The longest baby ever born at the Albany, N.Y., 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.
Besides 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.
Father 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.
Father 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 payments.
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.
He 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.
Father 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 coat."
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."
There 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."
To 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.
My 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.
When 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?"
And last 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.