Tom Palermo, 1973 – 2014

I knew who Tom was before we were friends. We shared a class, “Music of the Delta blues” at Maryland, we learned about the music of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. I remember Tom because he wore these big-heeled lumberjack boots. And the bike he rode, the Cramerotti track bike with the downturned handlebars. I’m not sure if he ever wore the boots and rode the bike at the same time. Maybe he did. We were all exploring our identities in those days. We would have both been about 20 years old.

A few years later Tom was hired at REI in College Park to work in the bike shop. Peter was the master tech, Fabio, Dan and I were mechanics. Days off and weekends were filled with quick drives up to Patapsco State Park or Gambrill to go mountain biking.

I used to give Tom a hard time when he would get excited and ask me, “you know that log, right before the curve at the top of that short climb after crossing the creek?” He could have been describing any trail through any forest anywhere on the planet – but most of the time I knew exactly what section of trail he was talking about.

It’s no surprise the two of us fell in together. We were both Catholic school boys from working class families with respect for authority insomuch as there is no authority.

In the bike shop, Tom earned a nickname for the doodles he used to draw on the shop benches. Little horned faces. He was good-natured and took it in stride. I realize now it was just his passion and his intensity. Tom’s passions defined him.

You know most about that Rachel.

I remember Tom walking back into the shop after talking to you once at REI. Wow did he have a grin on his face; he was quite pleased with himself. He had big plans for the two of you.

Most of us who rode together during those times were thrilled to just be on our bikes and ride through the woods. But with Tom it was something else.

When Tom bought his welding equipment and started brazing, I knew he was setting out on an entirely different path. The first time Tom showed me a tubeset and lug that he was hand filing to fit, he slowly unwrapped the pieces from their protective cloth with such care, I thought they may have been made of gold. They were gold to Tom. Making bicycle frames by hand is not for the impatient. Tom was a patient man.

Tom and I spent a lot of time together in those years, the days before we married and started families. A lot of time driving to the mountains in his Ford Tempo and talking. I remember one ride in particular when we were pushing our bikes up some mountain, carrying our backpacks, probably lost.

I’ll tell you what Tom and I talked about.

We talked about our dads. What our dads were like, what kind of men they were. Tom described your hands as two big hams, strong from holding hand tools for so many years. I can’t think of a higher compliment from a son to his father, he wanted hands like yours.

My most cherished memory is of a ride we took in late November one year. We were riding the length of Massanutten mountain in Virginia. Tom and I had been bikepacking a number of times; taking lightweight camping gear and overnighting so that we could ride further into the backcountry. We started out on a cold morning and encountered a light dusting of snow up high. We rode all day and reached an open-sided wooden shelter where we were to sleep for the night. It was cold and windy and we didn’t sleep much in our wet cycling clothes.

We were awake before dawn and sat up in our sleeping bags. Turning on our headlamps we looked out into the darkness. Heavy snow was falling illuminated by the light of our lamps. All was quiet and still and we sat and watched the snow fall together in this sublime sliver of time.

I have a picture of Tom sitting atop his mountain bike in front of Elizabeth’s Furnace. These are the old blast furnaces found in the mountains of Virginia where iron ore was extracted from the mountains and melted down to make steel during the Civil War. There is something poetic about that picture of Tom. Raw materials taken from the earth, melted down and forged into metal.

Tom and I exchanged email last December.
I asked him how his mid-life crisis was going and told him about a recent vacation our family had taken.

Tom wrote back:
“Glad to hear the girls are doing well. Time really flies. Sadie is in kindergarten now and Sam will start preschool in January. We’re going through the brother/sister battle phase right now and Sam is the quintessential terrible three’s kid.

That trip sounds pretty awesome. We have an upcoming trip to Disney World. My mom will be there so Rachel and I will get some adult time. How was flying with the kids? Any tips I should keep in mind?”

And that was Tom.

Son, husband, dad, cyclist, craftsman. My friend.

Thank you Tom. Thank you Rachel, Thank you Sadie. Thank you Sam.

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