Unless you caught the full program on TV, you probably missed how "Together We Thrive, Tucson&America" moved people to tears, cheers and standing ovations. Not the usual kind of memorial service for a massed shooting where six died and fourteen were wounded including US Representative Gabby Giffords.
My partner, Sueko, and I only decided to attend the night before when Shukan Kinyobi -- a weekly Japanese magazine published in Tokyo -- decided they wanted her to cover the event with me as photographer.
We got to the University of Arizona in Tucson just after noon the next day and found that people -- mostly students, as classes were canceled -- had started lining up 24 hours before the gates were to be open at 6:00 p.m. The line was already many blocks long. I left Sueko to secure a place in line and went to find a parking place which turned out to be basically impossible as the usual on-campus lots weren't open due to security and side streets required a permit. I wound up leaving the van at the motel and walking the one and a half miles back to the campus.
Meanwhile Sueko found a separate gate for Media/TV that was scheduled to open at 3:30 so we headed in that direction along the line of people waiting to see if they could get in. It looked more of a day-in-the-sun with people reading, chatting, having snacks from vendors and generally enjoying themselves, than a line. The head wasn't a line at all but a crush of people ready to go up the ramp into the McKale Center: we managed to push our way to the gate for Media/TV and register but we and others had to wait until the pre-registered had gone through security and into the center.
We finally made it inside around 5:30: What a disappointment! Media/TV reporters were sitting at desks with their laptops while the video and still photographers were on a platform obscuring the view of the speakers. However, our position provided a good view of the peoples' response to the speakers, each seat -- 13,000 in all -- had a neatly folded "Together We Thrive, Tucson&America" T-shirt on it, and the TV hanging in the center gave us a close-up view of the speakers, better than we could see for ourselves.
The cheers and standing ovations started before the program started. Another reporter asked me what they were doing; I had no idea. But as it happened again and again, I realized that some roving camera was picking out VIPs and people were standing and cheering for them.
The official start of the event began with UA President Robert Shelton introducing Dr. Carlos Gonzales, a professor at the University of Arizona, who began by saying he was a mixture of Native American and Mexican. Standing ovation. Then he called upon the East, the West, the South, the North, Father Sky, and Mother Earth for a blessing. Another standing ovation. Then came the National Anthem of the United States and another standing ovation. Maybe I need to get out more often, but I've lived in Arizona for 10 years and never heard these three at the start of an event. Separately, yes; together no.
The next major speaker was Daniel Hernandez Jr., Gabby Giffords intern who staunched the flow of blood from her head and probably saved her life. When he sat down the TV showed him at Barack's right; a place of honor.
The cheers and standing ovations continued interrupting the other speakers* and we could see people wiping away tears while Barack was speaking. You've probably been wondering why I'm calling him "Barack" instead of "President Obama." I've done so because his opening words indicated that he was there as an American citizen, not as an American President:
"To the families of those we've lost; to all who called them friends; to the students of this university, the public servants gathered tonight, and the people of Tucson and Arizona: I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today, and will stand by you tomorrow."
Further, he referred to "Gabby," not "U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords" and referred to others by either their first name, or nickname. Thus Barack was presenting himself as a human being, not the position he currently occupies. This was made doubly clear with these words:
"We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame - but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others."
The next day we went to the hospital where Gabby had opened her eyes for the first time the day before.
Parking was easy and only a short walk to the main entrance of the University Medical Center where the national and state flags were flying at half-mast.
The large grassy area was ringed with candles, flowers, balloons, messages for Gabby. There was a constant stream of visitors contemplating the memorial, taking photos, and what looked like saying prayers, the most clear was a group from the Tohono O'Odam Nation who stood in a circle and chanted for a long time.
I spent most of the time looking for representative images and only talked with a few people. One was a Marine (retired but "Once a Marine, always a Marine") who was installing a centered national flag for the memorial. He explained that in a group, the national flag is flown "to its own right" as could be seen at the University Medical Center. But for memorials, it's placed center and he was remedying the situation.
By chance I meet with a/the sister of Judge John Roll who was one of the victims. She and her husband didn't want to be interviewed or any photos taken but we shared the hope that this will be a wakeup call, a turning point in U.S. history, where freedom of speech is tempered by civility where Tucson and America can thrive together.
As I was leaving, I saw a young boy running across the grass with a good-sized stone in his hand. Strange, so I followed him and saw that he was using the stone to hold down a balloon saying "Get Well." I asked his mother if it had been his idea, and she said, "Yes, it was his idea."
*Speakers: President Obama; Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security; Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney General; Arizona Gov., Jan Brewer; Emily Firtz, UA Student Body President; Daniel Hernandez Jr., Giffords intern; UA President Robert N. Shelton; Dr. Carlos Gonzales, University of Arizona.
Among those in attendance: Mark Kelly, husband of U.S. Rep. Gabriella Giffords; Patricia Maisch, who wrestled the pistol's magazine from the shooter; Pam Simon, shooting victim with her husband, Brue; Dr. Peter Rhee, chief of trauma at University Medical Center; Dr. Michae Lemole Jr., UMC neurosurgeon; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy; U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and his wife, Cindy; U.S. Sen. Jon Kyle, R-Ariz., and his wife, Caryll; House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Sandra Day O'Conner, retired Supreme Court Justice; U.S. Rep. Raul Grijaiva, D-Ariz.; U.S. Rep. Trent Flake; R-Ariz.; U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; U.S. Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz.; U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.; U.S. Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz.; U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-Ariz.; U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.; Isidro Lopez, vice chair of the Tohono O'Odam Nation; Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup; Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnick
Performers: The Tucson Symphony Orchestra played "Fanfare for the Common Man; Dennis Tamblyn, UA Graduate, sang the national anthem; The University of Arizona's Choir and Symphonic Choir performed "Simple Gifts" by Aaron Copland.