In spring 2014, as a member of staff, I attend my first HUB Cycling AGM. It was held at the Aerospace Technology building of BCIT’s Richmond campus, which you can see from Russ Baker Way when you head towards past the airport, towards YVR’s South Terminal.
The meeting stands out in my mind, in part, because of the acknowledgement by then-chair of the Richmond HUB committee, Derek Williams, of the recent loss of a member of the cycling advocacy community — Larry Pamer. Moving tribute was paid; over the next few years Larry's name would come up often.
Larry is what initially brought me to seek out Tom Childs; I had heard he knew Larry from childhood, and could provide me some additional context about someone I could never talk to, who contributed and needed to be recognized.
I ended up speaking with Derek about Larry, but it was Amy Walker, who had known Tom for decades (initially through her mother) who told me I would probably enjoy a conversation with Tom. On many levels.
We connected last fall, and a few times since then, and of course, Amy was right. On many levels.
Tom was born in post-war Detroit, a half generation before the city then began to crack under the strain of the country’s racial conflicts, and well before the many economic disasters to follow. And his real education came even before all that.
My dad took me to see On the Beach the summer it came out, in 1959.
It was basically the end of the world, and the last days chronicled in Australia. I was on the edge of adolescence; I don't know, my dad must have thought I needed to have this in my brain. Well, it's been in my brain ever since, of course.
At the age of 13, not long after this impressionable experience, Tom lost his father.
And then eventually, personal tragedy bled into two national calamities, in relatively quick succession. America lost a president. And soon war came knocking for its youth.
The Vietnam war is what brought me to Canada. After high school when I became draft age, I had to find a way to avoid that war. I was well-read; it was a stupid war.
By 1970 I had refused three induction orders into the US military, and there was a State Department warrant for my arrest. I was facing two to ten years in a federal penitentiary for not complying with the US draft.
I exhausted everything. I spent six years in university to maintain a student deferment. And after six years the draft board denied further deferments. I had claimed a conscientious objector status with my draft board. But because I wasn't affiliated with a church, they denied that.
The FBI was visiting all my family. They wanted my body.
I was hiding out on a communal farm north of Detroit and working under the table driving a truck. I knew things weren't going to get better for me; if I turned myself in I was going to go to jail.
This is the kind of thing that can give you chills. We live among elders, not just of other generations, or even other cultures, but other realities. Parts of it sound romantic, but mostly it's terrifying.
In amongst the terror, though, there were those openings, those shards of light one could spot, and use to winnow your way through the world to find your place.
These were openings that existed in a time when your identity — your virtual DNA — did not snake through the ether like an umbilical cord, from mega-corporation directly to your soul. Ultimately, Tom was untethered. He had options.
In January of 1971 I bought a 1949 Chevrolet for $25, I put new tires on it and a new muffler, and packed up a few belongings and made my way out west.
I came up through the Osoyoos border. I had a real good immigration officer, and although he denied me immigration status, I was totally honest with him, what I was up to.
Because I knew the prime minister at the time, the elder Trudeau, was sympathetic to US draft resisters. That immigration officer gave me a 30-day visa to visit my friend Carl Chaplin.
I had about $1,000 in my pocket, which was a lot of money in 1971. I had a thousand bucks in my pocket, and university transcripts from university. There was high unemployment in Canada and I didn't have a job, so the officer said, "Look I'm going to give you a 30-day visa, find yourself a job, come back, and we'll process you."
So I immediately made my way to Vancouver, connected immediately with the Committee to Aid US Draft Resisters and pretty much within the first couple of weeks I had a job. So I went back to the border, I got landed immigrant status.
With Chaplin, mutual friend Pamer and a few other American war resisters, Tom moved into a house on a hobby farm in Langley. ("We kind of had an underground railway into Canada”). A small commercial art studio was birthed in that house; they provided production services for the major Vancouver ad agencies.
Our first big job was a government job was on spec. We did a whole corporate identity for the Insurance Corporation of BC. Billboard designs, everything. We created the logo, which has since changed.
Except for Chaplin, who stayed with the studio (and soon became a noted artist), most of the ex-pats filtered away from the Langley house.
Larry, for one, is credited with being the driving force behind the initial computing systems established at the University of British Columbia.
Tom, an unabashed, self-identified anarchist, got involved with a group called Muckrakers, an activism-inspired research group which would meet to review and discuss news and events which might pass under the radar of the mainstream media.
[We] met once a week in a little office, which was formerly the office of the Committee to Aid US Draft Resisters, oddly enough, and everybody was assigned a different periodical or newspaper, and we would bring stories about the war and everything. A bunch of lefties is what we were.
Out of that group we decided to start doing community radio. And we had some connections to CBC, who kindly gave us some tape recorders and tape and microphones. After doing a few programs, there were a couple of real dynamic women in that Muckrakers group who thought we should start our own radio station.
So they went to Ottawa, they applied to the CRTC, and ultimately out of their groundwork we got a license to broadcast.
And we started Co-op Radio.
Tom spent the better part of the 1970s handling much of the operations and administration of Co-op Radio, as well as wiring and producing many programs. He also went to UBC to teach industrial education — a set of applied skills we often forget exists today, such as auto mechanics, metal work, wood working, design, drafting, electronics — before settling down as a father and, eventually, a 20-year stint at Douglas College in New Westminster.
It was at Douglas where he met Cara Fisher (currently an analyst in the City of Vancouver's active transportation planning team). Tom credits Fisher as being instrumental for getting Translink to allow bicycles on the Expo Line.
He also credits her with helping spark his old anarchist fire.
One Friday, she said why don't you come to Vancouver with me and go on a Critical Mass ride. So I thought, well why not. It was a fun ride, of course. I started doing that, monthly — the last Friday of every month.
I wound up doing Critical Mass twelve months a year, for about ten years.
While Tom happily soaked up the conviviality of bike activism, his old buddy Larry was pursuing a different path. Also working on cycling, but from within the system.
I didn't know Larry actually had become a cyclist. I mean, we weren't all that close once we settled into our own things, you know. Larry and I would get together occasionally, and he indicated that he was having fun contributing to Spoke'N Word, doing mail-outs for them.
A Richmond resident, Pamer was also collaborating with wife Joan Caravan on building up local cycling culture, in part through their work on the Richmond Active Transportation Committee. A Transportation Planner for the City of Richmond, Joan was for many years, and continues to be, the primary person responsible for planning and leading implementation of cycling infrastructure in the Island City.
Larry and Joan were a real dynamic couple in terms of cycling advocacy. [They] would spend a lot of time on Richmond roadways figuring what best to do about making bike lanes.
Larry would then summon me to come out to Steveston and go for a ride with him, and see what they'd been doing, and see where they missed something that I might see that might be useful.
Every year there's an annual Island City by Bike tour, and the whole purpose is to get people out on bikes in Richmond, to see all the new bike infrastructure that's happened over the past year. Larry and Joan got that going.
(This past Sunday was the 18th Annual Island City by Bike ride.)
With some of the most favourable topography for commuter cycling in the Lower Mainland, and one of the most discouragingly car-centric road networks, Richmond has remained a conundrum for many years. How to bring change to this city when so much is needed, from design to engineering to the very culture of transportation?
Pamer never quit working at it. It was probably exactly what he would have liked to have been doing right to the end, being and working with people who cared what he cared for. Who thought the same way he thought.
And who, ultimately, understood him the way he wanted to be understood.
Larry was a card. He was probably the funniest human being I ever knew in my life. He was good to be around. He just made people laugh all the time.
These days, Childs lives on a boat in the Shelter Island Marina in Richmond ("on the hard" actually — his schooner is in the boatyard getting some work done); he's lived on the same boat for over thirty years.
He's within put-put-putting distance of Don and Lion islands in the Annacis Channel, where he gets a good view of, among other things, the erosive, undercutting effect of rising sea levels on the islands' berms over the past few years.
He also has a panel van, an insurance policy, perhaps, against the kind of loss of mobility that can sometimes emerge as a side effect of organ trauma; having survived two heart attacks and a minor transient ischemic attack (a type of stroke), Tom may be an anarchist still, but he knows how to manage risk.
So these days, except for the occasional volunteer effort or special occasion, he keeps that insurance policy tucked away in his back pocket; the van often sits idle at the marina lot.
Instead, at 71, he still gets out on a small boat every now and again to visit his little islands.
And he still rides his bike. Every day.
It's a pretty important part of my life. Because when you're biking, you're moving these big muscles. And you're helping your blood flow.
So even though you're expending energy, you're making it easier on your heart because of your motion of working your big muscles.
I think it's helping to keep me alive.