The luckiest of us, I believe, count our parents as our greatest mentors. Other generous souls have nurtured and coached me through the years, but no one influenced me more than my father, Larry G. Coats. Dad died September 24, 2018, with family at his side and a legacy that will outlive us all. On September 29, I delivered a portrait of his life in the eulogy below, and only wish I’d nailed it as firmly as he’d landed so many speeches. Onward.
I was on a business trip in 2004 to California’s Silicon Valley to visit clients now worth more than most nations when my father called. I was in a freeway snarl headed out of San Francisco Airport, brake and gas, brake and gas, and I picked up the line.
“Well,” he said gravely, “I’ve gone and done it.”
Most of you know my father. “Done it” could apply to an entire calliope of notes – some that inspire us, some that lilt, some that clank, some that arouse a greater purpose, some that just go bam, bam, bam.
I avoided rear-ending a car on the 405 and said, “Gone and done what?”
He was silent for a while. “Nope. I shouldn’t say. I’ve gone and done it.” Another long pause. “The authorities are probably headed this way.”
Well. My Bay Area commute just became amazing.
Because with my father, you never knew.
Larry Gene Coats grew up as the child of a single mom, because his father was overseas in World War II. My grandmother worked odd jobs – including a drive-in theater – while my grandfather, Carl, was on the USS Missouri when the Japanese signed the Instruments of Surrender. Carl was headed into combat if Fat Man and Little Boy failed. “Gone and done it” meant surviving with Marjorie, and raising his little brother, Keith, on whatever food was the cheapest kind.
As a teenager, “gone and done it” meant something different. Mostly fast cars, cigarettes and Elvis Presley. I’d add “fast women,” but I’m his son, and we don’t speak of such things. Dad bored out a ’55 Chevy Bel Air and lowered it by torching the springs. A fast car for a short guy. Dad barely graduated high school – he was Summa Cum Cut-Up – at 5’1” (I followed closely in those footsteps, graduating at 5’4”) but he gassed up with aviator fuel and raced on abandoned runways.
After graduating, “gone and done it” did not include college. It involved a parts truck and a lube gun at Willcox Chevrolet, after he was turned down for the same job at other dealerships in Southern Indiana. He’d lost his teeth by then – we forget how rural dental care really has its roots in fluoride and the idea of brushing with something other that foot powder – and took to the job with gusto. He was a hot rodder. Parts got there on time.
Back to California traffic. I said: “The authorities are headed your way? Dad, what did you do?”
I heard my mother in the background, in their motor home, somewhere in the back roads of America, say “Tell him, Larry.”
All my dad would say was, “Gone and done it. It’s done.”
What “got done” from there was this: My father, with a poorly earned high school diploma, worked his way up from parts driver to a parts clerk at Willcox. (This is a big promotion.) And after World War II, my grandfather – thanks to FDR’s CCC program – had enough skills to get a factory job, rather than the agricultural life that had kept my family in poverty, pretty much since 1630. These skills also allowed my grandfather perspective on the United Autoworkers Union and its regular vacations, otherwise known as wildcat strikes.
Which is why my grandmother continued to work odd jobs. And one of them was at an insurance agency run by George Hinton.
Some of you can see what is about to “get done.”
Marjorie was the receptionist for George and his partner, Corby. George had a daughter, who was at Indiana University. She graduated from Silver Creek High School the same year as my dad. Her name was Lin. (It’s actually Vera Lin, because that was a popular singer – “the Forces’ sweetheart” – but mom hates “Vera,” so Lin it is.) And Lin was home from Bloomington on Christmas break.
“You should get in touch with Larry,” Marjorie said. She was black Irish. She had flint in her eyes and love in her veins. “He’d be happy to see you.”
Less than two years later, they married. Mom, raised Republican and known about town as being from a “good” family; dad, raised yellow-dog Democrat and definitely on the ready-to-be-gentrified side of the tracks. Coatses were elated. Hintons were skeptical. Willcox needed its clerk back, pronto.
Back to San Francisco traffic. “What’s done, dad? What did you do?”
“Well,” he said, “I’m on the computer. That one you gave me.”
Ah. I have been tech support for my father since I was a boy. Once, I was on a Cub Cadet in the front yard of our farm – my corners were sloppy – and my father appeared on the front porch. He rang the cast iron bell until he got my attention. I shut off the engine and ran to the house, where he was already in his recliner. He pointed at our pre-cable TV – four channels on two dials – and said, “Change this channel, Rusty. I can’t watch this shit.”
After I and my sister, Pam, were “gone and done” being born, my father’s life went into overdrive, like downshifting that ’55 Bel Air. He went from parts clerk to General Manager at Willcox in a blur of promotions – it turns out you can run the table if the guy who owns the table doesn’t enjoy the game. He started building a network in the fraternal ways of old – Moose, Optimist, Elk. He helped like-minded politicians turn out the vote, then decided to seek a vote of his own.
Like-minded. That’s an interesting phrase to say now, when we seem so divided. But my dad didn’t view party lines as enemies, although we short guys are competitive to a fault. Instead, he looked at what needed to be “gone and done.”
So he ran on that. What are we going to get done? Roads? Jails? Reform? Education? I’m pretty sure our first “Vote Coats” campaign pins were stolen from Bacon’s, a department store. They were having a sale on parkas. Dad saw an angle. He saw an angle and he ran.
Back in San Francisco, I hear my dad say, “I was on the Internet.”
Traffic is a horror show south of San Francisco. Café motorcycle riders split lanes as if they want to eat mirror glass. I said, “Netscape or AOL?”
Don’t judge. It was 2004.
My dad spent 16 years in public office and influenced Indiana politics across three decades. He also was my inspiration for being a hacker. One Monday night at Willcox – I worked in the body shop and the sales floor stayed open until 11 pm, I think to sober up some of the salesmen from their weekend blackouts – I air-gunned my jumpsuit and came up to meet dad. He was in the sales clerk office, sitting by the first computer Willcox installed. It was the size of a hatchback.
“Look,” he said, staring at the square green lines of text. I saw serial numbers, makes and models of familiar cars. He said, “That’s how our competition is pricing those cars.” And then he reduced the prices of similar models at Willcox. And sold them.
Back in traffic. “Netscape,” he said. “You said AOL is for losers.”
Well, yes, I did. I stand by it. More importantly: “Dad, what about the Internet?”
“No, I can’t say. I gone and done it.”
Long breath from me. “Just tell me.”
And then he gave it up. “Rusty, I gone and broke the Internet.”
I almost drove into a guardrail. Finally, I said, “Dad, I don’t think so.” But I wasn’t completely sure.
See, my dad came from nothing. Our family had lived in poverty for centuries until fate and grit got us over a hump so many families see in their headlights. He married a woman of higher station – and then made her disbelieving parents proud of a blue-collar Chevy man. He ran for office and rose to become the most powerful man in Clark County – and I have many forgiven speeding tickets to thank for that, because I also inherited my father’s lead foot. He retired at 48 with the certainty that he could make that work over the long haul. He took my mother on the road for that long haul for 16 years in motor homes and saw all 50 states – sometimes calling me from Winnemucca when I thought he was in Birmingham. He had the audacity to become an artist late in life, carving and turning wood to sell at craft shows. He ran thrift stores and churches without ruffling feathers – until he needed to. He became a fixture at St. Leo basketball games and sometimes attended a baseball game with me, even though he hated baseball.
If anyone could break the Internet, it was my dad.
“Dad,” I said, “I don’t think you broke the Internet.” I began to mansplain. “The Internet was built by the Department of Defense to connect scientists and governments in the event of nuclear war. It’s –“
He interrupted: “Nope. It’s broke. I gone and done it.”
I tried another tack. “Dad, what are you seeing?”
He said, “I shouldn’t say. The authorities –“
“Dad,” I said, “what are you seeing?”
He let out a long gust of air. My dad is one of history’s epic snorers. I share this. He said, “I see a gray screen. Like metal. It says ‘404 NOT Found.’”
Traffic cleared in front of me. I said, “Dad, it’s a bad link. Hit the back button.”
“No,” he said. “That won’t do it. I gone and –“
“Hit the back button.”
A moment passed. I heard his finger clack on the plastic key of the Toshiba. Then:
“Never mind. It’s back. Bye.” Click.
My dad had gone and done it. Again.