Friday, August 31, 2007

In Memory of Randall Combs

"O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again." Thomas Wolfe

I confessed recently to a close friend that, throughout my life, I've been blessed with better friends than I deserve, than I have ever deserved, than I am probably capable of deserving. That is still true. I open with that confession because I would never want the post which follows to lead any of those rare individuals without whose companionship my life would be simply barren to doubt for a moment their importance to me. "In Memory of" are words I pray never precede their names from my pen.

There are those for whom friendship is a zero-sum game. I am not one of them.

It has been seven years since The Friend of My Youth passed on. Judge Randall R. Combs shared nearly every formative adventure of my transition from boy to manhood. He was, in many, many ways, a better man than I will ever be. His obituary in the Salisbury Post couldn't begin to capture the man. The procession from church to graveyard was the longest most in our relatively small town had ever witnessed. To say that he was well known and respected stretches the limits of understatement. To say that he is missed, still, daily, is merely to acknowledge a void that can never really be filled.

I can at least say this. I did not have to regret, at the end, that I'd never told my friend what he meant to me. He knew. In memory of him, today, I want to offer here the text of the eulogy I offered at that service seven years ago, and to say, once more, I miss him. I miss him very much.

I’ve been to too many funerals for friends and acquaintances in the past few years and I’ve always wondered how someone who called the deceased his best friend managed to get through what I’m about to attempt. I’ve come up with a couple of answers. First, I’m going to keep in mind, that in all the years I knew Randall Combs, he never once felt sorry for himself, despite trials that would have defeated many of the best of the rest of us. And we, as Christians, all know where Randall is right now, so it’s not for him that we cry, but for ourselves, left here without him in our lives. So I’ll postpone self-pity for just a while yet. Secondly, I’m going to make the plea that the rowdy little boy in church made to the congregation as his daddy carried him down the aisle toward the back door. Ya’ll pray for me. Start now. Don’t wait until I get to the hard part, then if I make it through the little bit I want to say, we won’t have to wonder how.

Randall was my best friend. It’s that simple. I would have said Judge Randall R. Combs was my best friend, but that’s not the way I think of it, and that’s not the way it works. Randall, plain and simple, was my best friend. He was what Robert Penn Warren called The Friend of My Youth. “The Friend of Your Youth,” said Warren, “is the only friend you will every have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist any more, speaks a name--Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave--which belongs to that now nonexistent face but which by some inane and doddering confusion of the universe is for the moment attached to a not too happily met and boring stranger. But he humors the drooling doddering confusion of the universe and continues to address politely that dull stranger by the name which properly belongs to the boy face and to the time when the boy voice called thinly across the late afternoon water or murmured by a campfire at night . . . the Friend of Your Youth is your friend because he does not see you any more.”

The only false part of that is that Randall and I never reached the point of being strangers to one another. We could pick up a conversation after months of silence. We never lost touch with one another’s voices. Our last phone conversation began with his “Hello” followed by simply, “Good evening your honor” from my voice in Colorado, then “Well hello Colonel” from his end. Who doesn’t recognize in those greetings the wonder of two little boys in grown up bodies, amazed and amused by their own grown up titles.

“The child is the father of the man” says Wordsworth. You’ll hear more about the man from Steve Hammonds in a few minutes, and you’ve read about the man in every paper that serves our community. I want to tell you a little about the boy behind the bench. Randall was the least selfish person I have ever known. He was my best friend, and I’ll admit openly that I won’t presume to say that I was his. Some things are destined to be lopsided. Most relationships are. And I only know one person who ever gave as much to Randall as he did to all of us. God willing, I’ll come to that part.

I met Randall in 1974 as a sophomore at South Rowan High School. Through some quirk of fate we both chose same girl to be the unfortunate object of our competing affections. For the record, Randall got the girl. I got the best friend anyone could ever wish for. In high school Randall and I spent time on the phone with each other like a pair of teenaged girls, usually talking about a pair of teenaged girls. There was very little we didn’t share. Both of us went through the divorce of our parents, Randall just enough ahead of me to be more of a help to me than I was to him.

And this is as good a time as any to tell you that Randall was what God meant sons to be. Those of you who knew him also know that he loved his parents, both of them, but especially his mother, with whom he made a conscious decision to live, . . . he loved them both with an unconditional love that most parents can only pray for and dream of without ever expecting to see. Randall simply lived that love for his parents. If St. Peter stops Randall at the gate and goes down the list and holds him accountable for each commandment in turn, I can promise you that there will be no quibbling over the score on “Honor thy father and thy mother.”

I like to believe I played a small role in Randall’s becoming a judge. In our senior year, Randall and I filled the roles of opposing counsel in a mock trial in Ms. James’s Social Studies class. I don’t remember who won the case. I simply assume that if he won, it whetted his appetite for more, and if he lost, he must have resolved to seek vindication in the real world. We dressed the part for that trial, wearing our best (and only) three piece suits all day. Thereafter, we would call one another about once a month and one of us would say, “What do you think? Suits tomorrow?” And the other would say, “Okay.” And so, for no reason other than to be different, we would wear our suits and vests to school.

In 1977, before I left for the Air Force Academy and he for Wake Forest, we managed to steal the whole top half of a page in the Daily Independent by canoeing Lake Norman from Lookout Shoals Dam down to Cowan’s Ford. That’s about 24 miles of rowing. In the center of the page was a photo of the two of us, sitting together on a cooler, looking as cool as we knew how.

After graduation, we made the ritual trip to the beach together. We stayed at the Tryon Seville motel that year, and then returned there together like salmon every summer throughout our college years. Randall taught me to shag and we two taught our friend Dana to shag at Crazy Zacks in Ocean Drive. Dana, bless her heart, was another poor victim of our competing affections, but by that time we had learned, or mis-learned that the way to a woman’s heart was through disdain, and so we tried our hands for a day or two at who could appear most disinterested. When that failed, and having no inkwells handy in which to dip her hair, we took turns carrying her into the ocean, which terrified her, and dropping her there. We were college students by this time, but as the poet says, “the child is the father of the man”, and for the two of us, it was a long labor. Out of that summer was born a friendship that’s really hard to describe. Dana and I have decided that we now feel like a tripod with a leg missing, learning anew how to stand upright.

But there have been many times over the last few days that I’ve felt Randall still there and I’ve smiled. Last night, I knew that Randall was watching, sad, but immensely proud of Jessica as she stood by Donna and accepted the sympathy of so many people who were there because they admired him so much. Today, I felt him smiling and proud of Donna as she stood in his stead as witness to the swearing in of our newest district court judge.

And that brings me to one last story. Randall met Donna in 1984 while he was living in my townhome in Goldsboro where I was flying out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and he was interning in a law firm there. By the time I finally got to meet Donna, to hear her tell it, she was more than a little worried about that meeting. I’m going to tell you what I’ve always told Donna, which is another story within this one. While we were still in college, Randall was dating a girl who didn’t want to come to some picnic we were having because she didn’t think I liked her. I told Randall, “You tell her that I like her in direct proportion to how happy she makes my best friend.” Randall grinned, shook his head and said, “Well right now, you don’t really care whether she lives or dies.” And the unspoken rule for judging one another’s girlfriends became a spoken rule. Having explained the rule, I can now tell you, that Donna has been one of my very favorite people since the moment Randall met her. Of all the people who’ve shared his life, I believe Donna is the only one who’s given as much to him as he did to her. Of all my friends and acquaintances, I know of no one who married better than my very best friend. He was blessed with a wife whom he loved with all his heart, and blessed with two beautiful daughters of whom no father could ever have been more proud. And he was blessed with friends who looked to him to bring out the best in them.

A lot of friendship is timing. “The Friend of Your Youth is your friend because he does not see you,” says the poet, “And perhaps he never saw you. What he saw was simply part of the furniture of the wonderful opening world. Friendship was something he suddenly discovered and had to give away as a recognition of and payment for the breathlessly opening world which momently divulged itself like a moonflower. It didn't matter . . . to whom he gave it, for the fact of giving was what mattered, and if you happened to be handy you were automatically endowed with all the appropriate attributes of a friend and forever after your reality is irrelevant. The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he hasn't the slightest concern with calculating his interest or your virtue.”

Randall had an amazing ability to look beyond the worst of each and every person he met and see the very best that person could be, whether it was a friend, a family member, or someone appearing before his bench. He simply always chose to see the best in people. Our Savior consecrated a memorial that’s performed thousands of times each day and hundreds of thousands of times each Sunday by saying “Do this in remembrance of me.” I ask you to do something in remembrance of Randall. When we look at one another, let’s look past faults and imperfections and see the very best we each can be. If we can do that, we’ll be looking at one another with Randall’s eyes, and Randall will live on in each of us.