Goodbye, Akela

When I was a little boy, one of the highlights of the week was attending the weekly wolf pack meetings of the 54th Dunbar wolf cubs. When my brothers and I joined, we got second-hand retro uniforms, green caps with yellow seams, and neckerchiefs that were half navy blue and half sky blue, held together by a funny little thing called a woggle. We walked into the little old wood-floored hall attached to Immaculate Conception church just west of Dunbar in Vancouver, and were welcomed into a group of young boys who were led by a man with a strong Hungarian accent and very little hair. The cubs called him Akela, and along with his assistant Bagheera he led our pack every week. We had races to reach candy at the other end of the hall, played various team sports, learned to tie knots, sang campfire songs around a little contraption that was basically a few small logs nailed together with some translucent orange plastic cut into flame shapes lit up by an incandescent light bulb in the centre, and lots of things I no longer remember.

One time we were playing floor hockey outdoors across the street, and the ball flew over the low chainlink fence. As was our habit, a number of us would compete to get over the fence and get the ball back fastest. I jumped over the fence but my shoelace got caught on the fence and I fell headfirst onto my face on the concrete, chipping one of my relatively new two front teeth. Akela checked that I was OK, and I think he let me keep playing, though I can’t be certain anymore. Maybe we got ice, maybe not. My tooth is still chipped, and I’ve always thought of that as a fond memory. Akela didn’t baby us, but he treated us well and always showed us that he cared. I had a huge amount of respect and admiration for him.

He was a wolf cub leader for many decades. I was lucky to be in his pack for 4 years, which was 1 year longer than usual but I enjoyed it so much they let me stay through the end of Grade 4 when Dan and Matt had already joined the older boys in Scouts at another hall a couple blocks north of there. In those 4 years we went camping 12 times to Camp Byng on the Sunshine Coast. The first time we went, I remember climbing into the back of Bagheera’s huge camper van with my brothers and some of the others to head to the ferry. I had never been in a van that had an oven in it! Akela took us on nature walks through different parts of the 200 acre camp, pointing out and giving the latin names for all sorts of plants, and I’ve never forgotten pseudotsuga (Douglas-fir). He also taught us about Western redcedar and other local trees, and the edible Oregon grapes, salal berries, salmonberries, huckleberries, and sorrel leaves easily found in our BC rainforests and on mossy bluffs. He would whittle away at little bits of wood he’d picked up, making a little spoon or paddle with his Swiss Army knife. He reminded us frequently that we were not to kill any wild animals or bugs, with one exception: mosquitoes.

Akela would make us stand in a circle outside in the early morning and do his version of yoga like the “slow boat to China” lowering ourselves as slowly as possible into a crouch, as if we were to continue lowering until we went down through the Earth and came out the other side (of course such a tunnel would really have had us come out in the ocean to the south of Africa, but we didn’t know that). Akela taught us to use a bow and arrows; I for one was amazed to see an arrow fly with so much power into a target or, occasionally a tree behind it. He also taught us a game called kick the can, which was loads of fun as the tin can was placed in the centre of a clearing next to the lodge while we all ran and hid in the dense forest around it, so getting back and through to kick the can without being tagged was extra adventurous for us kids.

Of course Akela had a legal name outside of scouting circles: Stephen Sothy. He was actually born and raised as István, but after escaping the Communist regime in Hungary by jumping off a prisoner train and gradually making his way by foot and regular train beyond the Iron Curtain, arriving eventually in Canada, it was easier to give the English equivalent – Stephen. To me and my siblings, outside our wolf cub events, he was Uncle Stephen, husband to my mom’s older sister Cecilia, who died in February 2010 from cancer.

Uncle Stephen alternated between calling me Christopher Robin or Christophoro. He brought us huge rhubarb stalks from his garden, occasionally invited us over to pick his amazing raspberries in the backyard, took us kids up the gondola to the top of Grouse Mountain with Aunty Celia, helped her run a booth at the May Fair at their church, wore a Santa hat at our annual family Boxing Day party, and cracked jokes left, right, and centre. At Bowen Island, if we saw a hat hanging way up on the deer antlers in the hall, we knew Uncle Stephen was there. As we sat in the living room at Bowen, kids playing cards or reading old books and older Readers Digests on the couches and seats lining the walls, we knew we’d hear despairing gasps from Mom, Aunty Celia, or Granny if Uncle Stephen was playing Scrabble with them at the card table in the centre of the room – he took the longest out of anyone to decide what letters to play.

Stephen Sothy, Boxing Day 2008

One time when I was still very young, probably in the late 80s, Uncle Stephen’s blue early 80s car pulled up in front of our house on W 41st. I remember going out to the car, and Aunty Celia was the one driving. She liked driving very fast. In the passenger seat was Uncle Stephen, happy as usual, and he showed us a big sewn-up scar on his chest. He’d had a multiple bypass heart surgery, one of a number of heart surgeries he’d have over the years. Another time, many years later, he was the first person to have a new type of stent put in his heart.

On New Year’s Day 2017, Uncle Stephen started feeling dizzy and short of breath while having coffee at church after mass. He had three new stents put in that afternoon, and we visited with him in the evening for a couple of hours at St Paul’s hospital. I managed to see him in hospital one more time three days later, just before I left to South Sudan. During my next short break home in late May, I drove Lisa and Aunty Pat over to his house in Dunbar and sat with him for a little over an hour, helping him sit up and rubbing his back like he asked, massaging his neck a bit, and repositioning his legs, heavily swollen from congestive heart failure. Aunty Pat told a good joke and Uncle Stephen laughed his usual laugh and said it was the funniest joke he’d ever heard. He asked me where I was going next for work, and I told him I was leaving the next day to Yemen. He told me to take care of myself and stay safe, I gave him a hug and said I love you, and he said I love you too, thanks for your visit, and we said our goodbyes.

Uncle Stephen, “Akela”, was moved just over two weeks later to a hospice, where he had frequent visits from family every day until he died Friday, June 16th with his son John by his side.

Stephen Sothy, Bowen Island, August 2009

Pat Buckley (17 March 1948 – 11 July 2011), the man who taught me I had a brain

Patrick Buckley, 17 March 1948 - 11 July 2011

Pat Buckley entered my family’s life many years before I was born, and remained a steady source of good humour and resilience for the quarter century I knew him. It’s always hard to deal with a friend’s death, especially when that friend was such a constant fixture in my family’s life. Us kids grew up seeing Pat and his daughters at least once a week and sharing a lot of memories. We even got to share a house for a while! I never much care for organ playing, because it just doesn’t sound quite right if the organ isn’t played the way Pat always played it. He helped bring music into a lot of people’s lives, and was an accompanist literally hundreds of times for my mom’s singing. I was always impressed by, and will always be inspired by, Pat’s ability to maintain a positive attitude in difficult circumstances. With his stories and his jokes and his music, I’m sure a bit of his attitude rubbed off on a lot of people over the years.

I still remember how some of us kids used to flip upside down onto the old brown couch we had at our house on 41st, so that we’d end up standing on our heads with our feet up against the wall, and Pat joking that it was bad for our brains. I remember like it was yesterday, insisting that I did NOT have a brain! And he kept saying that I did in fact have a brain, and I refused to believe him. It didn’t matter that I had no idea what a brain was, I simply thought I didn’t have one. Pat laughed, and of course he didn’t make us stop goofing around on the couch!

The funniest thing I remember from when we all lived in the same house, was when Pat decided to teach us kids how to make honey when my parents were out. I even remember that I was standing at the north end of the white kitchen table as I made my bowl of honey, just the way he told us to do it. It was years before I realised that the brown sticky product of mixing massive amounts of brown sugar into your bowl of hot porridge is not actually real honey. It sure was tasty though, and wasn’t the last time I made it!

Pat will always be dearly loved and missed by our entire family, to whom he showed so much kindness over the years. While I was in Vancouver this spring, I had the good luck of bumping into Pat in Oakridge Mall, near the White Spot. We had a great chat – I could see a few people seated nearby were listening and I imagined at the time that they wished they could be part of our conversation – and, having said our goodbyes, I walked away with a smile on my face (which is really saying something, as it’s extremely rare to catch me alone in public with a smile on my face). I would really have liked to see Pat again.

My BumbleBike!

One sunny summer day when I was a kid, maybe 4 or 5 years old, I was sitting on the front lawn of my childhood home on 41st Ave in Vancouver, waving goodbye to my uncle as he drove away in his blue car. As he often did, he had come to visit and bring us some hot cross buns, always quickly devoured by us four energetic kids. As I was sitting on the lawn, barefoot, a bumblebee landed on my big toe (my daddy toe, as I used to call it, and still do). My parents had told me that bumblebees don’t sting, but as I waved goodbye to my uncle and my toe wiggled a little bit, the little buzzing ball of fuzz stung my daddy toe. I was not impressed, and duly made this known by profuse crying, as was my reaction at that age to most things unpleasant.

Fast forward a couple decades, and shift the scene one city block southwest: I wanted to build up a bunch of bicycles while I was in Vancouver this past spring, but I had less spare time on my hands than I had planned, so in the end I was only able to complete two projects. The first was a custom red and white single speed freewheel built with my brother as a gift for my sister, which turned out really nicely.

For my second project, I decided to build a single speed freewheel bike for myself. After thinking about different colour schemes for a while, I decided on black and yellow. When I mentioned the idea to Ben at Our Community Bikes, he immediately replied “Oh cool, you’re building a bumblebike!” A great name if ever I heard one, the bike had been baptised before even being born!

I began by searching for used black rims to build the wheels. At Our Community Bikes I found one fully built 32 hole black rear wheel with black spokes and black hub, and a 24 hole front rim. Down at the Pedal Depot I found a black 24 hole front hub, and I bought the black front spokes and spoke nipples from Jett Grrl down on Union Street. It was really tough building the front wheel – working in my bedroom, I had to re-lace it about 5 times before I got it right!

Bumblebike 24 spoke front wheel in progress

Next, I took a secondhand frame and got out my angle grinder to remove the labels and most of the paint. Before:

Bumblebike frame before paint removal


Bumblebike frame after paint removal

I did the same to the front fork:

Bumblebike front fork

As with my sister’s bike, I spent a long time spraying thin coats of paint onto the frame and fork and waiting for it to dry:

Bumblebike frame with black paint

I also made a BumbleBike decal and bumblebee logo for the bike, and got a sign-making place to print them as decals. Unfortunately, despite several coats of ink, the yellow still came out relatively translucent, so the colour of the decals doesn’t quite match the yellow on the rest of the bike:

Custom bumblebike decal

Rather than think about packing, half of my last day in Canada was spent putting the BumbleBike together. It still needs brakes, different cranks, and I have to fix the rear wheel alignment, but it’s neeearly rideable now:

Almost complete bumblebike
Almost complete bumblebike

Colin Jack, Beer Expert and All-Round Awesome Guy (1970-2011)

I first met Colin Jack in the fall of 2004, when my brother Dan and I signed up for the UBC AMS Minischool course titled “Beer Tasting.” Three guys were running the show: Colin, Rick, and Zayvin. Longtime friends, they knew how to teach us the science, the art, and the fun of tasting beer. Colin put a lot of effort into Just Here For The Beer, including creating the annual Canada Cup of Beer in Vancouver which has been gaining popularity every year, and regular radio shows on AM 650.

Colin was a good teacher and a good friend, and as a result I took his class three times at UBC, learning more each time. I thought so highly of him that, when I returned from a year abroad in 2005, I hand-carried glass bottles of Beer Lao as a gift for him and the other Just Here For The Beer guys – something you couldn’t find in any beer store in BC at the time. I was lucky enough to volunteer at two Canada Cup of Beer festivals, and attend a third one last summer when I visited Vancouver, and I had a great time at each one thanks to the effort that Colin and his friends and family put into the festival. I had been looking forward to seeing him in three weeks at the next Just Here For The Beer event in Vancouver. I’m sad I won’t get to share another laugh with Colin, but I have a bunch of very happy memories to keep hold of, and am very thankful that I knew him. I’m sure that many of my friends will feel the same way.

He died on the weekend, just 40 years old.

The last class of my third and final beer tasting course, UBC, Vancouver, March 20th, 2007 with Colin on the far right side of the photo:

The last class of my third and final beer tasting course, UBC, Vancouver, March 2007

Colin at the Canada Cup of Beer, July 6, 2008:

Colin Jack at the Canada Cup of Beer, July 6, 2008

Vancouver Courier article about Colin: