Notes from Napa

Sunday, June 21, 2009



A few weeks ago I had an “Incident.” I’m at that age where these things happen. I found myself in the emergency room at the San. Was I having a stroke or a simple fainting spell?

The attendants were great—professional and caring. Dr. Stump (not a good name for an emergency room doctor) had the perfect bedside manner. I had every reason to be confident, but I was scared.

Suddenly, I was my own father as he neared death. They were wheeling me on a gurney to go through a battery of tests and “scans.” I was on the same floor in the same rooms of the same hospital where he was in the last year of his life What would the results show?

I was raised to be a tough guy. Typical American hero, laughing in the face of death. Well I wasn’t laughing. As they wheeled me along and I looked up at those masked covered faces, and squinted ‘neath the glaring neon lights—it was right out of a scene from an ER episode. Only this was real.

Jim Pop was being “scanned” back in 1990. He died one minute after midnight, January 12th, in ’91. Technically it was the 13th, I know. I was there. But Maggie didn’t want that on the death certificate. Bad luck you know. Go figure.

Suddenly, I wondered: Had he been as scared back then as I was now? Was he praying as fast and furious—making the same promises that would sure to be broken at the earliest opportunity?

The tests turned out negative.

Alas, the Goobs is stuck with me for a little bit longer.

Now, today is Father’s Day. My favorite day of the year. Each Father’s Day, (okay, everyday), like the movie says, I remember Papa. We called him "Jim Pop". He was a character. What he really wanted to be was a cowboy. No. What he really wanted to be was a 49er--But they never called. Marlboro man was his second choice. He never tired of telling folks that the signature cowboy hat was for real--that we had 10 breeders and a bull. Actually, they were more lawn mowers than stampeding herd, but they gave the hat some legitimacy. Next to Maggie, his “ranch”--all 12 acres of it was his greatest love.

He called it the Lazy J. It was just an old farm house and barn up a mile dirt road, surrounded by 3,000 acres in Conn Valley. Closest folks were a mile away. In the early winters, that '56 Chevy station wagon would get stuck in the mud going up the road and coming down.

Jim Pop named all the cows, calves, horses, peacocks, chicken, sheep, pigeons, dogs and cats. Our friends were Monte Wolly, Charlie Brown, Apache, Lady, Cherokee, Jingle Bells, Orlando, Pygmalion....I’ve written often of the cattle auction where an authentic cowpoke spat tobacco and asked me how old our steers were. Before I could answer, "This here critter is...", Jim Pop interrupted, " David Copperfield is six and Barnie Google is...". Daaaad. How embarrassing!

Like many of his generation, Jim Pop cared--he prized loyalty. It was often irrational--but beautiful. Cal was better than Stanford. San Francisco better than L.A. West better than East. He once threw a sandwich at the TV during an East/West NBA all-star game—though he didn’t know a player on either team.

His was a life of the white hats versus black. Good and evil were simple and well defined. There was one baseball team--The Yankees. One University. One song, "Prisoner of Love”. And of course, only one haircut.

There was a right way and a wrong way to do everything. He never broke his word. He was a man of honor. He honored the code. Traditions were essential. Instinctively, he knew society's tribal need to recognize passages. All the holidays and birthdays were family days--days to gather together and celebrate and honor what he held most dear--the family unit.

When I was a kid, most of the fathers in St. Helena were like Jim Pop. Men who'd gone to war. Men who loved their country. Men who kept their word. Men who honored heroes. Men who were fathers, not pals. Men who respected the land. Men who stayed married. Men who respected one another. And whom everyone respected in return.

I miss those men. I miss what they stood for. They could win a war without an environmental impact report. Raise their families without a stimulus check. Admit a mistake, and move on. They were brave—braver than me. They were American heroes. Yes, I remember Papa.