the main topic she wanted to discuss during dinner was her work with veterans.

Sitting back to listen, I grabbed a bottle of Ribena — a syrupy, sweet blackcurrant drink that the Irish-themed Eamonn’s imports from England — and listened.

One organization she’s involved with is Team Rubicon. Founded by retired Marines William McNulty and Jacob Wood, it allows veterans or people with specialties in needed fields such as medicine to sign up as volunteers for disaster relief around the world.

Marlene’s work with the group to date has included a week in Norman, Oklahoma, to help with recovery efforts following a massive tornado. “The devastation was unreal, a whole neighborhood was just gone,” she said. But even in the darkness of the disaster, she found a bright light through camaraderie with other military veterans. “The bonding was awesome,” she said.

In addition to its disaster relief work, Team Rubicon also helps out with community service projects such as school cleanups. “There are always things to do,” Marlene added.

Another group she’s involved with is Team Red White & Blue, which according to its website aims to enrich the lives of veterans through physical and social activities — for example an organized run through Old Town. She found out about the group while working with the American Legion helping wounded soldiers get financial assistance, and couldn’t resist participating to contribute something.

It’s that same mentality working with that team that got her involved with the GI Film Festival, an annual event promoting movies about the military experience. As well as getting to help another veteran-centric group, Marlene also got to bring her parents — both veterans — to experience the festival.

Her love of all things military is in part because of the Hall family’s long history in the armed forces. Her dad was in the Army, her mother in the Navy, and her grandfather a veteran who served during World War II. Marlene kept up that tradition, serving eight years in the Air Force. She confessed that her eyesight was too poor to qualify her for flight training, so instead she took a job on the ground as a military officer running a massive human resources program.

I managed to sneak in a question about how she first got started on the military track, but just before she answered, she looked over my shoulder and shouted, “You’re back!”

Our waiter (the lone staffer, also serving as greeter) had arrived with our food. The guy had an astonishingly dry sense of humor — his response to Marlene was, “When was I ever gone?” — but he was pleasant, and brought out our food quickly and with minimal fuss.

Marlene ended up with a codwich. The clue is in the name, but it was a slab of the restaurant’s battered and deep-fried cod served up as a sandwich, with chips on the side. And that’s chips in the British sense of chipped potatoes, not the American meaning of dried potato snacks.

She gave a rave review for the meal, and I have to say that I was also impressed with my standard order of cod and chips, served with an order of store-bought baked beans.

As a Brit, it’s been hard to find good fish and chips in the United States. Although I can’t say that Eammon’s has finally ended that quest, it made a very noble effort. The fish was fresh, chunky and flaky, and the batter perfectly crispy, not too greasy and not too dry.

Both our meals came with “Chesapeake sauce,” which is a house-made concoction heavy on the use of the spice Old Bay, one of the Mid-Atlantic’s few contributions to culinary culture. It gave a nice tang to every bite.

As we ate, Marlene elaborated on her Air Force career and her interest in veterans’ issues. “I’m not saying that veterans are any better than anyone else, I think that hurts us when you have that kind of attitude, but with my family history, I really relate to them and their values,” she said, such as a “special bond” among service members.

Although she never served in a conflict, she still experienced that bond. In the forces, “I might not like you, but I’m always going to be there for you. You don’t find that anywhere else. It’s a special feeling, like you belong,” she said.

Marlene’s entry into the Air Force came while she was at the University of Virginia. She joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which gives students scholarships for college tuition in exchange for an obligation to do active military service. So once a week, Marlene donned her uniform and attended military class, staying with the Air Force for eight years.

As a personnel officer, she was a section commander for a human resource squadron responsible for roughly 400 people, overseeing discipline and morale. Her work took her around the United States to locations including Louisiana, New Mexico, and South Dakota, and overseas to Germany — a country she fell in love with and would happily revisit.

Life in the Air Force has its ups and downs. Marlene said it can be hard on families that are separate for long periods when family members are deployed far away from home, either in the States or overseas. But she praised the travel opportunities, the college scholarship, and the bond among the members.

So why did she choose to leave the service?

After a while she noticed that she wasn’t seeing a lot of changes in her position, and wanted new challenges. She left the Air Force, and now whenever she’s asked the question, “What do you do?” she can respond that she’s juggling three different things.

The first is working for Viridian Green Energy, helping to switch consumers to cleaner energy sources – for example, getting free solar panels for their homes.

The second is doing business consulting on sales for First Data, helping small and medium businesses with their credit cards and merchant processing. “I think I’m really good for sales,” she said with a wide smile. And I can’t disagree. She’s such a great talker and charming enough, she could probably sell ice to an Eskimo.

The third thing she’s juggling is freelance writing.

But just as I was prying about that topic, our droll waiter returned with our desserts. Marlene and I couldn’t resist Eammon’s offerings of deep-fried candy bars. The idea of dipping chocolate snacks in batter and throwing them into a fryer appears to have originated back in Britain, and Eammon’s has adopted the idea, offering a variety of well-known bars.

I went for the Mars Bar, and Marlene opted for the Milky Way. Sliced open, they both looked the same and had similar textures. The candy had warmed to a soft, chewy texture. It was wrapped in a soft, sugary yet light batter, topped off with sprinkles of cinnamon.

The net result was an incredibly indulgent dessert, the kind of thing I can only justify eating once in a blue moon because of the calorific impact it brings.

The taste pretty much requires a serious sweet tooth, as the heated candy has a tendency to stick to your teeth and the roof of your mouth as you chew. I was still tasting it on the subway ride home afterward.

That seems almost negative, but I don’t want to belittle the creations. Eamonn’s has taken a health hazard and made it into something that is a must-eat for visitors.

While Marlene and I worked on the dessert, she told me about her freelance writing. She’s always loved the world of journalism, and when younger used writing for the school newspaper as a way to interview bands that she loved, such as Bush.

She stopped putting pen to paper after a while during her work with the Air Force, but has now resumed her writing.

She focuses primarily on writing about music and theater for DC Metro Theater Arts, which covers the arts scene in the Washington metro area. Marlene said the people she gets to meet through arts reporting  and the experiences she’s had “really enrich my life.”

For example, she got to cover the Sundance Film Festival as press, and separately she scored a backstage pass to a Jonny Lang concert after an interview with the up-and-coming blues singer.

Her focus on freelancing means that the experience of dining with a stranger was unusual. “I’m used to being on the other side, usually I’m the one doing the interview,” she said.

Balancing all these jobs, Marlene keeps herself incredibly busy. But no matter how much non-military work she takes on — including other fun activities like a comedy improvisation class, similar to something her sister Louisa also tried — Marlene keeps a focus on doing what she can to assist veterans.

As we wrapped up the meal and headed outside, she once again brought the conversation back to her favorite topic. “I’ll do anything to help veterans.”

Then it was time for me to walk the short distance to the subway and head back into Washington. Marlene lives nearby, so we went our separate ways. I didn’t talk to anyone on the trip back. Yet I couldn’t help but imagine it wasn’t the same for Marlene. Something made me think that a few blocks away, there she was, greeting a random on the street and sparking up a conversation that might have begun with seven short words: “Let me tell you about helping veterans.”

During dinner, she said she sees herself as a “connector” — she likes to help put people in touch with each other to find romance, or friends, or work. “I feel that’s important to make an impact in the world around you. And it’s kind of a way to help you live forever too.”

Between her efforts to get strangers to befriend each other and her work with veterans, I don’t think Marlene needs to worry about making her mark on the world.

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