If you asked one person who knew Tom Robinson for more than five minutes what was most striking about the man, you might reasonably expect six answers, each in conflict with the other five. When Tom wasn't outraged by stupidity (which was usually), he laughed about it. He laughed more than most people, and most people, if they had any sense, joined in with him. His original charm was nearly irresistible, unless he happened to grossly offend you, which was known to happen. Democrats, for some reason, don't like to be referred to as "feckless idiots" any more than Republicans care for the sound of "sleazy morons."
Tom earned a degree in botany at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1975 and traveled abroad to study in Norway. He then came home and turned his attention to selling fruit and vegetables on Rosemary Street. He switched to seafood, spent most Wednesdays driving his truck around New Hanover and Carteret counties, assessing and buying fish, oysters, shrimp, scallops, crabs and other tasty delectations from watermen, merchants and assorted scoundrels along the coast. He confided in me and about 10 other people one vinous evening that Wilmington was "the evilest city in Christendom." He liked most of them, of course, but was unsparing in his disdain for their shortsightedness. "If you kill all the damn fish and catch the rest, then there won't be any fish," he would say. "And you won't have any to sell. They don't understand that."
Sometime in the '80s he sold the fish market and returned to Norway to study boat building. At the end of this splendid adventure he came home, because the people who'd bought the market from him had not followed his instructions and consequently went broke. He had no use for failure to follow simple instructions.
Tom collected stuff wherever he went. Norway, Denmark, France, Canada, New York. Whisky, firearms, magazines, financial records, tools, books, knives, racing pigeons, boat designs, oyster shells, cooking stuff. He had plans for all of this, just not enough time to get it all done. His little sister Jane recalls Tom as a small child running out of their house in Wilmington dressed in his bathrobe, grabbing a hoe, dashing to the garden, muttering boyish curses, "complaining that he'd slept late and was already way behind."
Years later, we planted cypress trees at his farm in Chatham County so Tom could have timber for the boat he was going to build. Some evenings Tom came to our cabin on the Haw River. As he drove over in his seafood delivery truck, every cat in Bynum scampered across that bridge following the bodacious smell. "We'll have supper outside, in the moonlight," he said, "among the sacred groves." We talked about sailing, Leif Erikson, Magellan, Chinese junks, "the French and their food," the advantages of the single-action Colt, the excellence of Southern generals in the War between the States and, inevitably, the burgeoning presence of the Mafia in Wilmington.
Although the house he shared with his sweetheart of 17 years, Kay Hamrick, is loaded with boxes full of stuff, and the farm he owned is littered with old cars and trucks packed tight with Tom's things, none of that is anything compared with the information and plans he squirreled away in his head. "I suppose you knew that more soldiers from North Carolina died defending Virginia than from any other Confederate state, including Virginia. But do you have any idea how many black soldiers fell defending Wilmington?"
Everything he knew he staunchly defended, whether it was the inferiority of John Jameson's whisky ("Fine stuff if you enjoy the taste of kerosene") to the grace and power of the works of Edvard Grieg. His favorite comic strips were The Phantom and Prince Valiant. His demented support for the Tar Heel basketball program eclipsed rationality. He loved playing with his dogs, racing his numerous pigeons and fighting with the tax people in Wilmington ("Because they're wrong"). When Harvey Gantt ran against Jesse Helms for the Senate, Tom gave Mr. Gantt a benefit fish fry in the yard next to his market. It was a pretty day, and we had fun.
Tom got cancer 11 years ago, endured the indignities of chemotherapy, felt tired sometimes, scarcely slowed down and seemed to get better. But cancer has a way of coming back, and his did. More chemo last year, then H1N1 influenza and then pneumonia. Some of the last things he said in the hospital were orders for the fish market. He hung on with the respirator for days and days, and oftentimes we thought he would ride it out. Kay sat down beside him for the long siege; my wife, Kathy Armacost, and I had the privilege of joining them.
Tom never got to build his boat, but they tell me he's sailing now, under a cloud of sleek racing pigeons, smart wind at his back, getting the feel of it. Sometime, I hope, he'll take us for a ride.
A memorial service for Tom Robinson is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, March 7, at Walker's Funeral Home, 120 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill.