The longest baby ever born at the Albany, NY, hospital, at least
as of May 5, 1926, who grew up to be my strapping father, passed away
last Friday morning.
As Mother and I stood at Daddy's casket
Monday morning, Mother repeated his joke to him, which he said on every
wedding anniversary until a few years ago when Lewy bodies dementia
prevented him from saying much at all: "54 years, married to the wrong
woman." And we laughed.
John Vincent Coulter was of the old
school, a man of few words, the un-Oprah, no crying or wearing your
heart on your sleeve, and reacting to moments of great sentiment with a
joke. Or as we used to call them: men.
When he was moping around
the house once, missing my brother who had just gone back to college,
he said, "Well, if you had cancer long enough, you'd miss it."
He'd indicate his feelings about my skirt length by saying, "You look nice, Hart, but you forgot to put on your skirt."
Of course, he did show strong emotion when The New York Post
would run a photo of Teddy Kennedy saying the rosary. I can still see
the look of disgust. I saw that face in "How To Read People Like a
Book" and it was NOT a good chapter.
Your parents are your whole
world when you are a child. You only recognize what is unique about
them when you get older and see how the rest of the world diverges from
your standard of normality.
So it took me awhile to realize that
by telling my friends that Father was an ex-FBI agent and a
union-buster whose hobbies included rebuilding Volkswagens and shooting
squirrels in our backyard, I was painting the image of a rough Eliot
Ness type, rather than the cheerful, funny raconteur they would meet.
being very funny, Father had an absolutely straight moral compass
without ever being preachy or judgmental or even telling us in words.
He just was good.
He would return to a store if he was given too
much change -- and this was a man who was so "thrifty," as we Scots
like to say, he told us he wanted to be buried in two cardboard boxes
from the A&P rather than pay for a coffin.
When I was
bombarded with arguments for baby-killing as a kid, I asked Father
about the old chestnut involving a poverty-stricken, unwed teenage girl
who gets pregnant. (This was before they added the "impregnated by her
own father" part.) Father just said, "I don't care. If it's a life,
it's a life." I'm still waiting to hear an effective counterargument.
hated puffery, pomposity, snobbery, fake friendliness, fake anything.
Like Kitty's father in "Anna Karenina," he could detect a substanceless
suitor in a heartbeat. (They were probably the same ones who looked
nervous when I told them Father was ex-FBI and liked to shoot squirrels
in the backyard.)
He hated unions because of their corrupt
leadership, ripping off the members for their own aggrandizement. But
he had more respect for genuine working men than anyone I've ever
known. He was, in short, the molecular opposite of John Edwards.
didn't care what popular opinion was: There was right and wrong. I
don't recall his ever specifically talking about J. Edgar Hoover or Joe
McCarthy, but we knew he thought the popular histories were bunk.
That's why "Treason" was dedicated to him, the last book of mine he was
able to read.
When Father returned from the war, he used the G.I.
Bill to complete college and law school in three years. In order to get
to law school quickly, he chose the easiest college major -- a major
that so impressed him, he told my oldest brother that if he ever took
one single course in sociology, Father would cut off his tuition
As a young FBI agent fresh out of law school, one of
Father's first assignments was to investigate job applicants at a
uranium enrichment plant, the only suitable land for which was
apparently located on some property owned by the then-vice president,
Alben Barkley, in Paducah, KY.
One day, a group of FBI agents saw
the beautiful Nell Husbands Martin at lunch with her mother. They asked
the waitress for her name and flipped a coin to see who could ask her
out first. Father lost the coin toss, so he paid off the other agents.
And that's how Nell became my mother.
Mother swore she'd never
marry a drinker, a smoker or a Catholic, and she got all three,
reforming Father on all but the Catholicism. Even in foreign countries
where none of us spoke the language, Father went to Mass every Sunday
until the very end.
Of course, toward the end, he probably didn't
even remember he was a Catholic. But on the bright side, he didn't
remember that Teddy Kennedy was a Catholic, either.
Father spent most of his nine-year FBI career as a Red hunter in New York City.
never talked much about his FBI days. I learned that he worked on the
Rudolf Abel case -- the highest-ranking Soviet spy ever captured in
U.S. history -- during one of my brother's eulogies on Monday. But when
Father read a paper I wrote at Cornell defending McCarthy and came
across the name William Remington, he told me that had been his case.
mostly had contempt for Soviet spies. In addition to damaging
information, such as military plans and nuclear secrets, the spies also
collected massive amounts of utterly useless information on things like
U.S. agricultural production. These were people who looked at a flush
toilet like it was a spaceship.
He told me Soviet spies reveled
in the whole cloak-and-dagger aspect of espionage. One spy gave weirdly
specific details to a contact before their first meeting: He would have
the New York Herald Tribune folded three times, tucked under his left
elbow at a particular angle.
When the spy walked into the hotel
lobby for the rendezvous, Father nearly fell off his chair when the man
with the Herald Tribune folded under his elbow just so ... was also
wearing a full-length fur coat. But he couldn't have told his contact:
"I'll be the only white man in North America wearing a full-length fur
In the early 1980s, as vice president and labor lawyer for
Phelps Dodge copper company, Father broke a strike against the company,
which culminated in the largest union decertification ever -- at that
time and perhaps still. President Reagan had broken the air traffic
controllers' strike in 1981. But unions recognized that it was the
breaking of the Phelps Dodge strike a few years later that landed the
greater blow, as described in the book "Copper Crucible."
was massive violence by the strikers, including guns being fired into
the homes of the mine employees who returned to work. Every day, Father
walked with the strikebreakers through the picket line, (in my mind)
brushing egg off his suit lapel.
By 1986 it was over; the
mineworkers voted against the union and Phelps Dodge was saved. For any
liberals still reading, this is what's known as a "happy ending."
Mother's lifelong consternation -- until he had dementia and she could
get him back by smothering him with hugs and kisses -- Father wasn't
demonstrative. But all he wanted was to be with Mother (and to work on
his Volkswagens). They traveled the world together, went to DAR
conventions together, engaged in Republican politics together and went
to the New York Philharmonic together -- for three decades, their
subscription seats were on the highest landing, or as we Scots call it,
the "Music Lovers" level.
When Mother was in a rehabilitative
facility briefly after surgery a few years ago and Father was not
supposed to be driving, we were relieved that a snowstorm had knocked
out the power to the garage door opener, so Daddy couldn't get to the
car. It would just be a week and then Mother would be home.
brother came home to check on Father the first day of this arrangement
to find that he had taken an ax to the side door of the garage, so he
could drive to the rehab center and sit with Mother all day.
she left him for five days last summer to go to a family reunion in
Kentucky, at some point, Father, who hadn't been able to speak much
anymore, looked up and asked his nurse, "Where is she?"
Friday morning at 2 he passed away, in his bedroom with Mother. The
police and firemen told my brother that they kept trying to distract
Mother to keep her away from the bedroom with Father's body, but she
kept padding back into the bedroom to be close to him.Now Daddy
is with Joe McCarthy and Ronald Reagan. I hope they stop laughing about
the Reds long enough to talk to God about smiting some liberals for me.