My oldest friend turned 91 this past July. This is a picture from his 90th birthday.
Joe Woods was super intimidating when I went to work for the Co-op in 2001. He seemed gruff, no-nonsense, and had the demeanor of the remarkably smart. For someone as wet behind the ears as I was, the best I could hope for was to stay out of the way.
But as you all know, Joe is none of the above, other than the exceptionally smart part. He loves nothing better than a good joke-as long as it’s not on him. He helped me approximately 14,788,923 times during my years there. He probably repeated everything he told me at least twice. I still can’t tell you how to kill duckweed in your pond without killing your fish. I do know that you better put the lime to your garden and water in the morning if you don’t want your tomatoes to get “the rot”. I also learned to never, ever, ever ride with him, even if it’s just to Frank Allen’s. I depended on Joe daily, and I never thought twice about calling his cell phone if he was gone to the post office or “checking on some corn” out in Wears Valley. That’s why he gave it to me. And I was his IT person. This meant I showed him how to get his cell phone off speaker and would open text messages for him.
He was all about email and was ready to learn how to Facebook soon.
We got along good because we complained about the same people. One coworker, in particular, we liked to joke “would rather argue as eat” 🙂 Me and Joe, though, we’d rather eat. We had many a lunch and learn together, we’d fill up and take our little naps and leave the learnin’ to the newbies. We needed our beauty sleep. He never could stand what passed for barbeque here, and detested Buddy’s. However, there were very few ice creams he would pass on. I remember him talking about some ice cream sandwich that he’d discovered and “one is just enough to make you mad so I always get out two.”
Years ago, before the remodel, I came busting through his office on a shortcut to the main office.
Joe was slumped in his chair, as usual, but didn’t snap at me to slow down or quit being too lazy to go around the traditional way. Which made me slow down.
I eyed him suspiciously.
He didn’t eye me back.
I stopped stock-still and waited to see if he was going to bite my head off.
I began to breathe a little harder and watch nervously for his chest to rise. “Joe?” I asked, which probably came out as a whisper.
Nothing. I started easing closer, bent over slightly to see if his eyes were open and he was playing possum. He was turned half toward the wall so it was difficult to make out. All at once, his head began to slowly swivel and he looked over his glasses that were perched on his hawklike nose.
“What do you want?” he croaked.
I was so relieved I couldn’t say. I released the breath I had evidently been holding and ran for the office. I burst in just as the first hysterical laugh left me. I couldn’t do nothing but gasp for a good five minutes. I finally got the story out and we were all rolling.
I’m afraid I’m giving you the impression I didn’t do much at work.
Um, clearly it’s not me you need to be worried about 😉 And that IS three different days.
At any rate, my fears weren’t unfounded. Joe has had many health problems over the years and several close calls. He had a defibrillator put in a few years ago and I spent a good many days worrying about that thing going off and knocking him down and breaking a hip and there we’d be. Robin and I always visited him in the hospital, even though we were half afraid to. He always said “If you’re sick enough to be in the hospital, you’re too sick for visitors.” But we’d creep in, and he’d grin, secretly pleased. Then he’d tell us about all the people aggravating him, from the nurses waking him up wanting to know how he was resting (“Tarnation!!!” he’d thunder) to customers calling his cell phone wanting to know the best way to kill Bermudagrass in their flowerbeds. He’d tell them he was in the hospital, and they’d be all flustered and apologize all over the place and he’s laugh and tell them how to cure whatever ailed them. He has become more and more frail over the years and we’ve all worried ourselves crazy about him climbing those stairs to the Ivory Tower twice a day. But you couldn’t argue with him and you couldn’t do it for him and you SURE couldn’t talk him out of it. I used to have a recurring dream that he had died at Co-op and naturally I’m the one who found him. I was relieved to leave the Co-op partially for this reason. He would still make a monthly pilgrimage up the road to bring me my Co-operator paper. I hugged him if he let me and told him I loved him every time. ‘Cause Joe ain’t gettin’ no younger.
Joe loved fried pies from the Apple Barn and Mollie the Australian Shepherd. His best friend was Jack Denton and he would probably give some young guys a run for their money on the golf course. He had a passel of books and papers and soil sample boxes that you were welcome to borrow as long as you returned them before he noticed they were missing. He always had the coolest specimens on his desk, maybe a tobacco worm or a jar full of aphids. People were all the time bringing him jars with dead snakes or buckets of pond algae (that stuff STINKS) and ziplock bags of leaves from rosebushes (“why are they so stingy with their plants? I can’t tell nothing from one or two leaves!” he’d often lament). People with boxelder bugs (“they’re so blamed proud of these bugs!”) or termites to be identified under his magnifying glass as flying ants. He taught me that water bugs are just a proud man’s cockroach and that pretty much anything can be killed with Tempo. He could tell you who had every farm in the county, from one end of Gatlinburg plumb to Union Valley in Seymour, what they grew whichever year, who they sold it to, and sometimes for what price. I frequently made him tell me who was who in old pictures. He knew about cotton and cows and stuff like how aluminum foil is made. I would like to know half of what Joe has forgot.
He loved to have his picture made, that’s why I have so many! he wasn’t bashful, and one of the few who wouldn’t run from me when I had the camera in my hand. We all joked that he had to be in the Co-Operator every month. He was an advocate for honeybees and common sense.
My oldest friend and greatest teacher left this world today for a new one with golden roads and no pain in his knees. I know he earned every jewel in his crown and that he’s having a big ole time in his new Heaven. But I’m gonna miss my crotchety friend every day and every time I need to know something about growing, healing, or tending anything that takes water. He was always so present, it’s hard for me to think of him gone.
My heart hurts, but it’s light, too.