Funerals and Freakshows

Philip Koonce II, beloved husband, father and coach, passed away on Tuesday, January 29, 2013. He was born on October 16, 1926, in Shreveport, Louisiana to Dr. Philip B. Koonce, Sr. and Mabel Koonce. Philip is survived by his children: Philip Koonce, III and his wife Gail, Blaine Koonce and his wife Lynn, and Katy Koonce and her wife Paige; his grandchildren: Cody, Bryan, Brent, Haley, Andrea, Jenna, Stephanie, Dylan, and Waylon; and seven great-grandchildren.

I pulled up to Daddy Phil’s house just before the viewing. The family was already at the funeral home, but the garage door had been left open to reveal rows of folding chairs and card tables bedecked with vinyl tablecloths.

The kitchen table was loaded with kolaches. I knew that food would continue to roll in.

Food would continue to roll in throughout the evening.

Inside the house, the kitchen counter was crowded with boxes of kolaches. I knew that food would continue to roll in throughout the evening and the next day. Friends and family would appear in an intricately choreographed dance, unloading ice and coolers, cookies and casseroles, sodas and red Solo cups.

***

Growing up in Carthage, Texas, Philip dreamt of becoming a famous country singer like Tex Ritter (another Carthage native son). His mother, the indomitable Mabel Koonce, wrote to Ritter for advice. The country music legend responded with a long letter that said, essentially, “It’s a hard life. Go to college. Explore your options.”

Daddy Phil in the Philippines.

Daddy Phil in the Philippines, his football helmet behind him.

In 1944, Philip enrolled at the University of Texas. He played football and (at Mabel’s insistence) interned for a state senator. Drafted at the end of the war and stationed in the Philippines, Philip found an unusual niche. At 19, he was recruited to coach and quarterback a football team for the Air Core. He also helped organize entertainment for the USO. In a letter, he told Mabel that it was “the kind of a job I’ve always wanted and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”

After the war, Philip attended the University of Houston. He walked on to the football team and eventually won a scholarship. He met his future wife, earned a master’s degree in education, got married, and moved to Texas City to begin his career as a high school football coach.

***

The Koonces are a musical people. Daddy Phil dreamt of being a singer like Tex Ritter.

The Koonces have always been musical people. Daddy Phil dreamt of being a country singer like Tex Ritter.

The Koonces are a musical people. Katy’s mother, Donna, wrote volumes of rhyming verse. Her couplets could be simultaneously sappy, pointed and inspired. She might wax poetic about a mother’s love, but she was equally likely compose an epic guilt trip.

Katy’s oldest brother, Phil III, has been known to rhyme as well. His ode to Father’s Day, “A Few Things I Remember About Dad,” hung on the wall above the old man’s bed.

As lead singer for Butch County, Katy growls her rhymes. They’re less sentimental, more sexual, filled with fictional characters and intricate rhetorical acrobatics.

Katy’s middle brother, Blaine, is the kind of musician who can play anything with strings. He’s been in all kinds of bands, from bluegrass to gospel, but his real genius is improvising songs for any occasion, which he delivers in a charismatic comic deadpan.

Despite his reserved demeanor, Daddy Phil had a beautiful voice, which he shared in rare performances at anniversaries and family gatherings.

***

On the evening of his funeral, friends gathered around the card tables in the garage. They came to eat and talk, to comfort and commiserate, but mostly to listen and to sing.

Blaine played everything from "Let It Be" to "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother."

Blaine played everything from “Let It Be” to “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.”


Sandra and April brought a cooler full of ice.

Pammie brought pasta.

Leigh Ann and Redonda brought King Ranch casserole.

Dede brought paper products, including extra t.p.

Someone brought shrimp slaw and made sweet tea.

Someone else wrote it all down on a yellow legal pad in the kitchen.

Blaine held court with his guitar. As the night wore on, he and his friend Victor played everything from “Let It Be” to “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” The mourners overflowed into the driveway and coalesced around the beer coolers. In the darkness, the  warm yellow light of the garage was like amniotic fluid, enveloping and protecting the dearly beloved. I put my arm around my queer-as-shit wife and sang along about “kicking hippies’ asses and raising hell.”

***

I had hoped to see Katy’s nephew, Bryan Koonce, hip-hop impresario and aspiring MC. After Katy’s mom’s funeral, he had delivered a manic, virtuosic description of what it was like to smoke salvia. I was curious what more I might learn.

I found him inside the house with his two sisters, Andrea and Jenna. They were sitting on the family room couch, texting, seemingly separate from the rest of the party.

“Do you remember me?” I asked, plopping down on the rocking chair. “I’m Paige, Katy’s wife.”

“Yeah, I remember you,” Bryan answered, friendly but distracted by his phone. All three siblings have young kids, and all three live together at their mom’s house. His sister said something under her breath. They seemed to be sparring in real time and via text simultaneously.

“We’re kind of the Jerry Springer side of the family,” Bryan said, bashfully.

I gazed at the family photos on the opposite wall. If they had captions, they’d read like a rolodex of reality show plots: “Addiction Killed My Mama,” “The Brother I Never Knew I Had,” “My Daughter Looks Like a Man.”

“Which side isn’t the Jerry Springer side?” I asked, sweeping my arm around the room and including myself.

“True,” he laughed. I’m not sure if he registered the irony that I, the unlawfully wedded wife of the prodigal daughter, was awkwardly trying to reassure the first-born son of the first-born son.

***

In 1969, Philip moved to Lake Jackson, Texas, to work with at Brazoswood High School. For 16 years, Koonce served as Assistant Head Football Coach and Defensive Coordinator, helping to guide the Brazoswood Buccaneers to eight district titles and to the state championship in 1974. Former players remember him as stern and disciplined yet compassionate, an introvert with a sense of humor and a talent for storytelling.

I did not grow up in a close-knit community. I never learned to anticipate the needs of grieving neighbors, nor did I know the spiritual comfort that these small gestures give.

However

I have been honored to write obituaries for both of Katy’s parents, and I have rarely felt so purposeful, rarely known such a fit between the task at hand and my humble tools.

I can’t spin rhymes, can’t keep a tune, but I’m lucky to cast my lot with people who know how to sing and to grieve.

Postscript:

As I was writing this, I found an apropos video by Bryan Koonce. Sample some Koonce family rhymes:

And the soul that I have will lay next to Dodie

Sippin’ on some scotch and listenin’ to oldies

Credits: Kolache photo by Chmee2; Tex Ritter photo from Capitol Records (public domain). All other photos courtesy of Koonce family.


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