Long Live Jon!

Long Live Jon: the fruits of his loom are well planted in our national soil!


Jon Odlum with Desmond Brathwaite

Jon Odlum with Desmond Brathwaite

A friend called early the other morning to inform me by asking (yes, like only we in St. Lucia can): “You hear Rick Wayne die?” I was sure my clean ear had traced some joy in his tone. It was just after 6 a.m. and I’d had a hard night. Too early to filter shit-talk through my brains. And yet another part of me was asking: “What if he’s right?” I was quiet for a few seconds, then asked cautiously: “When and where did he die?” My normally verbose friend’s dunno answers told me, quite loudly, that he had absolutely no idea what he was talking about and was just fishing—if not actually wishing—hoping to be the one to get the day’s big topic going.

I said: “Rick eh dead. If dat had happen’ I woulda know!” and hung up, hit the sack back and left it at that. I woke up late Tuesday morning and rushed off to a 9am meeting at the Tourism Ministry. While waiting, I browsed my phone and saw seven missed calls from a familiar number: “Big Mama’s.” That spelled trouble. I sat up. Something had to be wrong. She sees me nearly every day. Whatever it was just had to be seven times urgent. I called Mama. She answered on the first ring. Unusual, her tone was measured: “Since mornin’ I callin’ to tell you accept my sympathy.” I started to wonder who in my family had died. I carefully asked her, “For who?”

Her response stunned me: “For Brudder Jon Odlum. You eh hear he die this morning?” I was too numb to answer. I’d lost my tongue. I swallowed nothing deeply and summoned the one word I could muster. “Thanks.” Then I hung up. I slumped back into my seat. My pumping heart had skipped a beat—maybe two. I spent Tuesday sifting between early truths and fiction and starting to pen my recollections of Brother Jon. Last I saw him was on the night January 11th at the Cuban Embassy compound at Rodney Bay.

It was the celebration of the 54th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and in attendance were the Governor General, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, a sprinkle of government ministers and Opposition MPs, a large number of Cuban volunteers serving here—and many, many St. Lucian professionals who had studied and graduated in Cuba. I hadn’t seen Jon in a while, and thought he looked kinda different. He was broader now, his hair looked different—and his face looked kinda bigger.

He walked in with a stick and I told him later during the reception (jokingly, of course) that I never thought I would see him walking on his stick. Typically, Jon laughed and flashed a one-eye wink, as if only two of us understood what I might have meant. I told him earlier when he entered through the side door that he reminded me of Hugo Chavez. He said he hoped I was only referring to his size. I told him I was talking about his face being “too large to fit a picture.” He replied: “Better a picture than a platter . . .” Jon and I laughed throughout the evening, clinked glasses, me sipping a Cuba Libre, he sipping something he said was “a Mohito water.”

Neither of us had any hint, even a feeling, that it would be the last time we’d see and talk to each other. At least, I hadn’t. Death was the farthest thing from my mind that evening as I watched him on the embassy’s sparse lawn. On the contrary, I saw him as the mirror of survival. He’d virtually kicked the public political bucket since the 2006 general elections, spending the last few years more grandfathering at home and reluctantly adjusting to retirement than anything else. Age and its attendant ailments had slowed him down, but Jon the sportsman, who played nearly every sport on this island, had demonstrated that whatever the race he’d stay the course. Walking stick or not, Jon was the same Jon we’ve always known: jovial to the core, always finding that unique way to turn everything into a joke.

He often reminded me of my late uncle Keith “Spesi” Mondesir, who had joked his way through his entire life, until the day death did us part. You could always count on Jon and Spesi to be funny—even when the topic was most serious—and whether they were in the dock, a maternity room or at a post-mortem. They were never performing comedians, but none could outdo them when it came to getting laughs. They were simply funny to the bone. Being funny (not stupid!) was just part of their genetic make-up. I first got to know Jon when he threw his hat into the political ring in the late 60s and early 70s. I was a College Boy at the time when he and his brother George entered the political fray by joining The Forum and later SLAM (St. Lucia Labour Action Movement).

Eventually the two Odlums joined the St. Lucia Labour Party and Jon became its candidate for Castries South. Jon and I got closer after I returned home from sailing the world in the early-to-mid 70s. He would show-up at Faux-a-Chaux (where I grew up) every time the annual rains flooded “the ghetto” that had sprung up between the then new La Toc Highway and the still old Hospital Road. The elevated highway had interrupted the drainage of “the gutter” into the harbor and every year we’d have to rescue elderly persons, pregnant girls, children and babies from flooded homes in basins and bath tubs, on mattresses—or on our backs. We could always count on Jon arriving from anywhere he was the moment the area started to flood. He’d come in his water boots, shovel in hand, no raincoat, digging away with everybody else at the debris from the Blue Danube Hill (now George Cooper Road) and The Morne that blocked the free flow of the overflowing river. For acts like that, Jon was repeatedly returned to office as the Castries South district representative.

Jon was also the most tolerant politician you’d ever hope to meet. He served every constituent equally, none more equal than the other. But he also turned out to be outrageously dependable at times, often being accused of “spoiling” his constituents and even becoming their willing victim of near extortion. Example: One day, I was chairing a SLP Constituency Group at Marigot and a lady, sounding like she’d visited the bottle of white stuff too many times that Sunday, came pounding on the Community Centre’s door and demanding that Brodda Jon, vini apwezan! (Brother Jon, come here right now!). He rose and left the meeting, not the least discomfited. He led the vexed lady outside, out of our sight and hearing. Jon returned half-an-hour later and, apologizing, explained her problem: “Her house burned the other day and I got it built back new for her. Now she’s complaining I didn’t finish the job because I didn’t give her paint to paint it.”

Turned out that in the thirty minutes Jon had also “borrowed a UWP neighbour’s phone to make quiet a call to get the paint for her.” On the day we got the bad news about Brother Jon, everybody had something good to say about him, including his political opponents. Everyone who spoke found the best adjectives to describe Jon the Departed. Some went overboard to remember what they’d long forgotten about him. Some things I heard amazed me, others simply amused me. But I stayed away from it all, simply posting a post on an e-mail making the rounds among sobbing Labourites (until someone at CHOICE TV asked me something.) I’d known Jon too long alive to make a fuss over identifying with him at death. Everyone was infatuated with the better-known Brother George, but between the two enfant terribles, it was Brother Jon who very early found the formula to transform popularity into votes at the ballot box, general election after general election. Where George took time to brush off his notable Oxfordian attributes, it was Jon who eternally fraternized with rural farmhands when we went around the island mobilizing for unionization of farm workers.

odlum3004With George Odlum, Peter Josie, Frances Michel, Kenny Anthony, Lawrence Poyotte, George Goddard, Carl Pilgrim, Mc Millan Monrose, Richard Edwin and Jon and George’s brother Robert, among others, we’d go from farm to farm, estate to estate, to mobilize to establish the Farm and Farm Workers Union. We led the fight for an established minimum wage and a specified day’s pay for workers in the banana fields, also started the revolt against less pay for women who did the same work as better paid men. Yes, those were the early 70s—and Kenny Anthony, the union’s assistant secretary, also addressed the workers when we visited his father’s Park and Balembouche estates, likewise his uncle Denis Barnard’s Dennery and Mabouya Valley estates. Kenny, as Prime Minister, visited George on his hospital bed for their final words and good-byes. But he never got that chance with Jon. He attending a CARICOM summit in Haiti when his Cabinet colleagues hastily put on hold their weekly Monday Cabinet meeting to visit Jon at Victoria Hospital. The news had gone viral (out and all about) that he’d been “rushed to the hospital in a hurry” and that he “wasn’t doing well.”

By the same time next morning, Jon was no longer with us. I will always remember ‘Jon O—The Man.’.We had a lot in common, including preferring to see the brighter side of even the darkest things. He lived a slow life in the fast lane, never giving up on his bike until it gave up on him. I’ll remember him everytime I mount my own bike—and never forget what we said and did under the banana trees in the fields of green when the fruit of our tropical loom was more than just “green gold.” What Jon and I and others had together planted, laboring and suffering gladly in those wide and rich fields of yore, were the seeds that bore the fruits we take for granted today, about which too many still know too little. As for the rich fruits of his own loom, well spread as they be, will forever assure that while he rests in peace his memory will never be torn to pieces.

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