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On an unusually hot afternoon in May, Dale Kopas sits in front of his small house in Moose Jaw’s South Hill neighbourhood playing Chet Atkins’ Hold Me Tight. He’s been playing for three hours. He knows this because Dale logs every hour he spends playing. It’s a practice he started back in 1974 with the goal of logging at least 100,000 hours. Age rendered his fingers too stiff to pick at the strings before he made his goal. At the end of this day, he will be able to note in his diary that he has accumulated nearly 67,000 hours.
He’s still playing when out of the corner of his eye he sees a silver SUV pull up on the street in front of his house. It’s not the Meals on Wheels van—they already delivered his lunch today. It can’t be Kerwyn Bostic, his mental health support worker—it’s not Thursday. Whoever it is will have to wait until the end of the song.
I’m driving back from doing an interview near South Hill when I see Dale playing guitar. I love the way the sun hits the instrument, reflecting the light back into his face, making the pained expression he wears clearly visible from afar. I pull over. As I walk up the narrow path to his house, camera in hand, he seems excited to see me but he doesn’t stop playing. I take this to mean I have permission to photograph him. So I do.
Listen to Dale Kopas play
(If this plug-in doesn't work for you, listen on SoundCloud.)
When he’s done playing, I introduce myself.
“I’ve never met a negro journalist before,” he responds.
“Fair enough,” I say. “But you can’t calls us that anymore. It’s not politically correct.”
“Well, do you want to hear The Devil Went Down to Georgia on a fiddle?”
“Of course! Can I record it on my phone?”
Dale leads me into his cluttered, sweltering house. His tiny living room is dominated by three large sound boards, a dusty old TV and three cassette players. The walls are plastered with photos of himself and a lovely-looking woman who I take to be his spouse. They look like a happy couple.
Dale re-emerges from his bedroom, fiddle in hand. He slaps a bead of sweat from his brow with one large hand and then, leaning against the door, he sings as he plays. He’s out of breath by the end but he seems exultant, as if he wasn’t sure he’d make it all the way through.
“Kim used to sing and I would play. She knew all my favourite tunes,” he says.
“Who’s Kim?” I ask.
He points to the pictures on the walls. “She was the love of my life, the best thing that ever happened to me.”
The pictures on Dale’s walls take on new meaning once I learn that the lovely woman looking back at died in 2012. Now the collage is a tapestry, a memorial. And as he tells me the story of Kim and Dale, or Kimdale as he refers to their shared lives in his diary, the photos function as moments in time that he lives to evoke.
There’s little common ground between the life Dale led in the years before he met Kim and the one he led afterwards. The year was 1997 and Dale was out picking bottles and cans as he did every day back then. It’s what he did for a living. If he was lucky, he could make $150 a week after turning his finds in to Sarcan. He was going about his business when a woman he sort of recognized walked up to him and unequivocally told him, “You shouldn’t be picking Coke cans. You should be playing guitar!”
The words made him stop. They spun him around. What do you say to the woman who repeats to you the very sentence that you’ve been saying to yourself in your head over and over? If you are Dale, you say nothing. You simply take her hand and you kiss it. Then you hold onto it a while longer as you hold back the tears burning your eyes.
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