The following was originally published (The Boise Weekly) June 26, 1997. Some might wonder why, in this collection of columns dealing with the relationship between my daughter and me, I would have included what is, in essence, an obituary I wrote for my father in the days following his death. I do it because Annie and Dad were very close, at least throughout the handful of years from her birth to his passing. She had an enormous influence on him, as he did on her, and I believe her going from infant to second-grader under his watch was a prime reason he continued on for five years after being diagnosed with one year to live.
I chose to take it out of the chronological order of the columns as written and post it today simply because August 8—yesterday—was his birthday. He would have been 103.
Number One Fan of the Man from Tennessee
My dad told Mom this corny joke on their first date. Mom is a born and raised Idaho gal, see, and Dad came here 64 years ago during the Depression. He and five other Tennessee boys all under the age of 20 packed like wet chewing tobacco into an old crate and drove all the way across the country, not enough education betwixt the six of ’em to come up with even one college freshman. There wasn’t much money between the six of ’em, either, and what skills they possessed would have fit in the ashtray.
Dad brought his sense of humor along, though, and to impress my mom, he told her this joke he’d lugged all the way from the Smoky Mountains. He told her they were so poor back in Tennessee that he hadn’t gotten his first pair of shoes until his 16th birthday, and that he was so tickled with the gift, he walked backwards for the next month so’s he could see his own footprints.
All of which raises some intriguing questions about family. For instance: is humor one of those things buried somewhere in the genes like the color of one’s hair or a predisposition to some cancers?
And if it’s true that the nature of one’s funny bone runs in the family, am I, down deep in my DNA—in spite of anything I might do to escape the curse—every bit as corny as my Dad?
* * *
I’m a little late with a Father’s Day tribute, I realize, but being a little behind the times runs in my family, too. I think of it as one of our family values, along with Dad’s cornball jokes, enjoying a beer together after a day of work, corn fresh from the garden, arguing over politics at family gatherings—all valuable to my family, even if they are sort of like farm team family values compared to the major league family values.
Now, working hard and doing one’s best would be prime examples of major league family values, yet not once did my Dad ever sit me or my siblings down and tell us how important it was to work hard and do our best. Not once. He didn’t have time for things like that. He was always working too hard.
Armed with only an eighth-grade hillbilly education, he was herding sheep in the hills above Emmett within three days of getting here from the hills of Tennessee. Then there was work in a lumber mill, work on the railroad, work in an ice house, and, after a brief vacation during which he helped America win World War Two, work as a plumber. Lots and lots and lots of work as a plumber.
This isn’t your “cigar-chomping fat guy whose butt crack shows while he’s charging you an arm and a leg to fix the leak under your kitchen sink” kind of plumbing Dad did. He turned himself into a journeyman plumber. A union man. He was as proud of being a union man as he was of being a vet and a Tennessee boy. He worked all day and studied like a law student at night to learn his trade. Tank capacities and pressure limits and building codes and weight allowances. Tough stuff for a eighth-grade hillbilly education. And the system of mathematics he used must have been something he brought from Tennessee in a brown paper sack. It wasn’t new math, and it wasn’t old math. We decided it was possibly Martian math, but we never figured out how Dad got ahold of it.
But it must have worked, because it was the math he used to build Boise with.
* * *
Okay, he had some help. There were enough other men like him hanging around town, they managed to throw together the Boise Cascade World Headquarters. And most of the buildings at BSU, and Hewett-Packard. And Capital High and Borah. In between big stuff, he kept the toilets flushing under the Capitol dome and in the old Idanha Hotel and the Governor’s mansion and all over town.
When he couldn’t find something to plumb in Boise, he went over to Nampa and worked on the State Hospital, or to Caldwell to build Jewett Auditorium, or up to McCall to build a hospital. He went out into the desert … somewhere … to sink those ICBM silos that you didn’t hear about from me. Even now, 18 years after he retired, you can’t go anywhere in the Treasure Valley and not be near something Dad had a hand in.
Now and then, on a Sunday afternoon, he would take the family for a drive and end up at construction site, some project he was proud to be a part of. Said he had to check on something.
Yeah, sure. As if his sons were ready to understand the power and beauty of his work.
He came home filthy every night of his working life, soiled with the mud and dust and grease and crap of Boise being built. Then he milked his cows. My brothers and I helped him do that.
Then he worked in his garden, sometimes until we couldn’t see him in the dark. That was pretty much on his own. Years later—probably during one of those nights when I used to sit alone and write stories or play music to myself—I think I figured out why he liked to work alone in his garden.
So you see, he had little time left over to sit us down and lecture us on how important it is to work hard and do your best. He was just plain too busy making sure his four kids all grew up well-fed, safe and college-educated. Later, after we were all college-educated and such, he had a little more time. He might have told us then, but he seemed a bit intimidated. Just a little shy around so much accumulated lawr-nin’. Like maybe he felt his eighth-grade hillbilly education was no match for what his kids knew. Like maybe he was afraid that building Boise and growing vegetables were small potatoes next to all that talk about art with a capital “a” and philosophy with a capital “p.”
So maybe when he finally had the time to tell us how important it is to work hard and do your best, he was afraid we’d roll our eyes and laugh at him after he’d gone upstairs to bed.
* * *
When I was a kid, I would sometimes lie awake half the night, so frightened it was hard to take a deep breath. Our old house had more than it’s share of scaly, slimey darkness dwellers, horribly disfigured by their hatred and hunger for sleepy kids. Still does, as far as that goes. But they weren’t what had me so scared. They were nasty, you bet, but I knew if push came to shove, all I had to do was call Dad. He might be pissed about having to come upstairs just to beat the crap out of a closet creature or a sub-mattress monster. But it was damn comforting to have a Dad who could do that, if push came to shove.
No, there was only one thing that could coil my guts around my heart like that. Those night terrors came only when I allowed the thought to enter my mind that someday my parents would die. It never happened when I was really, really young. Death isn’t something toddlers worry themselves over. Toddlers have enough to worry about with things like, “how do I get from here to there without 1) falling on my butt, and 2) peeing in my pants on the way down?”
Later, after a lot of practice, I was so good at throwing unwanted inevitabilities out of my thoughts that I could go months and years without thinking about my parents dying. So it was just in those years ‘tween toilet training and the pre-teens that my parents’ mortality could knot me up like a cramp and leave me gasping for a breath.
Last Sunday—Father’s Day—along with more family than I’d ever counted my blessing for having, I watched Dad die. There are several ways of looking at how long it took him to die. I personally think he began in earnest at about 7:00 in the morning and it took him just over 17 hours to get the job done. Another might say he started to die in February, when it became clear the radiation treatments weren’t doing the trick any more. Yet another might say he started to die five years ago, when they found the prostate cancer that eventually moved into his bones.
Whatever, it was a hellish match. Mister Cancer brought pain to the game and Mister Cope brought stubbornness. Until this spring, Dad wasn’t about to let any damn cancer block him out of his garden, so the corn (and tomatoes and cukes and zukes and strawberries and raspberries and lettuce and peppers and cabbage and parsnips and turnips and eggplant and squash and onions and spuds and carrots and beets and radishes and melons and, and … and … ) just kept on acomin’.
Even earlier this year—and to a gardener, a year runs from the day you can sow spinach seed to the day frost lies on the grapes—he tried to get back into the game. The pain kept him from sleeping right and eating right, even from breathing right, but the pain wasn’t enough to keep him from trying to put in a garden. So Mister Cancer pulled another trick out of his playbook. Weakness. It drained the strength from this journeyman plumber who had carried cast iron steam radiators on his back and water heaters down basement steps. Where once he had muscled industrial air-conditioning units into lining up right and held four-inch pipe over his head long enough to thread the bastard and coat it with plumber’s goop, it was now a struggle for him just to hook a sprinkler head to a garden hose or tie his blackberry runners up. One hell of a match, but he was just plain out-gunned.
Final score: Cancer—1 … Vance Cope—zip.
* * *
I have been asked if I made my peace with Dad before he died, and I’ve been asked by enough people—all men, I must add—to make me think there are a lot of fellas out there thinking “maybe I’d better get my ass in gear and tell my folks what I’ve been thinking before all I have left to talk to is a yellowing Polaroid snapshot.”
Of course, you know what “making one’s peace” means. You can dress it up to sound like it has something to do with when you had hair down to your butt and your father hated it with a purple passion. Or you can pretend it has something to do with him and Mom getting that divorce. Or him not lending you the money to buy that Kawasaki you thought you had to have. Or him being an Eisenhower Republican Baptist and you being a LaRouche Democrat Hari Krishna.
It may seem like it has something to do with when he found that roach in the car’s ashtray. Or when he couldn’t look you in the eye for a decade after you’d up and gotten yourself pregnant. Or when his buds down at the Klan Klub told him you were dating Richard Pryor’s son. But it doesn’t.
“Making one’s peace” with your father means, simply, you tell him you love him—always have and always will—and he tells you back that he loves you. Always has and always will.
See, that’s not so hard, is it?
Uh-huh. And the Pope peddles The Watchtower door to door.
But whatever peace existed between Dad and I at the end had nothing to do with whether he and I had exchanged “I Love You”s often enough. Fact is, we hardly ever said it.
Fact is, we never said it. I said it a lot during this last Father’s Day, over and over and over, but there is no sure way of knowing whether he heard me.
But hell, we knew we loved one another. I’m no insecure kid and neither was he. I think another trait that’s passed along in the genes is the conviction that you can over-do the “I Love You” song and dance if you’re not careful. Dad knew it. So do I. That proves something, right?
So I never sat him down and flat-out told him. And he didn’t sit me down and tell me. I guess we were both too busy loving one another to spare the time.
Something I did get to worrying about, though, as Father’s Day dragged on and on and my family gathered around his bed: had I ever told him how proud I was to be his son? Had I ever in 50 years sat him down and flat-out said, “Dad, I tell my friends you did it all with an eighth-grade hillbilly education. I tell anyone who matters to me that you were a plumber … a union plumber … and that you came home covered with dust and mud and grease and crap from when you were building Boise, and I tell them you were one workhorse son of a bitch and that you spent years and years of your life on your knees in a garden. And Dad, I have never, never laughed at you after you’d gone upstairs to bed.”
Had I ever told him my lodestar desire in life was to be half the man he was?
I blurted out something like it on Father’s Day. I hope he heard.
For now, I’d be tickled if I can ever fit into his shoes. If I do, I’ll walk backwards for a month, just so’s I can see his footprints.
June 26, 1997