For the birds
How to get a kid in a wheelchair into the wetlands
Whatever your take on cosmic reality, sometimes you just have to believe in karma.
How else to explain Tom Conaway.
When he was four years old he and his family were off-roading in a four-by-four on a hillside above Sonoma. The vehicle rolled, Tom’s back was broken, he was paralyzed from the chest down.
Fast-forward several years to a high school football game. Tom’s father, Doug, an electrical contractor who was videotaping the game, left the camera on a tripod unattended. What happened next has become family legend.
Tom motored up in his power wheel-chair, looked through the viewfinder, zoomed in on his father and a light bulb went off in his head.
Doug, seeing the interaction between his son and the camera, saw the same light bulb, had the same epiphanous moment.
Long concerned that Tom couldn’t participate in sports like other members of the family, Doug looked at his wheelchair-bound son and remembers saying, “Wait a minute. That’s something he can do!” And so, together, they did.
The exclamation point is in Doug’s voice most of the time. His enthusiasm and excitement push words out of his mouth almost faster than he can say them. And sharing the camera with Tom has become both a creative passion and a technological challenge.
That’s partly because the subject matter for the Conaway cameras quickly became almost exclusively birds and the wetlands they inhabit at the southern corner of the Sonoma Valley.
How do you take a kid who can’t walk, has limited use of his hands and certainly can’t hold a camera, out into the wetlands, often in the pre-dawn hours of a winter morning, sometimes in the rain, to photograph and videotape birds?
To say that there were problems is an understatement. To say that it couldn’t be done would require the use of words and concepts that apparently don’t exist in the minds of either Tom or Doug.
The tools Doug devised for Tom began with crude, evolved into clever and gradually became ingenious.
Doug started out attaching a tripod to Tom’s chair with bungie cords. They would go to the wetlands created by Sam Sebastiani at the base of Viansa Winery, turn on Tom’s camera and let it roll. That worked, but Tom’s control was limited. Next came a helmet cam, perched on Tom’s head. Now he could film whatever he looked at, but with no control over zoom and focus.
Then Tom built remote-controls to guide a camera mounted on a piece of plywood. The camera was placed close to the action, and the controls were wired through a portable DVD player so Tom could sit back with a screen on his lap and control the taping from a distance while seeing exactly what the camera saw.
Thus equipped, father and son escalated their efforts to capture flight on film and in so doing they brought their work to the attention of Viansa management, along with their concerns that the long-neglected wetlands were in a sorry state of repair. The winery and Italian marketplace, perched on a hillside above the floodplain of Sonoma Creek, was passing through the eye of a financial hurricane, but when the storm passed its new owners had the great wisdom to understand the value of the wetlands, both for its visitor appeal and for its ecological importance as flyway habitat and wildlife sanctuary.
So when they saw the Conaways’ video, instead of asking what this dubious duo was doing at uncivilized hours on their land, they embraced their work and listened to their concerns about the deteriorating state of the 90-acre wetland.
Viansa then went two remarkable steps further. First, they decided to invest in a complete restoration of the levees and floodgates to keep the wetland wet. Then they decided to grant Tom Conaway what amounted to an E ticket to videography heaven.
Interim CEO John Bryan wanted to gift the Conaways some upgraded equipment to make their work easier and more professional. He left before the deed was done, but subsequent management not only made good on the promise, they sweetened it beyond Tom Conaway’s wildest dreams.
Told that Viansa would like to buy them some equipment, Doug asked Tom what he wanted. Tom said he had a wish list, but it ran to thousands and thousands of dollars and he had no idea what was realistic to ask for. Doug replied, “A wish list is for wishing. Ask for everything; they’ll decide how much of it to give you.”
On Tom’s list was a super-sophisticated, remote-controlled, electro-mechanically balanced, pan-tilt-swivel tripod mount used by NASCAR and the NFL that can rotate a camera 360 degrees, following a football, a race car, or a flock of geese in flight. The mount does everything but leap into the air, and can be controlled by a joy stick control panel to adjust all the camera’s functions at the touch of a fingertip. It was at the top of Tom’s wish list and Viansa gave it to him, along with everything else on the list, including a new high definition camera, a professional tripod, and various other pieces of hardware. Viansa is a little modest about the value, but all-in-all, estimates Doug, the loot came to something shy of $20,000. Tom was blown away.
“Incredible,” is the word he repeats again and again.
What also qualifies as incredible is the apparent maturity and cheerfulness with which Tom navigates his life. Spend five minutes with him and you forget he’s in a wheelchair, you forget he’s just 15. He feels more like 20.
Confront him with this impression and he shrugs.
“There’s a positive in everything. Maybe we wouldn’t be doing this now if we hadn’t had the accident. It hasn’t all been pea soup, but if you look deep enough into anything you’re going to find a positive. I’m not happy all the time, but I’ve learned that the wheelchair is just a little extra baggage.”
The irrepressible smile splits his face. “I was just forced to grow up a little bit faster than other kids.”
Of course, even that attitude wouldn’t be enough without the support system his family gives him, and maybe that’s where the karma comes in. The accident that disabled Tom, enabled the entire family.
Doug says it took him a couple of weeks to discover, “This problem was not fixable with money.” So the whole family had to pull together. “We’re not the Brady Bunch by far,” Doug insists. “It’s very much a balancing act. But if one falters, we all falter. And we all feel lucky and grateful”
to have each other.
Having each other lately has led to a family venture called Nature’s Edge Video, a Web site (www.naturesedgevideo.com) offering video greeting cards that incorporate the Conaways’ growing library of wildlife footage, edited into clips with messages for every occasion.
It’s part of the family’s charm that you won’t know who shot what—it’s truly a collective enterprise. It’s also a bit of ecological evangelism. “This is one way of promoting wildlife by video,” says Doug. “Only 10 percent of California’s historic wetlands are left. The birds can’t actually talk to us and tell us what they need. So I’ve always tried to speak for the birds.”
It’s an improbable project for a family married to a wheelchair, but Tom Conaway is undaunted.
“I’m not going to let that limit me. It may take me 10 extra steps to do what everyone else can do, but I’m willing to take those 10 extra steps.”
From the Winter 2008 Issue of SONOMA