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Remembering Jim Combden of Badger's Quay

I’m usually not a big fan of frequent talk radio callers. Those who call more than twice a week are irritating, and, often as not, totally out to lunch.

There are some exceptions, of course, and Jim Combden was one of them. His voice was silenced two years ago by cancer, but I can still hear his familiar voice in the audio deck of my mind.

Combden didn’t call too often – once a week, on average, depending on the issue of the day – and his calls were always intelligent, informed, insightful, provocative, and sometimes humorous. He never called the VOCM talk radio shows, focusing all his time on listening to, and occasionally calling, the CBC.

Whenever I heard his voice on the radio, I stopped to listen, knowing that I was about to be challenged, informed, or entertained. Usually, all three.

However, there are people better qualified than myself to tell you about Jim Combden. Let’s start with this CBC “On the Go” podcast, in which host Ted Blades marks Jim’s passing:

http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/nlonthego_20100126_26367.mp3

Did you listen to it? Go ahead. It’s only 11 minutes long, and gives an appreciation of Jim, including audio clips of his calls, that will add value to the rest of this blog.

Saturday, January 21, was the second anniversary of Jim’s passing. His daughter, Vicki Combden Murphy, marked the day with a powerful tribute. Vicki is Assistant Creative Director at m5 and author of motherblogger.ca. She is also a blogger at the Huffington Post.

“I’m a mom who tells it like it is,” Vicki wrote, in an email exchange. “If you’re looking for tips on potty training, swaddling and pureeing squash, for the love of God look elsewhere.”

In her latest blog, Vicki offers a portrait of Jim in his own words, in the form of a letter written to his grandson.  

I suggest you grab a tissue, dart over and read, before finishing this blog – again, there’s no point proceeding any further if you don’t:

http://www.motherblogger.ca/a-firefly-in-a-jar/2012/01/

I didn’t write about Jim’s death at the time of his passing, probably because I was in a temporary hiatus due to work deadlines. Upon reading Vicki’s touching tribute, I realized that now was a good time to correct that. I write Vicki, asking if she’d like to talk a little more about her father.

Not surprisingly, she was. Jim’s letter, she said, was written for her nephew, Jack, the first of three grandsons and the son of her brother, Glenn. Vicki’s son, Max, was just nine months old when Jim died. “But every night when he goes to bed, he says ‘goodnight Poppy Jim up in the sky’,” Vicki said. “I don’t really believe in heaven… but I figure the sky is as good a place as any for a missing person to be.”

Vicki said her father was a dedicated CBC listener, who had no time for commercial radio at all.

“He may have occasionally called into VOCM (Gander), but CBC was his lifeblood. No exaggeration, CBC News (if not radio then TV) was the soundtrack of my childhood. The radio was ALWAYS on. And if anyone made a racket when he was listening to it, he’d freak his freak. Probably why he had the volume on bust; it was impenetrable by any other sound. The best part – he listened to CBC on an old ghetto blaster, circa 1983. The thing played only cassette tapes. But it picked up CBC just fine, so why buy another? That was dad. Never wasteful. Always content with what he had. I was astounded the day I went home for a visit and saw dad streaming CBC through the computer. What was next? An iPod?”

Jim’s calls to CBC were neither random nor unplanned – he always had something to say, prompted by a strong reaction to current events. In the CBC clip linked above, he talked about labour disputes, involving nurses and teaching assistants at Memorial University. Other issues he tackled included rural development, health care, politics, and more.

On rural development: “When he was battling cancer, mom was recovering from breast cancer at the very same time (I know, what luck). They spent a lot of time in hospitals, and dad liked to talk to everyone from every nook and cranny of NL, and saw first-hand the horrific flaws in the system. He also saw the good in the system – i.e the doctors and nurses. The money we raise at the golf tournament that we host in his honour every summer goes directly to the Gander Cancer Clinic, which dad would have wanted. Some goes toward gas cards for people who need to travel long distances for treatment – a sad reality for so many, that bothered him very much.”

On health care: “Dad grew up in Barr’d Islands, Fogo Island, but ended up making his life in Badger’s Quay (where I grew up). He took great pride in living in and supporting rural NL by spending his money there (as opposed to driving to St. John’s and spending it all there, as many do). He felt government pumped all their resources into urban/offshore. What about the rest of us? A few years back, dad was president of the would-be Windmill Bight Golf Course. Do you remember that fiasco? All the opposition from the eco crowd – Harris, Jackson. And the change of government (Danny) put a nail in the coffin of that dream. He was so close.”

On Danny Williams: “Like I said in my blog, dad was flogged for his ‘fuehrer’ comment. It wasn’t a wise choice of words for sure, but he felt Danny had a very dictatorial/bullying style and he had the guts to say so. The PCs had such an overwhelming majority too... How could we keep anyone honest with no healthy opposition? I think dad felt Danny had no opposition, everyone was just falling in line, so someone needed to challenge the status quo.”

On education: “Being a teacher for 30 years, he was a strong advocate for education in every sense. Believe it or not, dad started teaching when he was 16 years old. At that time, the teacher in a small rural NL community was not only the teacher but the priest as well. Dad officiated over funerals when he was a teenager! The teacher was like a god. Oh, how times have changed. At the time of his death, dad had 100 pages written in his second book – about his early years teaching in rural NL.”

On literature: “He was an avid reader of NL literature. Not sure how often he publicly commented on books or which news shows he would have called for such, but I recall him calling in and reviewing Ray Guy’s new book just a few years ago. I remember him having notes scribbled down so he could keep his thoughts in order. He always had notes. Always prepared. He was on The Telegram’s editorial board for a year as well. I have several of his pieces from that time. I particularly remember one article where he compared growing up rural and growing up urban. Guess which one he favoured?”

As Vicki noted in her blog, Jim published a book just before he died. “Fogo Island Boy” is a recollection of growing up on Barr’d Islands in the 50s and 60s. Vicki is now pulling together a compilation of Jim’s poetry.

“The book of his poetry is something I’m self-publishing. I don’t think anyone would be interested in publishing it because much of the content is so random and personal and just plain foolish – the kind of stuff the people who knew him would dearly treasure and get such a kick out of, but stuff that others might think is just weird. Publishers would agree. Some of the poems are stellar though. There are 75 poems and part of me wanted to weed out some of the sillier, amateur ones, but then I thought how sad that those would never see the light of day, so I’m including them all.”

What better way, then, to close out this entry than with a poem by Jim Combden? The following was kindly provided by Vicki, as a teaser for the upcoming book. Jim won a fine prize indeed – a Mary Pratt print – for this one.

December Roses

Their heads are hung in winter death

in my flower bed outside;

The blond assassin hit last night,

and all my roses died.

 

Across the street, a flag half-mast,

a sympathetic sigh;

Like seeds that for a season bloom,

all human roses die.

 

I'll place a red rose on her grave;

My friend, I shall remember;

Although grim reaper never sleeps,

in the heart there's no December.

 

Like roses, we shall sleep awhile,

but winter passes soon;

Heaven's eye injects new life;

New hope, new bloom – it's June.

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