My father was born a sharecropper, lived most his years as an auto mechanic, and retired from the coal mines of Kentucky. Sharecropping meant living in a shack of another man’s property, cultivating the man’s corn and tobacco, and living off a small percentage of the crop’s yield. A mechanic meant long periods of unemployment. Coal mining meant risking your life down in the black walls of the earth and its black smog of pocketed air, every single day.
He was pure Appalachian. His was a gnarled, stony dialect, one that I understood perfectly but my northern friends couldn’t make out at all. He was a storyteller. Not a day went without a sentence beginning with “There was this here…” There was this here drunk/dog/nun/prostitute who did some outlandish thing.
He hunted squirrel and rabbit and deer. He filled our refrigerator with wild game, which got us through winters of unemployment. He took me into those woods and taught me shotguns and archery and one day I saw him shoot an arrow through a rabbit in mid-jump.
In 1947 he did an outlandish thing: he, a white man, married a woman with the skin of mahogany and the voice of a far-away exotic land. A Salvadoran. He brought her home on the back of a Harley Davidson, all the way from San Francisco to east Tennessee. A trip that they made seven times between 1947 and 1952.
In the Appalachian world of wailing voices of evangelicals, Dad despised religion. When Dad was eleven my grandfather, Abe, made him attend church. Dad went, no shoes on his feet and a cane fishing rod in his hand. He put the rod in a back corner and sat amongst the crowd. The pastor invited everyone up to the pulpit and announced that they were going to get saved. Dad didn’t join them. “Boy, ain’t you gonna come here to tie your soul to the Lord Jesus Christ?” “No,” said Dad. The preacher turned to the gaggle of worshippers. “This little shoeless McPeek child don’t want to get saved. He’d rather rot on the edge of Big Creek, tossing a line into the water on a SUNDAY.”
That was it. Dad walked out of the church (with rod in hand), spent the day beside Big Creek and never entered another church again.
(Once, when I asked Dad why he wasn’t religious, he said, “Because I like to keep an open mind.”)
He was poor, then working class, all his life. But you wouldn’t know it. He and my mother built our little shotgun house on a beautiful hill in a quiet neighborhood of Rogersville, Tennessee. Bought the wood and the linoleum and the toilet and built it themselves. And, like most working class people, they were proud and careful and paid off that property in twenty years. The bank no longer held it; it was theirs.
He tried. Tried as best he could to be a good father, a good husband, with a Dickens’ childhood that hardwired his life with pain and doubts and a constant wrestling with demons that none of us could ever see (the arrogant preacher was but a light moment of that childhood). He drank hard liquor for decades and–by pure, Scotch Irish will–plunged himself into sobriety the last twenty years of his life.
One Thanksgiving when I was twenty-seven and married, Dad took me out to hunt. We both carried shotguns, me with a twenty gauge, he wielding a double-barreled twelve gauge. I figured we planned on eating shredded rabbit that day. He talked, all through the woods. “I ever tell you about the young man who said to his girlfriend in the back seat of his Chevy that he had two peters?”
This was not how he had taught me to hunt. You’re supposed to sit still, sometimes for an hour, so’s the game will not hear you and on a windless day may not smell you and will approach your circle of clear shots. That Thanksgiving Dad talked loud and long and laughed. He had us tromp through the brush and pine woods.
“Dad, why you making so much noise? You’re scaring the rabbit away.”
“I just ain’t got the taste no more for killing,” he said. “You get older, you don’t want to shoot at anything alive.”
“Then why the hell are we out here?”
“Reckon I just wanted to spend the day with you.”
I mentioned that Mom wanted to get a Christmas tree. We spotted a perfect pine, small and stout. But we had no saw nor axe. So Dad shot it out of the ground. Double barrel. The tree half-flipped from the blast and landed on its side.
Funerals are not for the dead, but the living. It’s a formal way of saying goodbye, that’s all. And that’s fine with me. A lot of people will show up and regret the end of his stories. We’ll tell a few of them, but they won’t have his voice. That’s when we’ll know he’s gone.